I grew up in the church I attend, which makes me a bit of a relic.
It’s an evangelical Baptist church and I live in the Bible belt, so it’s possible that I’m also somewhat religiously damaged.
It’s a good church though. We never heard sweaty preachers pounding the pulpit and screaming about the fires of hell. I walked the aisle after our vey intellectual white-haired doctoral degreed-pastor delivered a sermon from the book of Revelation. Maybe it’s all the same because when he took my hand I said, “I think I might be going to hell so here I am.” I was a dramatic adolescent, but it’s still a terrible way to start a faith journey. It’s my conversion story, however, and it probably confirms that I am, indeed, religiously damaged.
But aren’t we all?
My family always sat on the same side of our church sanctuary – about 11 rows back on three end seats. The family that sat in front of us consisted of three generations who took up about eight seats. And if you by accident forgot where your row was and sat in their seats, they asked you to move. I never found this odd, because we all had our places. My parents were fine to deviate a few rows or shift a few seats down when necessary, but it was rarely necessary. Visitors usually didn’t venture that far toward the front. They preferred the balcony where they could scan the crowd and keep a safe distance until they had a lay of the land. I don’t blame them.
One Sunday, a young couple dared to sit in the seats of the family in front of us. I had never seen this couple and they were quite obviously visiting or they would have known better than to sit in those seats. And then, the matriarch of the family came in and walked up the aisle to her row. “Excuse me,” she said leaning over and smiling tightly. Her little black purse was swinging from the crook of her arm. “Those seats are saved.”
In an instant, everything that I thought might be wrong with the church coalesced in those words. I was college-bound in a year and skirting the edges of cynicism. I sat in quiet embarrassment with my head buried in my Sunday school quarterly while the couple apologized, stood up, and scooted to the middle of the aisle. The hymns, sermon, choir songs, and everything else that made up that Sunday morning service was lost to me. I spent the entire hour glaring at the back of the old lady’s head, wishing I was courageous enough at the end of the service to apologize to the young couple, but I just hurried out of the side of the sanctuary with a loose vow to never return.
But I returned.
And I’m still there.
As far as I know, no one saves seats anymore – or at least they don’t rudely claim them. But we still think there are those who just don’t deserve our seats. I may not be guilty of asking someone to get up and move, but I have jostled my way to the figurative communion table, thinking that I am somehow more deserving of the bread and the wine because I’ve been in the house for so long. But this is not true. I am not any more deserving than him. Or her. You know the one. The person whose sin turns our stomachs. That one individual who we smile at through clenched teeth because their lifestyle choice frightens us. We spend so much of our time protecting God by making sure that his house doesn’t get overrun with the kind of people that offend him. But God most certainly doesn’t need us to walk him across the street like he’s a little old lady.
Confession: This morning I withheld a kind comment that someone desperately needed because they were irritating me. It might seem small, but it’s not. I’m still pretty icky underneath my shiny exterior. My selfishness is not at the bottom of the hierarchy of what grieves God. Yet God welcomed me into His house and gave me the best seat and he still does. I want to do the same thing – to turn everything a little upside down by extending ridiculous grace to those who we label the worst offenders. Is this possible? I think it is. God does it every day. Maybe he’s waiting on some of us to stand up, gather up our baggage, and give our seats to the people we have barred from the house.