In a time not that long ago, I would have been seated in a church pew or standing behind a pulpit delivering a sermon. This morning, I’m not at church and it does feel strange, although there are reasons.
My wife, Nancy, had to work last night (she’s a NICU nurse), which means she needs to sleep today until mid-afternoon. NICU babies never give their caregivers even 5 minutes off. Our grandkids are over this weekend, too.
Their parents don’t take them to church, which is sad to me. I can’t change that. We do the best we can to influence them for Christ as we are capable, but I’ll always feel guilty that neither my children nor grandchildren are part of a spiritual community.
My paternal grandparents never would have understood our excuses. When we went to see them, we took our church clothes. Sunday was church day, full stop. There is a huge part of me that, for many reasons, gives thanks to God these days for that. I grew up wearing a suit on Sunday and did so until the last decade.
I’ll go ahead and confess that I can hardly bear to go to church without Nancy. It’s hard to explain. I meet God better in her presence than I do otherwise. I do not know how my friends who have lost their spouses deal with this. I hope never to find out.
Which brings up another subject. A friend succumbed to esophageal cancer this past Monday in Abilene. I’d lost touch with him over three decades, but I’ll never be able to forget his then-mustached smile. I only discovered his passing when someone forwarded the obituary to me.
I called his widow last night, and I was holding my own until I heard her tears and asked if I could pray with her over the phone. I heard myself saying first, “God, some of our prayers have no words.” Maybe those are some of the truest words I ever spoke. These days, most of my prayers come from somewhere deep within that doesn’t allow for superficiality and, therefore, renders me mute when I pray.
“I heard myself saying first, ‘God, some of our prayers have no words.’ Maybe those are some of the truest words I ever spoke.”
In that conversation I learned that yet another friend is facing his own horrific battle with cancer. It’s bad, she said, really bad. I need to go to Abilene this week so I can pray prayers that have no words while I hold their hands.
Then, a young gay woman I’ve known since she was 4 and whom I baptized as a child, reached out to grieve that she doesn’t have a place in church these days. Some would say to her that, if she would lose the gay part, she’d find church more welcoming. I can’t say that to her. I won’t say that.
God never once asked me to lose this or that before I sought holy grace in a house of worship. Jesus never did, either, except for those who were using the house of worship for the gain of personal wealth whose tables he overturned.
Jesus would have a whole lot of table turning to do these days, wouldn’t he? The crap that passes for “gospel” and yet is designed to purchase $65 million dollar personal Jesus jets makes me want to puke. I’m stunned at the number of people who make that possible because they’ve been lied to, from the pulpit, that giving money will make them financially wealthier, too.
All those preachers prove to me is that they have rarely if ever stood at the bedside of the grieving and dying. I wish their sermons were as mute as my prayers.
I told my gay friend something I never dreamed I’d hear myself say. I never thought I’d think it, much less verbalize it. I told her that she may have to go around the church to find God.
“I told her that she may have to go around the church to find God.”
In case you think that’s an overstatement, please remember that the only reason we are able to worship God as we do in America is because our spiritual forefathers crossed oceans on the wings of sails in order to go around the church forced on them in order to find God.
Passing a church in a small town the other day, I noted the rectangular building that probably houses their Sunday school. Almost certainly a near-post-World War II structure, it was clothed in that pasty yellow brick that can be found in any Texas town.
It was about 100 yards long and neatly spaced with rectangular windows. COVID has at least temporarily vacated those buildings. They’ve stood empty more tha a year now.
I remarked to Nancy that, post-COVID, we may have to find other ways of doing church than pale-yellow-bricked rectangular. Church must become more communal and less institutional or the church as we know it has no future in this country our faith ancestors made possible.
We build these monstrosities in the name of Jesus only to discover that the buildings we built now too often define, even control, us and our understanding of God. I felt compelled to leave the pastorate in part because I never was good at building or managing rectangles.
“The buildings we built now too often define, even control, us and our understanding of God.”
I still believe in church, and Nancy and I will be back to our beautiful sanctuary to worship. We need the spiritual community it makes possible. I can also say I’m going back more accepting of my muted prayers, more welcoming of those who will not conform to my personal idea of morality and to seek out those who no longer fit in rectangles — and invite them to the Table of Holy Communion.
If we want to know what heaven looks like, for now, we’ll have to look through the prism of Holy Communion.
By the way, I miss my friend I met in a rectangle. He’s now set free to roam for eternity in the boundary-free Big Country of God’s mercy we call heaven — where smiles are eternal. My muted heart is breaking because I miss him here and ache to my bones for his family.
Even as silent tears fall, my prayers are mute.
Glen Schmucker is a writer, speaker and Baptist pastor who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.