We Said Goodbye Today

I’ve said in earlier posts that I do not like goodbyes. But on this rainy Friday we said one at a funeral home, and then the final goodbye at the cemetery in the middle of wheat field country in western Oklahoma. I have come to expect, and often welcome rain when it accompanies a funeral because it seems that nature is agreeing with the human sorrow of loss. We cry, and the sky concurs with our grief by pouring out its own tears.

I met Calvin Miller through my father. Calvin’s friendship with Dad centered around the pastoral role, but in those early years, my relationship with him was simply a novice writer looking up to an accomplished and published author. I was young and hungry to have my name on the cover of a book, so I sent him pieces of a manuscript and bothered him with questions about agents, publishers, technique, book proposals and odds. By this time he had a least a dozen books published, several of them bestsellers. He should have brushed me off, but he never did. He read my writing and would mail back comments, ideas, and honest evaluations. If I was able to get published, he agreed to write a foreword. What grace he showed to a writer who had mostly selfish ambitions.

I never got that book published. The manuscript is still hanging around in my heart and on my hard drive. It was about faith, old hymns, and working out what it means to be on a spiritual journey. Back when I wrote it, I thought I had quite a few answers to life’s questions and that those answers were fairly simple. But Calvin taught me that if we talk about the spiritual journey, we should never be content to scratch the surface. “Don’t be afraid to go deep,” he said. But I was. It was easier to churn out trite phrases, spiritual cliches, and feel-good stories. So I took his suggestions and reworked it – but I only went so far. Honestly, I hadn’t lived long enough to discover God in the dark, frightening places. I hadn’t plunged into depths that caused me to ask hard questions or shake my fist at God for a really long time. But Calvin wasn’t afraid of these things. He had been walking this journey a long time and he had long since gotten over the idea that in the end, God wraps things up for us with a tidy bow.

Calvin’s memoir is titled Life is Mostly EdgesI love this book for so many reasons. Calvin exuded joy, cherished humor, and wasn’t afraid to rock the boat when it came to the stilted world of church life. He loved the edges because he believed that we are not people who should ever be content to live in the middle. Calvin says this in his memoir:

“We all like the middle. The middle is safe. You can’t fall off the middle. Only the edges are dangerous. The great lessons, the deep tragedies, the storms of unbearable heart-quakes happen along the edges. We don’t cry much in the middle, but then we don’t laugh much there either – at least with any belly-deep laughter. Still, every day, nine to five, we suit up for the only contest that can be played along the unsafe edges of our years. Brinkmanship is the name of the game.”

I am learning that living on the brink – the edges- is the only place to live. We lost a friend this week who taught us just how beautiful the edges can be. I’m going to do my best to live along those unsafe edges without fear, and with much joy. I will do this in honor of my friend. Goodbye for now Calvin.

Saving Seats in Church

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.

Growing Up Born Again

The title of this post is also the name of a book by Patricia Klein.

I think that could be me on the cover – minus the older brother (always wanted one though). We dressed in our finest for Sunday morning and I swear our church had green hymnals. In fact, I’m all over this book and so is my husband. His father was a Baptist minister, mine a Baptist deacon. We grew up in small towns: he was in Tennessee, I was in Oklahoma. We were three states apart, but we had twin experiences as kids who grew up Born Again in the South and almost-South. A few of these shared memories:

  • Sword drill competitions and scripture-memory contests
  • Pack a Pew Revivals
  • Offering envelopes with boxes to check if you: brought your Bible, attended worship, prayed daily, brought a guest
  • Choir musicals (our church youth groups both performed “Cool in the Furnace” – my husband and I can still chant the lyrics together)
  • Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night; Training Union on Sunday night
  • Lottie Moon Christmas Offering
  • Missionaries on furlough speaking on Sunday nights with the carousel slide show presentation
  • Salvation, Rededication, and Commitment to Full-time Christian Service (I did all three of these, my husband two of them)
  • Vacation Bible School complete with salutes to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible.
  • Puppet ministry (never liked this one; I have issues with puppets)
  • Church camp (me: Falls Creek, him: Camp Caswell)

A friend who also grew up Born Again gave me this book several years ago. She read it with great nostalgia and passed it along to me with the comment, “This book will make you laugh, but it will make you feel good about our spiritual heritage.”

Well, sort of. It made me laugh because I think playing rock albums backwards to find subliminal satanic messages is, in retrospect, quite humorous. So is fear of dancing and referring to a single woman as an “unclaimed blessing.” Those of us who grew up with deeply entrenched church traditions seem to spend a fair amount of our lives trying desperately to see God through the fog of routines and rituals. I’ve often wondered what my church attendance feeds more: my soul or the machine of institutionalized religious experience. Can both be fed, or should we choose one over the other? I’ll be honest – I’ve done some stints of faithful service in my church for some very bad reasons: guilt, pride, loyalty, and yes, nostalgia (Women’s Missionary Union craft fairs give me a warm feeling inside).

In my most cynical moments, I’ve wondered if there were good reasons to give up on all the traditions, rituals, and routines. In Philip Yancey’s book, Church: Why Bother, he quotes Winston Churchill as saying that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress: he supported it from the outside. Sometimes, that’s tempting. I agree with Yancey that following Jesus is one thing, but following Christians into a sanctuary is quite another.

Can I say this? My most profound encounters with God have never happened inside a church building. I’m more than willing to take full responsibility for that, but it certainly makes me wonder about all the hard work that seems to go on inside those buildings.

Several months ago, I spent the day helping two homeless friends get the battery changed in the car that held all their worldly possessions. They called me that morning and we hung out together for most of the day, waiting for the battery to be tested at two different places. We talked about everything from their wedding in a local city park to their dreams of reuniting with their children, and God was laced through every conversation. We talked nothing of church. They did not grow up Born Again, and so we had no shared nostalgic memories of Sunday school picnics or fall revivals. They would have never understood flannel boards or sword drills. But they seemed to see God pretty clearly, and God seemed to be present with us in a way that is difficult to explain, so I won’t try.

“I know we should be going to church, but it’s hard,” the wife said. I looked at her husband’s long black hair tied back in a ponytail, their dirty clothes, and the car with the junk piled to the ceiling and I concurred with her inwardly. Yes, it might be a bit hard for them to follow the Christians into the sanctuary. But perhaps if we could unleash ourselves from the rituals and routines every now and then, the church could follow people like John and Lisa into their sanctuary. What if instead of landing in a safe harbor of comfortable pews on Sunday morning, we opted for taking our “service” to one of the many places where desperate people are congregating. What if we sought out these places as sacred spots of worship?

At the Last Supper, the disciples left the upper room, singing hymns. In honor of that scripture, my father-in-law always led his congregation to sing a hymn after observing the Supper: “Blest Be The Tie That Binds.” There is an irony in the title of that hymn. When what binds us together is sharing God’s radical grace and inexplicable love with others, then the church is taking part in restoration and redemption – and that’s a blessing. But when what we share in common rests only on tradition, ritual, and routine, that is a tie that is binding. It lulls us into a place of complacency and comfort, and deafens us to the voices of those who are crying on the other side of the church walls. I agree with Philip Yancey’s conclusion that church is worth the bother. Especially for those of us who grew up Born Again and are still trying to find ways to clear away the fog.