It was one of those days when the world, like a carousel with its power plug pulled, slowly spun to a stop. My carefully folded bulletins fluttered to the seat next to me and I sank like a collapsed hot air balloon into the last row of chairs. Six chairs away sat the pastor’s wife, and like me, her face was hot with tears. It was the top of the hour and the service had begun as usual with lively singing… but underneath the bright makeup and smart dresses not everything was as it seemed.
Earlier that morning I had carefully dressed my three little ones, ages 10, 8, and 7 in their Sunday best. As any parent knows, by the time you get your children bathed, fed, hair combed, and dressed there is precious little time to throw on your own clothes and run for the car. We stopped at a nearby trailer park to pick up more children and headed off to church. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we were grateful to have a warm and friendly church family to bring needy people to… but I had no idea that my life was forever to change in that single moment of time.
Flying through the door, I quickly found jobs for my little ones to keep busy with, because no one had yet arrived. I was usually the first person to open the church doors and one of my early morning jobs was to run off copies of the bulletin, fold them, and stack them for the ushers.
A member of the church staff, I had my own little cubby hole in the office and it was more like my second home! That year I was in charge of the youth group, children’s church, Sunday night prayer, Wednesday night children’s programs, filing music, and Sunday School, in addition to the regular office duties of answering the phone and clerical work. Everyone was happy with me… the pastor told me that ever since I began working on staff the church had been running on all eight cylinders. I was putting in 60-80 hours a week, so much so my children claimed I “smelled” like church!
Our congregation had doubled in numbers and 50% were children and youth… admirable success, at least outwardly.
But not after this Sunday. It began with a simple copy machine quirk… as much as I tried and tried to repair the machine it was just not behaving well for me. Grabbing my stack of schedules I ran into the foyer as church members began strolling in. I needed to quickly distribute them to be sure all volunteers knew where and when they were needed. Our little church was exploding at the seams with new growth and it was essential to have everyone in their places on time.
The foyer was crowded with families all fanning out to their age-appropriate areas. An excited buzz filled the room as people hugged friends and exclaimed praises over each other’s wardrobe. It was like this every week and everybody knew to leave the foyer when the pastor began pounding out familiar choruses on the Clavinova. Everyone would rush to the places where they had thrown their Bibles, purses, and coats to reserve their favorite chairs. It was all so familiar, so predictable, so…. hmmmm… I was trying to put my finger on it! Then it happened.
She arrived at our church that Sunday morning and changed everything… forever.
Briskly walking from room-to-room hand delivering volunteer schedules, I first noticed her standing awkwardly in the foyer. She was young – about 16 or 17-years old. I could tell by her furtive glances at all the happy, laughing couples that she felt uncomfortable… perhaps even invisible.
I had seen her in church many months ago and knew from her story that her mother was an alcoholic and she lived in a trailer park known for heavy drug activity. I walked up to her and welcomed her to our church. She smiled and seemed glad someone had noticed her and was genuinely glad to talk to me. Suddenly a woman approached on my right, scowling at me and saying, “Sue, did you leave the copy machine jammed??”
I tried explaining that I had done my best… but a minute later another exasperated woman tapped my other shoulder exclaiming, “Sue! There are parents lined up downstairs and no one is there to take the toddlers yet!” Both women were extremely frustrated because if just one person or one thing didn’t work out, it was liking throwing a stick into the gears, and everything grumbled to a halt. Running off with the distraught women I glanced back to the girl… she was again standing all alone in a sea of smartly dressed suburban Chicago church-goers, as good as invisible in her homely outfit.
That’s when something snapped, and I just stopped in my tracks. It was like Time itself stood still.
Something was wrong and I didn’t know what it was, but I had been praying in that church for over a year… all by myself, walking in circles in the sanctuary, and one of my constant prayers was, “God, what would it look like if you entered our church on Sunday morning?” “What kind of car would you drive?” “How would you dress?” “When you listen to our foyer conversations, what would you think or say?“
It was my constant prayer… I had learned as a young child to ask God questions and he would answer… but this time he answered by sending someone to our church… a young woman, someone people called “trailer trash”. And no one said hello. No one offered her a chair to sit next to them. No one invited her to dinner after church. She disappeared and never returned after that day.
As if it were yesterday, I remember sitting in that last row of chairs weeping through the whole service. Next to me, but with about 6 chairs in between us another woman was crying the whole service, too… the pastor’s wife. Neither of us said a word to the other but we took turns passing the tissues. Shortly after that those of us in leadership were to hear that her husband, our pastor, was having an affair with a young woman living in their house. He wasn’t the only leader involved in an affair, it turned out… But church must go on, and on it went…. but I didn’t. I tried. Even though I didn’t understand much at the time, all I knew was “something was missing, something was wrong” and it had to do with the young woman who showed up at our church that Sunday morning.
I couldn’t forget her. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.
What if… Jesus came to our church. What clothes would he wear, what would he drive, what would he think of our conversations, and how would he respond to our sermons? What would he think of our inner thoughts and private lives?
That prayer ruined my busy, religious, self-righteous life… forever! For Jesus’ words echoed back to me from a time long distant, recorded by James…
26-27 Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. – James 1
1-4 My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted? 5-7Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens! – James 2
And in Isaiah 1: “Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings- meetings, meetings, meetings-I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.
I wish I could say I learned this lesson well enough to not have to repeat the class… but I had more questions and more life lessons to learn… to be saved for another day! I call it “The Love Test” – and really, isn’t that the school we’re all a part of? Learning to love.
Writing the stories of your life is not always easy. There are embarrassing moments and things we wish we had not taken part in. For me, I was a religious nut… I can say that because it was me. If you knew the rest of my stories, you might understand how I came to be that way… but for now, let’s just say it was part of my life’s story. It’s part of what makes me “me” this day.
In the recording of our stories we are passing down a legacy… if we don’t explore the good, the bad, and the ugly, there are valuable life lessons that are lost… lost to a whole generation and possibly a whole culture. For we are all connected! In recording this story, for example, all kinds of people are contacting me to say that I am writing THEIR STORY! What happened to me, although certainly very sad, was part of our American culture. It was deeply embedded in our schooling, our churches, our families… across society.
It affected my children and how I raised them. I’ve sure had a lot of apologizing and repenting to do! So I write this story, even for you, to show you that there is redemption even in the embarrassing stories, the ones we wish had never happened. There’s a lot I’m grateful for during those years of being in church 60-80 hours a week… lots of lessons learned. For one, just think how kind and gracious our Father in Heaven is… he didn’t chastise me or beat me over the head or condemn me… he just simply answered my questions by showing up that day in the form of “trailer trash”. My eyes were suddenly opened and my heart melted and gushed out in hot tears of repentance.
And I can ask this question now… in your own life, in your home, in your own place of worship, what would Jesus say if you asked these questions? Do you have questions of your own you would like to ask?
Be careful what you pray for! He always answers one way or another and he’s definitely not predictable! Dependable, yes… predictable, no!