Photos: On the flyway
At sunset the birds landing on the shallow lake on the edge of town make a flap, flap, fwoosh, splash sound as they veer in over my head and plop down. There was a lot of flap, flap, fwoosh, splashing this week. We live on a flyway and apparently this is a staging area for many waterfowl to assemble before heading south for the winter. It’s like old friends meeting in the airport on their way to Mesa, Arizona. I wonder if the ducks ask each other ask how their summer went. I was surprised by the variety of birds and the size of the assembly. They’re a noisy bunch.
When I was a kid I used to think the scripture verse about “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together” was about the shoe-polishing, face-scrubbing, hair-curling, clothes-pressing, hat-applying kind of assembly line in the hall by the bathroom where mom assembled us into some sort of semblance of civility for Sunday morning assemblies.
To this day my father quotes himself regularly: “If you were invited to visit the queen, would you not put on your very best attire?”
He still ignores my response: “Not if I were the queen’s kid. Then I would probably run into her room and jump on her bed in my jammies.” (Yeah. I know. Even the Queen’s kids have to dress for company.)
I remember the burgundy robed choir filing in every Sunday and singing, somberly, “The Lord is in His holy temple, (then louder) The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence. Let all the earth keep silence before him! (then softer) Keep silence… keep silence… befo-o-ore Him.”
Kind of a four-part a capella “Here come da judge.”
That was my cue to start counting holes in the acoustical tiles overhead.
I meet a lot of people who are tired of counting holes in the ceiling. Some of them are even from churches where jammie jumping (metaphorically speaking) has been sanctioned for years. Some of them are not only not expected to keep silence before Him, they are encouraged to make a joyful noise (although that commandment also seems to be subject to some reining-in and still remains a heavy burden for natural introverts.) Many have tried a lot of “assemblies” and dutifully genuflected, sat, stood, knelt, greeted warmly, came forward and passed a variety of money gathering receptacles. They joined mega-churches, corner churches, home churches, cell groups, classes, choirs, praise bands, aid societies and brought a bakery load of “goodies” –and bought them all back. They have been sprinkled, dunked, soaked, and eaten wafers, chunks of fluffy white French bread, dry cracker bits, and even matzo at Easter. They’ve imbibed disposable plastic thimbles of Welches, silver chalices of Mogen David and a good red Merlot from tea cups. They still feel like square pegs trying to fit into those tiny round holes in the ceiling somehow.
I’ve learned a lot from all the churches I’ve been in –and for the most part I’m very grateful, especially to the Sunday school teachers and youth directors and music directors. I’ve had some great pastors too.
But there came a day when a lot of accumulated stuff we never talked about began to stifle the joy. The unwritten rules. The unstated statements of belief. The abuse of power. The stuff people just hoped would not be noticed and would somehow go away.
One day I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t tell love from manipulation. I was becoming the hypocrite (the Greek word for actor incidently) that I accused others of being.
Well, I tried to quit.
Church was about more than a belief system to me. Church was my culture, my family, but every time I attended a service some angry not-niceness boiled up inside. I couldn’t explain it and the volunteer recruiters wanted to know when I would be over this silliness and get back to work. One morning when I opened a church bulletin to read the sermon title, “Seven Things Every Christian Must Do,” I folded it up and walked out — for several years. I just couldn’t add any more “musts” to my list. I couldn’t try any harder.
I didn’t quit Jesus, though, although I was rather ticked off with his father for being so impossible to please.
During that time a kind person asked me, “What does grace feel like?”
I answered with the response I learned in Bible School, “Grace is unmerited favour.”
“No,” he said, “I didn’t ask for a definition. I’m asking you, ‘What does grace feel like?’”
I didn’t have a clue. I had been taught that feelings were the unreliable loose caboose that couldn’t be trusted.
“Don’t go by feelings. Obey and the caboose will eventually catch up,” they said.
How many years do we wait for the caboose to catch up before we can admit it must be on a track to Addis Ababa?
I set out on a quest to find out what grace felt like. I asked a lot of people, including those I did not admire. The question seemed as confusing to most of them as it did to me. Some said it felt like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Some said it was the God-given ability to put their shoulder to the wheel, work hard and obey all the rules. Some said it was the Sunday kick in the butt that allowed them to coast all week.
One person showed me what grace meant. He was the pastor of another church, one that was judged as inadequate in the works and behaviour department by the church I had grown up in. A friend recommended him. I told him about my history, my guilt over not going to church anymore and the anger that I felt when I was there.
He said, “I tell most people they should go to church, but I think for you, the church would be one or two people you can trust to listen. God loves you and he’s not afraid of your feelings. Beat on his chest. He can take it.”
A preacher who said church could be something other than the organized thing in the big building with salaries and a mortgage payment due every month? A church leader who didn’t see me as an unclaimed sheep or hand me a spiritual gifts inventory so he could start visualizing where he could plug me into the machine? Someone who didn’t panic and had faith that Christ could fix me? That was different.
That was the beginning. I couldn’t bring myself to beat on God’s chest so I just sent him snarky letters with what I thought were rhetorical questions. Somehow my questions were answered; he sent a random phone call, a commercial that made me cry, a book, a blog, a stranger on a bus, a fawn in the woods… and a couple of people I could trust.
Then it dawned on me. Jesus said whoever had seen him had seen the Father. God was not the mean old judge I had to keep silence for, nor was he a megalomaniac who was sadly out of control of a world that somehow got away from him. He was just like Jesus, willing to serve, willing to experience the same betrayals and abuse we have, willing to forgive, willing to heal, willing to risk speaking truth to people who thought they had the religious system in their back pocket, desperately trying to communicate his love. It hit me that nothing I did could make him love me more than he already demonstrated by laying down his own life for me.
Today grace feels like being adopted by the most loving, safe (but incredibly powerful) Daddy in the world who wraps his arms around me, lets me sit on his lap, rest my head on his chest and joyfully be at peace.
“Church” simply consists of everyone who admits their need, lifts their hands to him and says, “Up, please.” We get to play and work together because we have the best Dad in the whole wide world.
So flap, flap, fwoosh, splash! Come together! Assemble yourselves together, brothers and sisters, because the whole family gets to travel together on this journey.
We’re headed into a new season.
This is going to be good. Really good.