Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A testimony of different people - different spiritual gifts

[A corrective note: over the last several months, several folks have asked me to send them a link to the poem, "So I Stay Near the Door," by Rev. Sam Shoemaker, which was an integral part of this post. I've since broken it out into a separate posting, so people can link straight to it. Yes, it's shamelessly revisionist. Sorry.]

Over the next several postings, I'm going to be weighing into the murky swamp of the emergent church. And I'm pretty sure that by the end of it, I will have agreed with parts of almost every major cadre with an opinion about the emerging church and the culture into which it is emerging. But there is a very good reason for this, I think.

When I came back to Christ, and came back to faith, nearly 15 years ago, my gateway to the family of believers was a little Garden church in Prairie Village, KS. They had traditions, and they had worship, and they had Sunday school - and they did all of it pretty well. In time, they even built a pipe organ - all for the goal of preserving the historic Lutheran liturgy and worship practices that had been a part of that community for 50 years.

In 50 years, you could count on one hand the number of adult baptisms in this church. When new members joined, they invariably joined from other churches - and 99% of them came from other Lutheran churches (what I've come to understand as vampire evangelism - just sucking life-blood from one part of the Body to another).

Now in this church, there was also a band of people who believed that the Great Commission was just as much a part of the call to Christian living as the two Great Commandments. They felt that to "go and make disciples" was as much a part of the mandate of a disciple of Christ as loving God and loving our neighbors. That group of people felt that there was less value in preserving traditions than there was in doing whatever they could do to reach out to those who didn't know Christ. And so battle-lines slowly started to form in our little Garden, between those who would keep life as it was, and people who would change things and drag all these newcomers into the presence of Christ.

Into this developing theoligical battlefield fell a 30-something man - estranged from his faith, from his family, from his past, even from his present. A man who felt "apart from" the people in this church - because he hadn't grown up with the traditions, barely knew the Christian story, hadn't had to memorize the books of the Bible or a confirmation verse or the articles of the historic Creeds...and set-apart even more, because his life had been apart from "good Christian living" by more than a dozen years of sin and addiction.

But a Lutheran pastor had reached out to him, as his world had fallen apart, and shared the unbelievable story of a Prodigal Son who had fallen far from grace - and a Prodigious Father, willing to cast every sin of the past aside and welcome the wayward son back home.

That was me.

That was my life, crumbling to pieces in late 1990. I had lived three-and-a-half decades - ten years of which I'd spent attending Mass six days a week. But in all that time, I had somehow never encountered the impossible, unbelievable love of God for me in Jesus Christ. And what I could hardly believe (even less than the concept of God loving me that much) was these human beings - especially that cadre of Great-Commission-huggers - who saw my brokenness, and yet didn't much care about it. By the time I got to Kansas in April, 1991, I was ready for a change. All these people seemed to see was this man who was soaking up Christ like a new sponge - and nothing else mattered (not my vulgarity, not my financial wreckage, not my divorce or my then very- recently-arrested alcoholism).

Somehow, when I came to this church, broken and in flames spiritually, they were the ones who took me in, and put out the flames. I'll never forget Janet Pierce and Jeannine Linder grabbing me by the elbows on my second Sunday at Faith, and marching me down to the choir room. They'd heard that I'd been a singer with my former wife, and they announced loudly, as they dragged me down the hall, "You were a visitor LAST Sunday - but THIS Sunday, you're family. Come on."

That band of young Great-Commissioners mentored me in my Christian walk - teaching me about the Bible, reminding me that the Old Testament was up front, the Psalms were in the middle, and the Gospels and Epistles were in the back. They welcomed me into Bible studies, and choral singing, and stuff I had no idea how to do. And they encouraged me, and served as examples to me.

But more than that, they stood with me, and they wouldn't let me go. I remember being at a rehearsal for our little singing group, "Friends of Faith," and Joel Jacobsen was practicing songs for a wedding while we were waiting. Joel started singing Steven Curtis Chapman's "I Will Be Here" with incredible beauty and passion - but all I could hear was an indictment of what a fraud my marriage had been, and what a lie it would have been if someone had sung that song at my wedding. I don't think I even made a conscious decision...but suddenly all I could do was move to the back of the sanctuary, as far away from the "happy Christians" as I could get, and to try not to be too obvious about my uncontrollable weeping.

