July 24, 2016

Partly cloudy

Finding value in the traditional outing to church

By John Gladden

In many congregations, including the small-town church my family attends, there’s a moment built into worship services when those present are invited to share their prayer concerns and celebrations.

This, on the principle that joys are more joyful when they are shared, and burdens not so heavy when others help carry the load.

John Gladden

John Gladden

Some time back, an older member of the congregation stood to tell a small story about something that had happened just that morning.

As was their custom, he and his wife had stopped at a restaurant drive-through for coffee on their way to Sunday school. The woman who served them must have looked them over. I picture her wearing a hat, a nametag and a little radio headset, opening the window, asking if they’d like cream and sugar. The man’s dollar bills flap in the wind as he reaches out to her to pay for the coffee.

Older couple. He in a jacket and tie. She in a dress. It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday. Where else would they be going? Not to a granddaughter’s soccer game. Not grocery shopping. Not out for a lazy weekend breakfast.

“Are you headed to church?” asked the woman in the drive-through window as she gave them their change.

Yes, they told her.

“Would you pray for my family?” she implored. “We’re going through a difficult time.”

The couple assured her they would. What’s more, they shared her request with others. I can’t remember the other prayer concerns and celebrations I heard that day, but I remember that one. And I’ve lifted that woman up in my thoughts many, many times since. I don’t know her circumstance and I don’t need to know. She asked. That’s all. That’s how grace works.

If those church members had been dressed in Ohio State sweatshirts, would the woman have asked the question? If it had been a van with a young couple and children — the kind of families churches love to get — would she have asked them to pray for her? No one can say for certain, of course. It’s just something to think about.

Someday, we may have to reconsider the old children’s rhyme with the familiar hand motions:

Here’s the church
Here’s the steeple
Open the door
And see all the people.

To some, churches with steeples are out of keeping with modern sensibilities, even off-putting. Instead of buildings with traditional stained-glass windows or pews, some churches offer bookstores and coffee shops outside the sanctuary.

Perhaps future children will sing:

Here’s the church
It’s like the mall
Buy a latte
Right down the hall.

There are clergy who dress so casually in cowboy boots and Hawaiian shirts that if you could turn down the sound, and no trappings of church were visible, you might think they were selling time shares or their latest set of motivational DVDs.

Appearances are appearances. No, you don’t need fancy clothes to go to church or to stand up in front and lead one. Church services can be held anywhere. But there’s just as much value in those who decide to dress up for church. There’s value in churches that look like churches. It’s wrong to dismiss them as stuffy or somehow out of step with the mission of the church.

If the Gospel is about anything, it’s about meeting people where they are. There are chapels in truck stops and hospitals. There are churches in storefronts and sprawling new buildings in the suburbs. They’re there because people are there. We need more places to gather, not fewer. I’m grateful for them all.

I’m not disparaging anyone or anything. I’m doing something more radical than that. I’m saying a word of thanks to all who get up on Sunday mornings when they could be sleeping in — especially those who are older, for whom getting around isn’t as easy as it used to be — and who put on their good clothes when they could wear something more comfortable. You’re a visible witness. I’m thankful for clergy who wear suits, collars and robes, who approach their jobs with professionalism and reverence.

Thanks for looking like you’re going to church when you go to church. Thanks for the time and money you give to keep in good repair these beautiful brick and wood buildings the whole community turns to when we celebrate weddings or mourn death. Thanks for giving the Scouts, the 4-H club, the Bloodmobile, the historical society, the farmer’s market, a place to meet under your steepled roof.

Thanks to those who keep the lights on in the churches we go to for help in times of trouble, where we seek illumination in stained-glass windows, and find comfort in woodwork polished by the hands of the generations who came before.

That, too, is how grace works.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@frontier.com or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.

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