I started attending church when I was little more than three years old. It was the "Great Depression" years and my sister had just been born. My grandmother had traveled to Ohio to great her brand new grand daughter and - apparently, recognizing the financial struggles her oldest daughter's family might be enduring, she suggested that she take her first grandson home with her to the farm where there would be plenty to eat and lots of new adventures for a growing boy to enjoy.
They were church folks, the only ones on the two mile stretch of gravel road leading to the Cole A.M.E. church and I would be attending there for the next twelve years. On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evening prayer meetings, religiously. We were there. It was good for me. Many of my friends from the school that was just across the road, were there. The Sunday school teachers were there along with the freshly baked cookies, fresh out of the teacher's oven. They were not as good as my grandmother's, but I was not about to complain. The stories we heard were - at first, interesting, but after you had heard them for several weeks, you sort of lost track of what they were saying. Looking back, over several decades, it has always intrigued me as to why the same teachers were, there, year after year, decade after decade.
Then I would discover as I was recruited to recruit new Sunday School teachers, years later on, most of the ones with the greatest potential to actually teach our youngsters had no interest whatsoever in "baby sitting" as one lady informed me, the little "brats". But there were some who were more than just interested and I have to believe their names are eternally inscribed on a plague hanging in the corridors of heaven.
Unfortunately for me, the Jesus I learned about in those earlier boring sessions is the Jesus I would know for far too many years.
Such were my thoughts as I watched a "religious" discussion on a TV program yesterday involving a well known and highly regarded evangelist by the name of James Robinson and Mark Driscoll, also a highly regarded (in many circles) Pastor from Seattle, WA. The subject of the discussion centered on Driscoll's book, A call for Resurgence. Both were making a case for the fact that church attendance was declining in many areas and both seemed to agree that they had answers to this problem.
I waited - in vain, to hear my answer. I am not a preacher, nor a Pastor, not even close to being a theologian; just what some might call a parishioner who has been attending churches every since my days in Michigan. Of course, for the first almost forty-five years, I was more of a pew sitter. I was there because I thought I was among "good" people and therefore I actually believed, I was a good man. In my heart of hearts, however, I had begun to realize I was not only not a good man, I was in fact, a bad man, a seriously flawed bad man. My life had fallen apart and I was beginning to realize, I was the cause.
The truly good news is the fact that on my way to find answers to my dilemma, I found an answer. I was a bad man. Now I would learn that the very same Jesus I had ignored for decades had that answer and all I had to do was - repent, take responsibility for my errors and vow to change my ways. At first that sounded easy - I had heard the expression, you must be "born again" and I would learn that I had the same response as Nicodemus, how can I - a grown man, be born again? After all, we were both flesh and bone, we had a history, it seemed impossible.
I began to realize it was possible as one Friday afternoon after working a full work week in less that the typical 5, 8 hour work days, I was passing by a bar and convinced myself that not only was a workman worthy of his hire, he ought to be entitled to a drink. I pulled on the door handle and nothing happened. I pulled again. No response. Strange, I thought. I could hear voices inside. So I started to walk away when two couples approached, laughing and giggling and turned to walk into the bar. They
pulled on the door and it opened and they disappeared within. That was stranger than strange and a thought came to me, "Maybe the door was just shut to you. Remember your vow to repent?" And I did, I had, I ought to remind myself. So, I walked on and to my amazement, that experience was merely the first of the many similar ones I would experience in the next several weeks. To my further amazement, things began to go my way. For example, I found a job as a janitor for an engineering firm and actually enjoyed what I was doing. Then one day, one of the principals of the firm told me about the move they were planning in the future ad I shared my experiences working with a moving company to supply help. Before I knew what was going on, I was put in charge of the move and my wages were doubled.
I could spend hours talking about similar experiences that have occurred over the years, but I want to offer my counsel on what has happened to the church. Remember those Sunday School teachers from those early years? Bless their hearts, they were only doing what they had been asked to do and there was no one to remind them of their enormous responsibilities to reflect the amazing grace of their Lord
The church needs more than just teachers, they need people who had become witnesses of the power of God to actually respond to our staged invitations. I had only met one of them in the first forty five years of my life. It was on the streets of Fukuoka, Japan, when being lost, I asked a man who appeared to be a Catholic priest for directions. Actually, he was such a priest, but the clothes that he wore looked as though they might have been salvaged from a yard sale. We began to talk and when he appeared to be hungry, I invited him to lunch.
I cannot tell you of our conversation as it would not speak well for his church, except for the fact that this man introduced me to the living Christ, the One who sustained him when no one else seemed to care. He needed to get back to Tokyo where his elders were located and I took him back to our base when he could take a shower - his first in months, while I begged and borrowed among my buddies to get him train fare. I came upon an air crew man while telling my sad story and he had a much better idea. To make a much longer story shorter, we dressed the priest as an airman and smuggled him onto a flight going into Tokyo. There he got back into his priestly clothes and was given a ride to the place he needed to go. Two years later, I received a letter from my new friend, Mike - the ex-priest, who was then a civilian and headed for college. No mention of God. Just a word of thanks for doing what good men do when the need is obvious.
In the world in which we live today, similar stories go on all the time. But we seem to want to dress them up the occasion in religious clothes and chant, "..all glory to God." There is nothing wrong with that except for the fact that the "Saints" who perform the "miracles" are often ignored and those who need to know that the God they are prone to praise, more often uses people to perform His works. We like to say, we are going to church, whereas the fact is we are going to be with the presence of God as He moves among His people. That is the church and it is triumphant in spite of its critics.