For You Are With Me

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According to family legend, in the weeks before my father’s mother died, she had a conversation with my mother that changed the course of our lives.  At that time, my parents did not attend church.  I was still a baby so you know how long ago this was.  “Find a church,” my Grandma said, “Any church, I don’t care what denomination, but find a church and become a part of it.”

And in the months after her passing, my parents did just that.  They found a church.  As long as I can remember, church was always a central part of our spiritual and social lives.

When I was in my twenties, I left the church and in my forties, I returned.  A very long in the tooth prodigal son.

Last night I wrote about the events of the last week.  As I published the post and ran out the door to my friend’s party, I felt a lightness.  Eloquent or fumbling, I put into words what I had been feeling.  I tried to approach it with kindness, not always the easiest task when talking about polarizing subjects.

This morning,  I looked forward to church.  I got there early and sat in my pew.  There is a thirty minute organ concert that precedes every Sunday’s worship service.  You can judge me, you probably should judge me, but I tend to spend that time on my phone, checking Instagram, texting and emailing.  As the prelude began it’s final chords and the organ began to swell, I put my phone away.  In the time that I had been looking down on my phone, the sanctuary filled up.  This morning, it wasn’t average Sunday in November full, it was practically Easter full.

We stood to sing the opening hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  The oft-mentioned beauty of my church comforted me and yes, even surprised me a little.  Every Sunday, I can’t believe how at home I feel on my little pew in this grand, old sanctuary.  I was grateful to have a place where I could bring the sadnesses of the last week.

I touched on it in my last blog, this complicated navigation many of us are attempting with family members who did not vote the same way we did.  Like I said, my parents voted for Trump.  I voted for Hillary.  And for the last week, I’ve tried to figure out what these opposing positions mean about our relationship.  How can we see life so differently?

Big surprise, I cried in church.  Believe it or not, it was my first cry this week that was about the election.  Yes, I am disappointed that Hillary lost, but my tears were not really sad ones.  Well, maybe melancholy.

See, I cried this morning when I realized here I was in church again, after a twenty year break, because my parents showed me the value of it.  That church is a place to bring your heartache.  That church is a place to look at your heart and see what you need to change.  That church is where you have a moment to acknowledge what you are grateful for.

I thought about my ailing Grandma Avis who asked my Mom to find a church, any church, 46 years ago.   And maybe the ANY part is what I was thinking about in February, when I attended a worship service solely on the basis that I thought the church looked pretty when I drove by.  And when I walked into the church courtyard, I saw a poster that read, “Inclusive.”

The Scripture reading today was David’s Psalm 23.  When the man read, “I will fear no evil for you are with me,” I thought about how, like God, my parents are always with me, even when I feel there is a distance.

On Friday, when I spoke to my parents, my Dad stated that if someone ever asked him to deny Jesus, he would let them kill him.  He would die defending Christ. I assured him that that would never happen.  “You never know,” he insisted.  “If I die tonight, I have no regrets.”

Today was the first day that I prayed for Donald Trump and his impending presidency.  I prayed that God would give him wisdom and compassion and guidance.  With my head bowed and my eyes closed, it struck me that I have more in common with Trump than I’d like to admit.  I sometimes say cruel things. I sometimes make bad decisions. I can be self-serving. I grow my hair longer than what is ideal for my age/weight.

I loved that my church was packed today.  I looked around and saw faces I’d never seen before.  I imagined that maybe, like me, they had grown up in conservative churches in the Midwest or the South.  Maybe they had left the church in a huff or snuck out a side door.  But maybe, this week, this crazy week, affected them in a way that they said to themselves, I’d like to go somewhere to find comfort, healing.  Maybe they thought the church looked pretty.  Maybe they had a Grandma who begged, “Find a church, any church.”

That parable of the prodigal son, maybe it resonates because some of us feel like we’ve squandered riches and long to return home to a father that welcomes us with open arms.  Today, I thought about the time when my own Dad was a prodigal and the events that drove him back to church. Surely there are differences, big differences, but for now, maybe it’s best to hold to what we have in common, to cherish what we share.

