A Beautiful Night

A few months ago, I wrote this little essay on the church in America and its problem welcoming people:

Oh church, I’m trying to remember the last time you actually welcomed me. I’m trying to remember the last time a priest or a pastor asked me my name, said “thank you for coming,” much less asked me anything about my life. …

And I’m trying to remember the last time you actually, seriously, intentionally asked me what my gifts were (rather than just shoving a piece of paper in my face), how I wanted to or could participate in the life of the community, expressed surprise and joy at what I bring to you. (I might still be in the ELCA if a certain Chicago bishop had followed up his “I can’t in good conscience present you to a congregation as a pastor” with a “but you do have gifts for ministry, and we’d like to help you find out where and how to use those gifts” — something I’m told he’s actually said to someone else about me.)

But no, church, you’ve done none of these things in the last two years. All the places I have been, all the different ways we’ve worshiped, all the Latin chanted and refrains of “Lord, I love you!” sung. Occasionally, other worshipers have said hello. A timid, perfunctory, hello. One born of proximity, because I’m impossible NOT to see when I’m sitting close. And when Jesus’s command to “pass the peace” is repeated. But all the contacts, all the greetings, all the “tell me about yourself,” those have been mine. Me, reaching out to you.

And you… well, you’ve been uninterested in reaching back.

This isn’t quite so true now as it has been. I’ve been very busy at a couple of churches, playing music and being part of worship, and the AME Church in Chatham has been incredibly welcoming. I’ve been preaching a lot (thank you, Pastor Nelson, for your connections), and the little Reformed Church in Chatham says they want me to preach on a regular basis. I’ve preached once there, and am scheduled to do so again in January and February. So, maybe, just maybe, once people who aren’t church bureaucrats meet me, hear me proclaim the gospel in word and song, and actually spend a little time with me, I’m not so disreputable as some ELCA bishops are convinced I am.

Our time here has been good, and praise God. We don’t plan on staying here — Jennifer and I have a church planting project to do in Spokane, and we will relocate just as soon as tax season (and my full-time job) is over at the end of April. But I’ve done more preaching and pastoring here in the last few months than I’ve done in the previous two years combined.

And that’s a good feeling.

Sitting in my friend’s church on Christmas Eve, listening to him preach, listening to the congregation sing, smelling the candles, I realized that for all I’ve been through — for the apparent waste the last decade since I left The Oil Daily has been — I am grateful. For Jesus. For his church. For the grace it proclaims.

I am grateful to my wife Jennifer for introducing me to all of it. I say that because as much of a church girl as she is, she tenses up in church — she has been so abused and mistreated by the church that she has come to expect callousness and neglect and even abuse. And that saddens me.

It is possible for our lives, our experiences, our situations, to fundamentally do injustice to our natures. Jennifer is a church girl who has never really been allowed to be at home, safe, and to belong at church. My “daughter” Molly is a daddy’s girl who spent a life being treated abysmally in foster care, never really having a father of her own.

And me … I’m just a kind, nurturing, gentle man who aches desperately to be accepted and to belong, every time he has to justify himself to people in authority, is viewed as some kind of unacceptable outsider, a stranger, or even a potential monster.

If we’d all had better upbringings — proper upbringings — me and Jennifer and Molly wouldn’t have to try so hard to figure out our lives, to try to make sense of ourselves given that the world has done such violence to us and set our lives at odds with who our natures want us to be.

I watched Jennifer tense up in Andrew’s church last night, knowing how much she believes, and how hurt she has been despite or maybe even because of it all.

And I told her I was grateful.

For everything. Because of her, I would never have met Jesus. Never have found my purpose. Never have discerned my nature as a man who preaches the gospel and cares for, finds and nurtures, the lost and the wounded. I thanked her even for seminary, for a candidacy process that meant sitting in front of callous and cruel church people who could think of me as nothing but a problem or a liability. I thanked Jennifer for all of it.

I am grateful for a God who has come into the world, and called me — me! an angry, resentful young man who for a time wanted nothing more than to set the world on fire and burn it down to ash! — to receive love and then proclaim it to that same world whose destruction I once fantasized about. I am nothing without that love.

I am nothing without Jennifer’s love. She is very nearly God’s perfect love.

On the night the angels told shepherds

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10–12 ESV)

and the heavens rang out with

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on Earth!”

I saw, and understood, the power of that love. I experienced its presence in a place — the church (and not a specific church; Andrew’s church has been very kind to us) — that has been little but self-centered and callous and more than a little judgmental. Even as I consider exploring another denomination’s ordination process, I ask myself — do I really want to subject myself to this again, and stand before another committee or panel and have to try and justify my life and my choices? Because I know when the issue becomes me, I lose. The church has no patience, and no place, for sinners such as I.

Because this sentiment from that earlier essay still applies:

You, church, don’t need to worry about me. You didn’t call me to follow and you didn’t make me a disciple, so you can’t undo that. You can ignore me and abuse me to your heart’s content (though I would take it as a kindness if you’d stop), and I will still be there. Because for me, it’s not about you. I see past you. I see through you. To the chalice and the loaf on table of the Lord.

Here, in this sinful, broken, risen body that is the church, there is grace. I have met it too. And I am grateful, truly grateful, for love enfleshed. For Jennifer, who showed me who and what Jesus was long before he walked into my life and demanded I follow. And for Michaela and Molly (especially Molly) who give me something to hope for, something to belong to, and a future that I can truly envision.

But mostly for Jesus. That helpless little baby who changed everything.

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