(The bulk of this was written after our worship service Sunday evening)
As minister at a small church, my times of worship too often consist of running around. I am solving problems, coordinating people, helping visitors, taking kids to the bathroom. I often go an entire service without actually making it to my seat. So when I get to slide in a row next to my wife and kids, it is a wonderful, if fleeting, moment.
Sunday I had such a moment. Only I got way more than I expected.
As I found my wife in the crowd (in such moments it helps to be married to a tall redhead) and moved onto her row, here is what I noticed.
On the row in front of us were four people. A young married couple, holding hands. Looked like two people in love. And they are. But I also know that he has truly struggled with addiction. And she recently got out of prison.
Next to them, a man I have known for years. He is the definition of the working poor. Sometimes dirty, always smelling of cigarettes. He sits on the same row where he used to sit with his wife. She died a year ago this week. Seeing him reminds me that I need to announce that tomorrow night we are having a dinner and fundraiser to try to buy a headstone for her grave.
Beside him, an older gentlemen. The oldest man in our church. He can no longer see well enough to even read the bible. But that’s okay. He has accomplished the task of memorizing most, if not all of it. He bounces and claps as we sing, he doesn’t have much rhythm. But he moves anyway, as if his loss of eyesight has made him believe that no one can see him. Oh, that’s not the truth. He doesn’t care because He loves Jesus so much.
And underneath their chairs is my three-year old son. He is playing with the little bitty cars he is earning for going in the potty.
This odd juxtaposition is not odd. I see something close to it every week. I am used to it. But I don’t think I should be. There are so many places on earth where this mix would not happen. Sadly, one of those places can sometimes be church. As I look, I should be in awe. For what I am seeing is what church actually is.
You see, church is not the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. Although it is that. And church isn’t just the people who are there. It is that too. But it is more. Church is the place where the mystery of God’s work in the world is glimpsed for a moment. Where a song of praise and a recovering addict and communion and a half-blind man and a sermon and a little boy with his play cars all somehow seem perfectly harmonious.
We too often want so much from church. Great music that moves us. A sermon that is funny and heart-wrenching. People that genuinely seem interested in us. Classes for our kids that are exciting. It may be a lot to ask, but that is what we are looking for.
But I think maybe, just maybe, we don’t want enough from church. Music and sermons and children’s classes don’t seem to matter when we glimpse God at work. Because in the moment we notice God’s hand we see beyond what we want, into what we truly need. The gospel. Made real. Made alive. Among us.
I am not sure this can be replicated. That a mission statement or staff meeting can make it happen. It is only the work of God. The love of Christ. The guiding of the Spirit. But Sunday, at least for a few minutes, I got to be along for the ride. And I knew it.
So all I could do was look. And sing. I looked at an addict, an ex-con, a widower, a blind man, and a little boy. And I sang.
I look at my son and at them. And I sing. Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul. And I look at him and at them. And I sing. Worship his holy name. And the couple in front of me raises their hands as one. Sing like never before, O my soul. And the old man is half-turned around, clapping off-beat and smiling at me. I will worship your holy name.