To this day, I don't know whether it was Eric Amundson, or Larry Hanson, or simply an angel, who came up behind me and just put their hand on my shoulder. Somehow, they knew what was going on with me - and their actions just said, "It's OK...we're here with you. You don't have to go anywhere else - it's OK to be here, just as you are." Eventually, the song ended, I dried my eyes, and we went on with our practice. But I never forgot the hand on the shoulder, nor the comfort and inclusion I felt that night.

The events of that night changed me, and my perspective on evangelism, forever. My "primary purpose," other than staying sober, became being able to share that welcome, that mentoring, and that encouragment with anyone who would listen.

It was about that time that I read of the deep friendship between Bill W. (a cofounder of AA) and the Rev. Sam Shoemaker, who was the Episcopal Rector at Calvary Church in New York, where the founding characters of AA met in the old Oxford Groups of the time. I fell deeply in love with the image of "Sam" being the first hand that connected with these people who struggled so with their faith. It's in that spirit that I've posted separately Rev. Shoemaker's poem, "So I Stay Near the Door" (also sometimes known as "So I Stand Near the Door.") It's probably not great poetry, on an absolute scale - and I don't think it was ever meant to be. But as a confession of faith, I'd nail it to the door right next to the 95 Theses...

I know (today) that the people who find passion for liturgical perfection, or purity of ritual, or preservation of traditions all believe that they are right. I used to quibble with them, even rail against them; I don't fall into that trap so much these days. However, I do know that what is right for me is a function of what I've experienced, and that this is true for me, regardless what others experience or hold dear.

Perhaps, in all this massive flood of words and memories, there is this grain of truth and value: that we are called to serve and worship in different ways, emphasizing different gifts and values - but that we can all choose to be arrows pointing to the same God, yet pointing in seemingly different directions. Just because we value different parts of the mission of Christ does not mean that we are wrong. We are simply different, and called to different service.

Thank you, Br'er Shoemaker, for "this manifesto for a life of faith. Lord God, let this be my final testimony - that no matter the path You lead me down, let me be faithful to this calling. Amen.

6 comments:

Poor Mad Peter said...

There's a lot of wisdom (and hard-won experience) in that poem.

And your posting reminds me very much of my journey a decade earlier than yours, where i wound up at St Andrew's United Church in Sudbury, Ontario, in a state of drift, separated, depressed, deeply lonely. My entrance was in fact the choir, and one of the spinoffs of that place/those people was meeting one of the Sunday School teachers: we married in 1984.

I appreciate your gratitude about your Garden experience, especially in light of your sadness over the congregational schism that occurred recently. It is a healthy sign of reclamation and ownership of what was good and lifegiving in your journey.

Nick said...

Makes me think of the lamp post God. I can use him as a support to learn against or as a source of illumination. It seems like some churches are squeemish about helping people on the journey if they are just out of the jaws of hell. I think AA provides a gateway God.

Michael said...

There's a lot to be said about different people pointing to the same Reality while seeming to point in different directions. I used to tell my students that the ascent of Mount Carmel, an important image of the spiritual journey for us, was a useful metaphor because there are many ways up the mountain -- many paths but they all head up. We tend to trip ourselves up thinking only one will get us there. More importantly, we trip ourselves up thinking that getting there is our accomplishment and not God's gift. And God can do it lots of ways.
(A related problem is that we tend to point at ourselves or focus on the tip of the pointing finger, rather than looking in the direction pointed, but that's another comment.)
The door image also strikes me for perhaps a morbid reason. In February (I think) of 1979, 11 people died in Cincinnati when a crowd rushed the doors where a Who concert was scheduled. Not enough doors were open to let them in. Most tragically, the doors only opened outward, so people pushed up against the doors were crushed when the doors would not give and open in. Too often I think we church-folk put up doors but only let them open out. That gives us control (ha!) over who comes in. Sometimes that's a problem. God has an unnerving habit of letting the wrong people in. For that, I pesonally am grateful!

Michael said...
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Poor Mad Peter said...

I like Damien's words very much. And on the Cincinatti tragedy, the doors open outward in case there's a fire or emergency inside, so it can be argued that escape is more important than entry. I won't even go near extending this as a metaphor for traditional churches...{mischievous grin!}

Rick said...

GREAT POST! Thank you. What a beautiful story. Sam Shoemaker!!! The priest who brought me to the Episcopal Church was dear friends with Sam Shoemaker. Sam was his priest. I have an old book writtne by Sam and there is a website in his honor. You can see the 12 steps all over his writings. I consider one of my gifts to be that of an evangelist, but that doesn't mean what we see in church growth seminars, it means walking with folks until they recognize the stranger to be Jesus Christ.

Thanks brother, thanks!

Rick