Wednesday, August 11, 2010
In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes about witnessing a miracle at church. It's a beautiful story, one I wish I could quote for you. But right now, the book is stuffed away somewhere in an unpacked box in the back of Noelle's closet.
And so I'll have to conjure it from memory.
Lamott writes about a particular Sunday morning, when during a worship song she witnesses a lady lift up a fellow congregant, a man with AIDS, and weeps with him as the congregation sings.
It's a miraculous moment, because until that point the woman has been uncomfortable around the man with AIDS, a bit distrustful. But on that morning, during that worship song, she reaches out and touches him. She helps him stand to his feet and the two of them cry.
If I remember it correctly, I believe she even mentions that their tears and snot mingle together as they lean into each other's faces. It is a symbolic moment: two lives touching one another, holding each other's beauty and brokenness, where there had been alienation and distrust before. This is the miracle.
I have been thinking about this story all week, because I witnessed a miracle this past Sunday too.
I think it is perhaps the first miracle I have ever seen in church, and I do not say this lightly because I have seen bodies kneeling at the altar in prayer but those miracles did not knock me off my feet and send me into my seat weeping the way this miracle did.
To begin with, church started out a bit difficult for both Dwayne and I. We have grown up our whole lives visiting new churches and neither one of us necessarily thrills at the thought of being the new kid in church. It's such an odd community to visit after all, with all it's intuitive interactions and insulations. And yet, it is the body of Christ.
As we walked up to the church we noticed that no one was coming or going.
"Are you sure we have the right time?" Dwayne asked as we mounted the steps. It was a tidy and inviting building with large golden beams of wood and tall windows.
We pushed through the doors and found the building full of people. They stood around in clusters chatting. No one leaving or going into the sanctuary. This was clearly a body which knew and loved one another; however, they seemed oblivious to the newcomers.
I walked up to the desk with the big "Information" sign above it and waited. I had my first line rehearsed and glossy, "Hi, this is our first time visiting. Can you tell me where the nursery is?"
Usually, this first liner wins me a warm smile and easy conversation. "Oh! Welcome! Where are you from? Let me take you down myself." Or something along those lines.
But at this information desk, I waited and waited. The volunteer was engaged in a conversation with a friend and though he saw I was there, he did not move to help me.
"It says, 'Treasureland' over there," Dwayne whispered over my shoulder. I looked up and saw an arrow clearly pointing the way to the kid's ministry and so without receiving help, I scooped Noelle up and took her down to the nursery myself.
"Why is it so hard for people to understand? It's not that difficult to be nice to a new person." Dwayne shook his head as we found our seats in the sanctuary. I knew what he meant. Both of us were feeling a bit irritated, a bit indignant over it all.
The pinnacle of my frustration came when we entered the sanctuary doors and the greeter, who saw me out of the corner of her eye, neglected to turn away from her own conversation and hand me a bulletin. She would have let me pass by without a single acknowledgement had I not marched directly up to her and asked, "May I have a bulletin, please?"
I swear I have never had to ask a greeter for a bulletin before. That's their job -- to stand at the doors and greet you and push a bulletin into your hand whether you like it or not, whether trees are dying or not, just so you can have a moment of human contact at some point between the church entrance and the sanctuary seats.
"Oh sure!" she said with a smile and handed it to me.
Come on, Christin, straighten up! I coached myself as I walked down the aisle to an empty seat. No one will want to be your friend if you're acting irritated. So I eased into my seat and tried to imagine myself as sunshine, bright, radiant, warming.
As the service wound on, I found myself opening slowly and almost unwillingly to the worship and the message. Neither were flashy, but bother were substantive, heartfelt, sincere. They were not mainstream. They did not try to be. They were authentic.
At the end of the service, the worship pastor took the platform. "If you can stand," he said, "Please stand with us and sing."
So we did, and the words on the screen were:
Great is they faithfulness, Oh God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not thy compassions they fail not
Great is they faithfulness Lord unto me.
During this song a middle aged couple a few seats ahead of us suddenly walked out of their row. They turned at the front, and made their way to a man sitting, hunched over and alone. He was directly in the front and middle.
As soon as I laid eyes on him, I could see that he had cerebral palsy. His wide shoulders twisted over on themselves, and his head, covered with silver hair, bobbed about a foot above his knees. He could not sit up right, let alone stand, but he was in church, on the very front row.
The couple parted on either side of him. The woman leaned over with smile and whispered something in his ear. A nod wobbled from his neck and shoulders, and with that she and her husband each grabbed his biceps. They slung his arms around their shoulders and with one heave, stood up, stretching his curled posture straight.
Then, the husband did something incredibly awkward and gracious: he pulled up the man's pants because they were falling down due to his twisted posture.
It was an embarrassingly disjointed moment, but it was also amazingly honest. The man's pants were falling down. He could not help it, so his brother lent him dignity and held his pants for him. They stood like that for the rest of the song, their arms wrapped around each other, the husband holding the man's pants, the wife holding the man's waist.
I felt the tears bubble up hot from the cracks of my soul, and I tried for a time to stop them. But then I heard Dwayne sniffle beside me, and then someone else behind us let out a gentle sob. Suddenly, at the surface were so many emotions, so many fears and longings and blessings, so many tired nights and hopeful days.
While the man with cerebral palsy stood to worship, I slumped back in my seat and wept.
I wept until the end of service. I was crying still when the woman in front of us turned around and shook my hand and introduced herself as Bev and said, "We would love to have you visit our small group!" My eyes were still wet when the worship pastor and his wife invited us with open arms to their house for dinner that night. And I was still dabbing my eyes as we walked quietly back to our car.
Dwayne and I were both thinking of the three bodies in the front row, but neither of us wanted to speak. Finally, Dwayne broke in.
"I couldn't stop crying over that couple helping that man stand up," he said. "Now, that was church."
"Yes," I said, "Don't talk about it. It will make me cry again."
And I thought about the start of the morning and the condition of the human soul, the unwillingness we all carry to reach out and touch another person's life. The fear we have of each other's embarrassments and shames. The self-imposed alienation that keeps us bound up and alone more often then we'd like to admit.
I thought again of the husband's strong hand hoisting up the man with cerebral palsy's pants. It was an awkward gesture of grace and it gave us all dignity.
That, was more than church, I thought. That was a miracle.