Of Souls and… Name Tags

sanctuaryext1The torrent of rain has finally slowed to only the occasional patter on the car roof.  As I pull into the parking lot, I notice that my car is one of only about 10 in the lot.  Odd, since church is supposed to start in 10 minutes.

I start wandering amid the brick buildings on the grounds, keeping an eye out for a restroom.  After all, this has been an hour long trek to find a church that wasn’t on some sort of whacked 5th Sunday schedule.  I run into hippie, pony-tail man outside the church.  I smile.  Hippies are usually a good sign that I won’t be completely out of place in this church.  He directs me to the restrooms in the Sanctuary, which I had been trying to avoid, since the choir was standing in the narthex waiting to proceed in.  Eh, I guess I will just have to navigate the sea of choir robes; the bathroom situation is quickly becoming dire.

As I walk by, a woman in a choir robe grabs my arm.  “Take a bulletin,” she whispers somewhat urgently.

“Um.., I was just going to head to the bathroom real quick, before I take a seat.”  Well, that is awkward.  I feel like I need to somehow reassure her that I will receive all of the lifesaving information in the bulletin, if only she will let me pee first.

When I wander back out into the narthex, a woman about my grandmother’s age scurries over to offer me a name tag and to ask me to sign in.  This is when I become sure that God is messing with me today, because I hate name tags and now this lovely elderly woman has kindly asked me to put one on.  Nice.

I enter the sanctuary, name tag in hand, and choose my seat.  This is a relatively simple task, as there are only about 30 people in the sanctuary.   And the youngest person there was already in college when I was born.

As the music begins, I lean back and sigh.  The song rings with the comfort of familiarity, which is precisely what I had been longing for this Sunday.  I sing along and wonder how I can possibly store all these hymns and song lyrics in my head (I woke up the other morning singing Madonna “Cherish”), and realize that this must be why I am constantly misplacing my cell phone.  Lack of storage space.

I realize I have zoned out a bit when I am suddenly shaking hands with a kindly gent in his 70s.  One by one every single member in attendance welcomes me to their church.  Name Tag Woman slips her arm around my shoulder, whispering conspiratorily, “You never did put that name tag on, did you?”  Aw, crap.

Another woman with deep auburn hair begins a conversation with me, keeping her arm around my waist the entire time.  As affectionate as I am, I find this close proximity unnerving.  She could check my teeth for cavities if I opened my mouth.

Meet and Greet time draws to a close, and I scamper back to my seat.  Uh-uh.  This is not what the woman in the row ahead of me had in mind.  “You don’t want to sit back there alone.  Come on up here next to me,” she insists.  I dutifully slip in the seat next to her and settle in for the sermon.  But first, there is a congregational prayer—the kind where folks yell out that Uncle Billy Bob still has that bad bout of the gout and couldn’t we pray for him, please.  A lot of congregations do this; it is the “Lord hear our prayers” after each request that catches my attention.  The refrain adds an element of the communal to these individual requests; it unites the congregation in their appeal to God.  The chorus of voices (all 30 of them, plus me, of course) produces a powerful, soothing effect.  I look around to see if anyone else notices.  Nope.  The woman next to me keeps whispering additional information regarding the prayer requests to her friend sitting beside her.  She clearly keeps tabs on the congregation, which is good. If God ever forgets who filed a request, he can surely ask her.  She will know.

The pastor begins her sermon, with gusto.  When she says, with conviction, “God’s Word never changes,” I start to shift around in my seat.  Even various translations of the Bible are vastly different; to believe that the Bible as we read it is exactly what God intended seems naïve.  And then she moves directly into honoring Billy Graham as a great man who has helped save many souls through sharing the message of Christ.  Billy Graham is, indeed, a great man.  But I almost have a coronary when mentions the saving of souls.  I know I am a weird Christian, but I do not think that we [Christians] are holding the key to salvation.  I believe that God can reach anyone, anywhere, anyway.  It is certainly not for me to judge whose soul has been saved and whose has not.  And, yes, I know John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Let me clarify:  I think the Bible is fallible.  Jesus may or may not have meant that He is the only way to God the way that Christians have chosen to interpret the phrase.  Heck, He may not even have said those words at all.  But, what is at the crux of my belief, is that I have no right to judge someone else’s relationship with God.  When we believe we have that right, we begin to blur the lines of understanding and compassion that is the spirit of Jesus’ teachings.

And, just like that, I find myself wanting to write off the pastor’s message completely, based on one phrase.    But, as she continues on, I realize that her message can’t be distilled down to one turn of phrase.  She spurs her congregation on to self-discovery by claiming, in no uncertain terms, that there is a special role in the world for each of us.  We must discover where our convictions lie, and we must live out those convictions.  Belief is passive.  We must act; our faith should lead us into fulfilling the role God has for us:  “We must be more mindful of what we have, how we can use it, and why we were entrusted with it in the first place”  (Anderson).* And there it is, the piece of the sermon that I can carry with me all week, the piece that I can turn over and over in my mind looking for the way that it fits into my life.

I stroll outside, after a hug from the pastor (natch), to the same gloomy weather that was lingering when I went inside.  But I feel lighter, more centered.  I flag down my unsuspecting partner at a red light, hop in her car, and begin chatting away about my morning…

  • Ideas in this paragraph contributed to:  Anderson, Dawn M. “Leave Boldly.”  Forest Hills United Methodist Church, Tampa, FL. 29 Mar. 2009.
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