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The Great Communicator 

  It’s been awhile since I’ve done a storytelling show, awhile since I’ve blogged. My second to last storytelling was a real bust. I was a little drunk, always a crap shoot. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to say but thought, hey,  it will all come together. 

It didn’t come together. I was scattered, rambling on about Friday Nights Lights that I’d just finished binge watching. Eyes glazed in front of me. I talked about a scene where a hymn called “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” followed the lives of the characters. I said something about grace, how lost souls understand grace the most because we are so lost. I likened myself to Tyra Collette, the misunderstood pretty girl from the wrong side of the tracks, a modern day Madge Owens. I had no ending because I didn’t even know what I wanted to say. 

Driving home that night, I beat myself up, why do I always keep going back to the same themes of church and God and faith and grace? I thought, you don’t even believe in any of that anymore and yet, it’s still haunting you. Like a ghost.

  A few months ago, inspired by the beauty of several New York churches I’d visited on vacation, I decided I wanted to start going to church again. So I attended the Sunday morning service at a church that I’d always driven by and marveled at its grandeur. And then I went back the next week, which I think I wrote about, and the next week. And I know we don’t get extra jewels in our crown in heaven for perfect attendance, BUT I haven’t missed a Sunday since February. 

As I said, I haven’t been blogging much lately. I write a few paragraphs or sometimes just a few sentences and sometimes just a few words, and then I get stuck, and think what is it I’m trying to say here? There was a time when I wrote regularly and I’d sometimes fall into a rhythm, where entire blog posts would just spill out effortlessly. 

When I swim, I often have some dynamite ideas for blogs but then I pick up my phone to write and think, no, that’s not going to work. 

Even if it started with an architectural crush, the thing I love about my church most is that I feel welcome there.  It does not escape my notice that every Sunday the pastor makes a point to remind parishioners that all are welcome. I’ve known churches where the minister made it a point to bring up the “sin” of homosexuality every time I was in attendance, so I know the effects of repetition. But more than the gay stuff, I feel that I am welcome with my doubts and my questions. That whatever point I’m at in my spiritual journey, I have something to offer.

Every Sunday, there is a thirty minute organ prelude to the service. Yesterday, the organist concluded his prelude with Nothing Compares 2 U and then Purple Rain. Purple streamed from the lighting behind the church’s altar. A tribute to Prince is nothing I would have expected in the churches I grew up in and yet, I found myself profoundly moved by this gesture. I don’t say this in a mean way, but Prince seemed like a pretty scarred, broken man. And yet he had this incomparable gift, gifts actually. Could Nothing Compares 2 U be a song about God? Nothing can take away these blues because nothing compares to you.

I don’t know why there are so many religions, and then sects and denominations within those religions. And then disagreement within denominations and congregations. Is it our fault that we don’t know how to listen to what God is saying? 

  Something struck me tonight, as I drove home from a longtime co-worker’s going away party.  A little prosecco in me, nostalgic about the way people move in and out of our lives. As I left, one of the newer busboys asked me if he’d overheard right, me telling someone that I went to Bible college. And then he told me how he’d been a missionary and a minister in his home country. He told me he hoped to go to a Bible college here in Southern California. It seemed so fated or providential that we would have that conversation.

Similarly, it seems fated and providential that I find myself back in church after a 20 year absence. 

Anyway, the something that struck me on that drive home, will most definitely strike some as sacrilege. And don’t even look at it as something I believe, merely something to ponder, but maybe sometimes God feels like he has a hard time communicating with us too. Maybe sometimes he knows he wants to say something but he doesn’t know exactly what it is, or how he wants to tie it up, bring it home. Maybe he even looks out and sees a lot of glazed over eyes and thinks, what’s the point? Maybe God has writer’s block. I don’t know.

I’m sure, to some, the thought of a fallible God is unappealing. For me, I kind of like the idea of it. If we love people in spite of and sometimes because of their failures, why couldn’t we do the same with God? 

I don’t really know. Don’t come to me for the answers, I’m more or a questions guy. Especially at this moment. But it’s nice again to entertain these questions about God because ultimately, with every one, I think,  it brings me closer to Him.