Some very painful things have happened. A very precious friend died years before her time. Someone I trusted with my life betrayed the confidences I had shared. I discovered that other friends were bigoted against certain people groups, and refused to even consider looking at these dear people in a different way. Another friend cut off relationship with me completely when they found that I chose to vote differently in the last election than they did. I have been grieving for the different kinds of losses that these each represent … that of the loss of community.
Sometimes remaining anonymous, sitting in the back row of a new church or ignoring people at the grocery store, is the easy way to go. And sometimes it is necessary because smiling & chatting with strangers – and even more so with people you know – can be absolutely draining when you are experiencing grief. It takes SO MUCH ENERGY to put on a happy face and look relatively normal. It takes everything you have to reach out to others and offer hospitality or assistance. Sometimes it feels like you do all the giving.
So, it was with utter delight when precious new friends reached out to us and invited my husband and I on an adventure, and what a delight it was. They took us to their favorite place of worship, a small (as these glorious works of architecture go) but beautiful cathedral in Cleveland named University Circle United Methodist Church, lovingly known as “the church of the holy oil can” because of it’s spire. I’ve lived overseas and have seen many cathedrals, but this one was unique to any I had visited before.
The first difference was that in every single entrance stood a young person, probably around college age, welcoming us. There was life here! Within seconds of entering the beautiful building, it was pretty obvious that this was a colorful venue … every single hue of the human race was represented, and it was glorious. Different ethic groups were wearing gorgeous garments, there were babies & children, lots of white heads & loads of young people, well dressed individuals and many people from the other end of the social scale, all equally represented. I saw people in wheelchairs, or with walkers, and some who had mental disorders, and caring people around them, making sure that every one of their needs was met.
And I was welcomed, perhaps like I have never felt welcomed as a stranger in a church for a long, long time. There may have been one or two people who didn’t give me eye contact, or reach out and take my hand and give me a glorious smile, but I didn’t see them. It didn’t matter my color, my age, my social standing, how I was dressed, my sexual orientation … I was welcome. In fact, the sign outside the church said it all: “where all are welcome, all the time.” They weren’t kidding.
There was the bit at the beginning of the service where I normally cringe. You know, the bit where you are asked to greet your neighbor … oh joy … but this time was different. These people really meant it. They came from all over the church to welcome us, not just from the surrounding pews. Even a lady in a wheelchair made an effort to give me eye contact and beckoned me over to offer welcome.
There was glorious singing by the choir & the people. Some of it was in foreign languages with translation provided, some was relatively new to me, some was of the dear old hymn variety. There were liturgical dancers, and both women & men took part in the service.
The pastor modeled sensitivity and grace from the get go. As the men and women who were to serve communion gathered around the table to receive their communion first, the pastor went to each one, calling them by name and offering blessing. A young woman, obviously new to the church and a little confused, walked to the front and joined the others around the table, oblivious to the fact that she had gone up with the servers. She stood next to them and the pastor, without blinking, moved to her and blessed her, calling her “my sister.” She wasn’t known by him, but she was welcome at the table.
There was a very elderly couple in one of the pews ahead of us, and the woman was struggling with getting up and participating in communion. There was a strong sense that she had Alzheimer’s and her doting, loving & distraught spouse couldn’t get her to move. No matter … the pastor brought communion to her, and to all the others who were unable to walk to the table. And.there.was.gluten.free.communion for Celiac types like me. Wow. I FELT WELCOME!
The sermon was on Luke 17:5-10, having faith “like a mustard seed,” which I had heard a hundred or more times before. But this interpretation was different. On too many occasions, believers have been erroneously told by perhaps well meaning people that their faith “wasn’t strong enough” or their cancer would be cured, that they wouldn’t be in financial crisis, that their child wouldn’t use drugs, or whatever. If they just believed it would all magically go away! This passage isn’t about magic, it’s about the promise of God’s presence when we are in the pain. God can transform our attitude, our view of life, if we just have a tiny bit of faith to trust him, not that the cancer will go away but that he will be with us when we or cured of it or if it takes us. The pastor said, “No matter how small you evaluate yourself, in God’s eyes, you are enough.”
When the service was eventually done, and the people were slowly leaving, I noticed that the two enormous flower arrangements up front were being taken apart, little by little, and the flowers shared with children, the elderly and, perhaps, the ones who don’t have loved ones to give them flowers.
I whispered to my friend sitting next to me, “I think I have been given a glimpse of Heaven today.” Surely that is what it will be like when we get there …. people of every shape & size, color & hue, sexuality & political persuasion – because NONE of it will matter any more! All running to greet one another, give eye contact and glorious smiles and making everyone feel welcome as we gather together to worship our LORD. Praise be to God.