This last Sunday my husband and I accepted an invitation from friends to attend church with them. It is a very different denomination than ours and we talked with them before we accepted the invitation saying that we were seeking a liturgical church in which to become members. They said that they respected that, but that they still hoped that we would come and worship with them in their home church. We gladly agreed.
We always try to visit other churches with open minds, but both my husband and I have had the uncomfortable experience of visiting churches and hearing our own faith communities criticized. Our own faith communities are not immune to this. We have also cringed when we heard people from our own church talk about other Christian faith groups in a less than charitable way. Sometimes it comes from the Pastor, sometimes from other people in the pew, sometimes it is written in those helpful little bits of literature that are available in their bookstore or as handouts in the narthex.
As I said in my first post, I don’t need ways to fill my time and I’m not lonesome. I have friends, projects and people to share meals with. I don’t need a hobby or suggestions for volunteering in my community. I don’t need to be told how to vote or what to think about gun control. I want a place to worship! I want a church to worship God and hear about Jesus. I don’t go to church because I want a club to belong to, I don’t go to church because I want to be with perfect people, I don’t go to church because I want to check off some box to raise my stature in the business community. I go because I want to be fed, because I am both saint and sinner and need nourishment to go deal with the hard realities of life.
Here are some of the things that come to mind when I think of open doors and roadblocks:
- Years ago our pastor told us in his sermon something like this:
Dear Hearts, we have had a man worshiping with us occasionally lately who is not here this morning. I have been so grateful that you have welcomed him and made him feel welcome. He is dying of aids. His own church told him he wasn’t welcomed there. He contracted aids because of his own actions and now is dying. Brothers and Sisters he is just like us. He is a sinner before God and just such a one as this the Lord came to die for. If we were well we would have no need of a physician.
This was an open door and encouragement to us, the members of that church, to be a shining light to this man who so badly needed the love of the Lord.
- I recently had a friend on FB that I knew as a child reach out to me and ask if she could talk to me about religion. We grew up in the same church and haven’t seen each other for probably thirty years. I said of course she could. She said she was afraid to reach out to me because she has converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism….and some of her Lutheran friends won’t speak to her anymore. She dared to hope I might be different because I had said somewhere that I have family members who are Catholic. We corresponded and I think that I was able to help her. I’m so glad that I had said something that let her think she could come to me.
- I have a dear friend who was a pastor and became an alcoholic. He turned to his superior for help and instead was defrocked. The list of church people who closed doors on my friend is painfully long. Those are roadblocks and they are sinful roadblocks. One day those people will be called to account.
- In my own life I have had friends of thirty years standing who have never spoken to me since I sought and gained a divorce. Thankfully, I have had others who were willing to continue talking to me, praying for me, and holding out friendship and help to me even if they themselves are saddened by the divorce and care for and love both my former husband and myself. It isn’t about choosing sides, it is about whether, in the face of human frailty, sickness, failure, and sin, we open doors or slam them shut.
- My parents who were married for 52 years until my father died, who absolutely believed that marriage should be forever, took into their home two women who were fleeing abusive marriages and reached out for help. In one case the woman stayed with them for about a month and it proved a wake up call to her husband and eventually they were able to fix their marriage and it lasted, without abuse, for decades more until her husband’s death at a ripe old age. That was a case of an open door. Someone who turned for help and was welcomed with a safe haven.
As Christians, we are called upon to bear witness to the Gospel. We believe that something happened two thousand years ago which changes everything. We believe that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, born to a Jewish woman, to save us. We are to live out, in the world, a transformed life, bearing witness to the love of God, the love that bore our sins, and was willing to die for us that we might live. That is why we go to church – to be fed and nourished on the news that even for us – sinners that we are – even for us who have stumbled and fallen time and again – we have a hope and home in Christ. When we go to church we need to be fed. We need to have doors opened to us. Which gets me back to my story of attending church with our friends.
This past Sunday was a nice surprise. Shortly after our visit we received a very gracious, personal letter from the pastor thanking us for coming to church with our friends and expressing the hope that the visit was a blessing to us. We were so taken by the thoughtfulness of the pastor’s letter that we wrote one in return…. This is the middle portion of our letter:
My husband and I both grew up in liturgical churches. We love coming to the Lord’s table often, we love the biblical basis of the rich liturgy, we love confessing our faith using the ancient ecumenical creeds of the church, we get fed with the texts of the lectionary, each Sunday four Bible readings: an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, one from the Psalms, and the Gospel reading. Long ago we committed our lives to our Lord and daily we refresh that commitment with our conversations, with our prayers, with our heads and hearts.
There are some things, however that we would like you to share with your congregation if you think they are appropriate. We were both taken by the gracious welcome of your church members. We were greeted warmly by so many and had extended conversations with quite a few. The singing of your congregation was inspiring! The choirs were outstanding and certainly conveyed their delight in the Lord! We were pleased to find hymns from our own traditions that were old favorites. Beyond those things, we were enriched by your morning message. The teaching that you did was thoughtful and meaty. We learned from and appreciated that experience.
Ron and I have both experienced visits to other churches where our own churches were belittled and criticized. We have had uncomfortable times in our own churches occasionally when pejorative language has been used when speaking of other faith communities. Your witness in your morning message was inviting and helpful without castigating others. We will always hold that up to our own churches as a model for how Christians should behave.
Our churches, just like our homes, are unique. They have traditions, history, unique furniture, lighting, music, and ceremonies. How do we welcome people into our homes? How do we welcome visitors into our churches? Do we only welcome “nice people” – well scrubbed, nicely attired, who have the appropriate pedigree and educational standards? Do we welcome anyone who shows up – or only the people that are without fault (there aren’t too many of those).
My husband and I vacationed in Wyoming once. We saw a bumper sticker that said:
Wyoming is full, we hear that Montana is nice.
We laughed heartily at that….but sometimes that seems to be the message of many churches. Is that what we want to say to visitors? I’ve been to many churches where no one spoke to us at all. Would we invite company to our homes and then never speak to them? Maybe we have plenty of members already and really don’t need anymore. Do we introduce ourselves to people we don’t know and tell them how nice it is to have them worship with us today? Do we have any guidance for people who may not know the way we conduct our services?
I guess it comes back to the way we speak. Do we speak welcome or do we close doors? Is our website such that only people who are insiders will know what all the abbreviations mean?
As my friend Austin said in his thoughts on the church life of Tucson…the mission field is here. I dare say that today it is in many cities and towns across America. Do we still answer the call of the Gospel imperative to tell the good news….welcoming the “least of these” or do we ignore our neighbors?
The congregation where our friends took us was welcoming as was their pastor.
They made a faithful witness. What about you? What about your church?