As I drove to Frank and Margaret’s that afternoon I asked God to make me a blessing to them and to give me grace and wisdom. It is a sacred privilege to be invited into the lives of others, and especially sacred when it is in the midst of suffering, pain, sorrow, fear, and the unknown.
Parking in the front of a home you’ve never entered, approaching a door you’ve never knocked on, awaiting someone to answer the door, the first steps into the home; scanning the room you’re invited into, sitting down, speaking the first words, listening to the first words, watching the eyes of others, the brows, the faces...and prayerfully listening to God while at the same time listening to others...the first visit to a home and family is a visit into the unknown - you are a stranger, you have been invited - how will the time go?
Margaret’s mother-in-law answered the door and invited me in. She guided me to the living room and then went to get Margaret. Margaret walked in, each step deliberate; I stood, we greeted each other. I sat back down in a chair while Margaret sat on a sofa a few feet away. She draped an afghan over herself. The living room doubled as the kids playroom, there were toys and children’s books strewn about the room; a couple of toy boxes, a train set in one corner with the track scattered and needing to be reconnected, crayons and coloring books on a small child-sized table with two small chairs.
Fran, her mother-in-law, asked me if I’d like anything to drink and I said water would be great - Cat Mountain had the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted, no matter whose well it flowed from. Once Fran had brought me water and Margaret hot tea she excused herself and went into the kitchen.
“Thank you for coming,” Margaret said.
“Thanks for letting me come,” I replied. “It was good to have you at ALPHA.”
“I had a good time, it was fun meeting new people. I’m glad Shirley and Ralph invited me and I’m so glad they offered to drive me. It’s hard for Frank to take me places at night when the kids are home unless his parents are around, they can’t be left alone.”
“Well, I’m glad you came and I hope you’ll be back,” I said.
“Oh, I’ll be back, I look forward to next week.”
“I haven’t been to a church for years, unless it was a wedding or a funeral. When I left home for college I stopped attending church. I saw too much ugliness and hypocrisy growing up, both in the church and in my family - people saying one thing and doing another; and the way people could be so judgmental and controlling. I really didn’t want anything to do with church, and frankly haven’t thought about it for years.
“But when Shirley and Ralph told me about ALPHA and how it encourages questions and discussion, plus the fact that there was dinner and desert, I thought I’d give it a try - it would get me out of the house, I’d meet new people, and who knows...maybe I’d learn something. After all...I’m going to die...maybe it’s time to think about God.”
Margaret talked and I listened. She talked about growing up, about college, about her career, her marriage, her children...and her cancer. She had traveled the world as a successful businesswoman, now she was in the little town of Cat Mountain, with not even a traffic light, talking to a pastor whom she had only just met, telling him her story.
Many people have a story about a bad church experience, or a story about professing Christians who don’t measure up, who act badly; everyone it seems has an Uncle Jessie who was a deacon on Sunday and a dishonest businessman Monday - Friday, or an Aunt Joan who directed the choir and also cheated on her husband. Often the story is about church people who are controlling, petty, judgemental, and downright mean. Sadly the story can also be about a breach of trust - something was told in confidence and then the person, at times a pastor or other church leader, tells others and the gossip train leaves the station.
Of course a bad church experience can go the other way too, people may leave when the problem primarily is their problem and not that of the local congregation. These people may reject the teaching of Jesus in how we are to live, they may desire to control others and insist on being the center of attention, they may be the Uncle Jessies or Aunt Joans.
Then there are those times when people leave a church as a result of unintentional conflict or hurt feelings - no one meant for things to happen but they did and the parties involved did not invest themselves in reconciliation. It is easier to walk away than to work through problems, and there are different ways to walk away. When it comes to church, people often walk away physically, they don’t return. But we can also walk away mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I’ve known husbands and wives who live together physically but their hearts walked away years ago. I’ve seen employees just go through the motions at work, taking a paycheck without being invested in their jobs. Siblings relationally walk away from each other, or people who have been friends for decades walk away and sever bonds which had once been close.
In Cat Mountain I officiated at funerals when the deceased person’s sibling lived in town, a very small town, but either was not welcome to attend or who had no desire to attend.
It’s hard to change our momentum when we start walking away, for we are walking downhill and often at a very fast pace. There is no bottom to the hill, it is endless and it becomes dark; pitch black with, it seems, no way back.
Maybe we should all wear ropes tied around our waists so that when one of us starts walking away the others can hold the rope and pull us back? Jesus talks about the faithful shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes after the one sheep who has gone astray, who has walked away and become lost.
I knew my time with Margaret was limited, she could only be out of bed for so long, she could only sit up for so long, she could only talk for so long, and she could only listen for so long - she only had so much physical and emotional energy. I wanted to leave her with just one thought, one image - I wanted to share God’s love with her. How best to do that?