Of course, as strong as that memory is, neither of us ended up married to the girls we saw that evening. But when I passed Camelot earlier this year on my way to a ministry conference, the memory came flooding back.
I've been loading my CD collection into iTunes - and a number of those CD's have strong connection with place & time as well. I was driving around the back side of Cal State Fullerton when I first heard Michael W. Smith's "The Big Picture"... and Tonio K's "You Belong With Me" always makes me think of Shari Jo, because I put it on not one but TWO mix tapes I made for her. (Yes, I am John Cusack in the film, "High Fidelity", except I don't own a vintage record store.)
And I can't hear the hymn, "Just As I Am" (which is NOT the same thing as Andrew Peterson's "Just As I Am" which we're using in the worship service Sunday morning) without flashing to a little Central TX church where the music/drama group that I directed was the "special guest" for a night of their youth revival. When it came to the invitation (the part of the service where the pastor asks folks who want to respond to come down to the front of the church), he drafted my roommate to lead the congregation in singing - you guessed it - "Just As I Am". Jeff jumped up front & sang out... but then reality set in.
You see, "Just As I Am" in the old school Baptist Hymnal has 7 verses - seven! People began coming down front, so we got to sing all 7 verses - and Jeff, who managed to get up there without a hymnal, was lost by the third verse. We attempted to feed him lyrics from the front pew without being obnoxious or breaking the mood of the worship service, but it was a lost cause.
It's one of those situations that is alternately horrifying & hilarious - here's my good friend & roommate, a talented guy, who's completely adrift, trying to lead a congregation of people through the less-traveled regions of a slow & solemn hymn while he himself has absolutely no idea what he should be singing and is trying to lip-read the lyrics from the rest of us.
For some of you who are reading this, your church memories aren't hilarious - they're just horrifying. When you think about church, you flash on business meetings that spun out of control in sickening ways. You have no trouble conjuring up the sound of a graceless preacher haranguing a crowd or the razor-edged laughter of gossiping church members.
Some of you have church memories that are interesting largely because of their absence of interest - you might ending up using like "droning", "uninspired" or the ever popular "boring." (You can say it like a teenager if you like, with two syllables: "Boh-ring..." It's fun, I promise.)
Regardless of the content & quality of your memories, whether it's a Pavlovian response to the smell of a musty church air conditioner or tears of joy that well up in your eyes when you hear "Amazing Grace," they aren't just memories. Our past - or at least how we remember our past - has a huge effect on right now... and on the future.
See, if the controlling image in your head of church is a fort, then you're going to think in terms of church as a place to hide, as people gathered behind a thick set of walls hell-bent (yes, I chose that phrase on purpose) at defending themselves against all the godless people on the outside. If the imagery of church life in your head is primarily a collage of preachers behind large wooden pulpits or standing above a congregation in their robes with dust motes floating around their heads, you're primed to see church as a place where stupid people go to hear a smart guy show off how smart he is & how damned they are.
And if you resonate like a tuning fork with my mentioning gossip-y laughter... if the sound of people talking behind their hands in stage whispers is like nails scratching down a chalkboard for you, you can easily come to see church as a beauty parlor with crosses on the wall or a country club where the Muzak comes straight from a Wurlitzer pipe organ.
That's sad to me - sad not just for the church I pastor (because people who feel like that are really unlikely to take a chance & see what we're really about) but also sad for them - because they've let their past dictate their present... and their future.
Over the past few weeks in our Sunday morning service, I've tried to suggest a few alternative pictures for the church:
- diving board - The church is a springboard for us to use to dive into the world with the love & grace of Jesus Christ. It does no good for us to sit on the board - we never get the pleasure of splashing in the world God created... and we never touch those who live there.
- emergency room - Everybody without exception has some kind of injury - physical, mental, spiritual, emotional. No one has "arrived"... and so, just like a hospital emergency room, people in varying states of fear, frustration & need mix together, seeking hope & healing.
- convenience store - Convenience stores aren't convenient for the people who work in them - who in their right mind wants to sell beer & candy to people in the middle of the night while worrying about some nutball trying to rip off the register for a hundred bucks & change?! Convenience stores are convenient for the customer. In the same way, churches shouldn't be convenient for the members but for the people who need Jesus.
I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. (Philippians 3:12-14, NLT)Or, to shorten it up a bit (and U2 it at the same time), don't let yourself get "stuck in a moment." Ask God for help to get unstuck... maybe something like this:
Jesus, it is so hard for me to let go of the past hurts & wounds inflicted on me & others by people who claimed to be Your followers. It feels like trapped like a fly in amber... melt the memories and warm my heart, Jesus. Give me the ability to make more steps toward You and Your people, the church. In Your name, amen.