It was a year ago this spring I stepped back through the doors of time. By most appearances, the little country church hadn’t changed much. The floors were still covered in low-pile variegated green, the sanctuary flush with rows of heavy oak pews, an attendance register hung on the far right wall, paneled ceiling to floor. And above the choir loft hung an illuminated image of Jesus in all of his 40-watt glory. Just as I knew it way-back-when.
Except that it was different. It was immediately clear that a fresh breeze was blowing. Now, after two years with Pastor Z. and Pastor C. at the helm, favorable change is remarkably obvious. And long past due.
A new church website, social network presence, and an active community outreach draw neighbors in droves through doors opened wide, sans agenda. A steady stream of visitors drop in on Sunday morning and a healthy proportion come back for more. The sanctuary is refreshingly panel-free, painted in neutral hues. A lively worship band leads the hallelujah chorus.
The domineering pulpit is long gone, and along with it fire-and-brimstone, scare-you-into-obedience tactics. Which is not to say impassioned preaching or thoughtful teaching have disappeared — far from it! There are even a few cushioned chairs off to one side, a welcome substitute for unforgiving pews.
Something can be said for change in nearly every corner.
I was not yet a teenager when I started attending here so many years ago. I grew up in an unchurched family but was drawn in at just the right time, searching to fill that God-shaped hole deep inside. I lost my way a time or two, as most of us do. But I will always be grateful to have avoided a more destructive path in my journeys. I was blessed to have Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, adopted aunts and grandparents take me under their wings. They were so important as I was growing in my faith.
Since then, I’ve come to understand the foundation of Christian faith to be as simple as it is solid. There are a handful of basic tenets and nothing much to argue about. Jesus is God’s son, resurrected. God provided a way because He loves us. He wants to be in relationship with us. In accepting Him, we are adopted into his family. He sent his Holy Spirit to guide us until His return.
Beyond that, it doesn’t much matter.
Although God provides the way, modern-day Pharisees continue to throw up gates, personally standing guard. But to what end? Christian faith isn’t a checklist of do’s and don’ts in order to be admitted. It’s about love. Seriously, it’s that simple.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
That’s it, Jesus said. “Do this and you shall live!” And this is brilliant. Because when I do this — and when I trust that you will, too — everything else takes care of itself.
But if I don’t do this? The alternative is ugly. It is a life marked by fear, failure, and hypocrisy. It is always keeping score — mine and yours. It is exhausting. I know this because I’ve lived it.
Unfortunately, it was twenty years between coming to faith and fully relaxing into God’s amazing grace. In the meantime, I exerted a lot of energy trying to conform, trying to make myself acceptable. Worse, I pressed many others to do the same. My efforts were wrong. Hurtful. Damaging. And oh, so futile!
Who can possibly measure up? No one. Not one! If it were possible, Christ’s sacrifice would have been unnecessary. God’s gift is 100% undeserved: the very definition of grace. This should bring us great comfort. It should also bring us to our knees.
Who are we to try to impose our sense of right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, upon another? Who are we to define membership in the “Big C” club? The God of all creation says,
Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.
All of the rules and regulations pressed upon me fell away when I finally embraced grace. It is so freeing. He is gentle, patient and kind. So much more so than we! (A-hem, than me.) I know I can never go back to religiosity.
So here I am, almost a year into happy participation in this small community of faith. I have enjoyed becoming reacquainted with neighbors and friends, brothers and sisters in the faith. I have been challenged by the pastors, in all the right ways. They have become dear friends. I have entered into the fellowship. And I have seriously considered membership. But not yet.
The members vote next week whether to continue the pastors’ contract. I hope they know that to vote yes is to continue this necessary and important transformation underway. This church is like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, just beginning to stretch her wings into the sunshine. She is still damp from a long winter. Instinctively, she knows there are great heights to soar. To vote yes is to take flight on the spring breeze. To vote yes is to choose life and growth and freedom in Christ.
To vote no is to fold back into her cocoon, to succumb to slumber, encased. It is a much different, dimmer future. I cannot imagine myself there, then.
One of the unaffected corners of this place is a framed portrait I’ve nicknamed the 40-watt Jesus. I am hard pressed to find a seat where I’m not distracted by his long blond locks and nondescript smile. As I wrestle to rectify the resistance and fear I sense here with my own personal experiences, freedoms, and joy — such joy! — immersed in God’s grace, I finally recognize why that painting bothers me so. That dimly lit, Hollywood-styled portrait does not reflect Jesus. That is not the omnipotent, omnipresent God I love and trust. That is not He who loves and accepts me unconditionally. He’s infinitely bigger, brighter, and better than that.
We can be, too.