Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rising: Easter 2014

Dormont Presbyterian.... where I grew up
I have heard it at least three times in the past week. "Where do you go to church, now?"

Were they being curious? Kind? Offering an invitation? Making conversation? Whatever the case, the Communion of the Saints have been much on my mind lately.

Last night at midnight, I found myself online, looking for an Easter service. There's a little church in my neighborhood. I run right past it several times a month. A couple of the people in my classes at the Y worship there. Nothing to wear, though. I could handle being the only stranger. And I've gone to enough funerals in the neighborhood to be OK with being the only single white man in church. But sitting in the back row in khakis and a sport coat, wearing a shirt that needs ironing and shoes that are coming apart... it just seemed disrespectful to me.

There was a church once. (Not the one in the photo.) One I belonged to for years. The only place I ever really felt as if I belonged.  They made room for the kind of sinners, losers, failures and sons of bitches that Jesus used to hang out with. So, when I first arrived, there was a place for me, too. I went to their web site last night to see what time services were. I remembered a place where it didn't matter what you wore or how badly you'd screwed up your life, you could belong there.

And I remembered how much it hurt to watch a handful of angry people start to rope off the pews and lock up the side doors and back entrances. I fought them for as long as I could. Fought for the Gospel that had first welcomed, and then transformed me. Fought for the people who had found a church home for the first time in their lives. Before my fight was over, I wound up in a mental hospital. We lost. We lost the battle. We lost our home. I still believe that God lost, too.

But God will be fine. If Easter teaches us nothing else, we can be certain that God has a way of bouncing back.

Me? I'm not so sure about. And my church home? Judging from their web site, there is a thriving, loving community there now... but the my kind of trouble makers are gone. The people like me. The place that welcomed me is gone. I know the address, but there's no way back there for me. I drive a 14 year old Honda, not a time machine.

There have been other churches. Places where I was loved. Communities that offered me a place to rest or worship or serve. But my trust was gone. I didn't belong anywhere.

I know that's one of the reasons why it was love at first sight between me and the Y. I recognized the spirit of Christ there. Jesus was the woman whose bright smile and open eyes welcomed me on my first visit.  He comes there in bells and sneakers to dance in Zumba class. He arrives, laughing too loudly and covered with jailhouse tattoos to workout with the recovering addicts from across the railroad tracks, and tears up the weight room with them after supper to help them sweat out their demons. Jesus jumps into the deep water, helping his classmates to be brave and try, even if they are only 5 or 6 years old. He drops his children off at the Kids' Corner so he can go shoot some hoops with his buddies. And every now and then, on a dark winter morning, he limps in on frozen feet, and asks for a cup of coffee and a chance to sit down someplace warm before all the good, clean people who are so frightened of him start coming in to exercise before work. In some ways, those are my favorite visits.

I have sat in the lobby with Jesus on those days when it seemed like the sun was never going to come up and our lungs were never going to thaw, and he would tall me stories. Parables, maybe. About his family and how they had died or thrown him out because of his drinking. About the fortunes he had won and lost out at Keeneland over the years. The men he knew in the war. About how he could never live up to his father's standards or live down the heartbreaks of his past or find the love that would make him feel whole again. Once he told me about the years he spent serving as President of the World, and how he and General MacArthur saved the planet from nuclear annihilation. Just last week, he handed me a stack of pages torn from a children's coloring book and asked me if I would make him some copies to take back to the group home with him. It was the least I could do.

But every now and then, in a quiet moment, I'll ask him, "Lord, isn't there more? More for me to do? More for me to have? More for me to be?"

And every time, his answer is the same. "Pennsy, do you love me?"

After all we've been through together, it always hurts to hear him ask it.

"Lord, you know I love you!"

"Pennsy, if you love me, feed my sheep."

And that's how I know that I have found a place. Because here, where I might least expect to find them, the place is packed with Jesus' hungry sheep. I know, because I'm one of them.

You know, it's funny. This started out as a blog post about how sad I was that I didn't have a church home to worship in this Easter. Then right in the middle of the thing, Jesus shows up, smelling like a bus station men's room, and reminds me that he didn't have one either. Last Sunday, Passion Sunday, Christians waved palm leaves and sang Hosannas, and read a story about a man who was driven so crazy by what was going on in church that he started beating people up and busting the furniture. He made the wrong people very angry. And they made sure there would never be a place there for him there again.

So he found another place. One that no door could keep him away from. He rolled away the stone. Behind it, he found the world. He found you and me.

I'm not saying you can't find Jesus in a church pew. I'm not saying he doesn't go there or bless the people who do. But just like in Heaven, there are many mansions in the world. And while I miss the smell of lilies and the sound of organ music and trumpet voluntaries and the warm embrace of a hundred whispers of "The Peace of the Lord Be Always With You..." Even though I miss those things... I am grateful.

My heart may feel heavy as a stone sometimes, but there is no stone so heavy that the Love of Christ can't roll it out of the way to throw open the door and let the love pass through. And the only thing I am sure of is that when the tomb is opened, I will not find what I expect inside.

It is always so much more wonderful than I can ask or imagine. Once, I even met the President of the World.

The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.

The Lord is risen, indeed. Happy Easter, y'all.


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