Sally and her friend and colleague, Brian, have been working feverishly to complete a legal brief. They come to a stopping point and decide to grab a quick bite to eat before they resume their work. Brian, her friend, looks rather dispirited. “Is there something wrong, Brian, or are you just overworked like the rest of us?”
“I’m not sure, Sally. It’s just that sometimes I feel so overextended and I ask myself what the meaning of it all is. I mean, look at what we are breaking our backs over. We will either win or lose in court next week and in either case, the world will go on. Sometimes I wonder what the purpose of it all is?”
Sally responds, “Last week I was feeling quite overwhelmed by all the demands in my life. I was feeling very lonely and sorry for myself. I was sitting there in church mentally condemning others for not working as hard as I was. I glanced over to my left and saw this elderly woman whose hands were horribly gnarled with arthritis take her seat next to me. She leaned over and asked me if I would mind pulling the Bible out of the rack for her. She said that she always liked to read a Psalm of thanksgiving as her prelude to worship. All I was doing to prepare for worship was grumbling to myself and here this woman was who lived with pain every day and yet she wants to thank God for her life. It made me realize all that I have to be thankful for. It sort of put my life in perspective. You know what I mean?”
Sally speaks out of the authority of her own experience. She does not try to impose it on Bryan but simply shares an experience of grace that occurred. The more we have named the grace that we experience and the more we have lifted it up in celebration, the more it will be natural for us to share it with others when the occasion arises. Instead of insisting that salvation only occurs in the church, we will point to where it has occurred for us.
Despite the secular nature of our society, there are frequent opportunities for conversations about the faith which start from the ground up. Many of these conversations will take place with Believers but Not Belongers. These are people who have already laid claim to the name of Christ as their Savior but have excluded themselves from the Body of Christ. They already believe but are not convinced that the church is the source of spiritual food. We live in a society which is spiritually famished but is confused about where to go to be fed.
Think about the number of seemingly casual conversations that you have had with others in the past couple of weeks which, however obliquely, were asking religious questions about the meaning of life, how to cope with evil, where to seek hope and healing, what to believe, how to discover truth. It may have been at the conclusion of a PTA meeting when parents were sharing their anxiety about the world in which they were trying to rear their children. It may have been in the coffee break room at work where a colleague was sidling up to an ethical problem he was facing. It may have been at the sports club when you were drying off from some vigorous exercise and your showermate informed you that she has just lost her job due to the downsizing of her company. It may have been when you have taken the time to listen to the stress being experienced in a family conversation around the table.
It will frequently take place when you offer friendly greetings to a visitor to your church on Sunday morning or during a special event at your church. The harvest is plentiful in our society if we can grow comfortable in cultivating the seed which God has planted. (Matthew 9:37) The genuineness of your conversation comes out of your own experience and your concern for the other person. The more concrete you can be in sharing what you experience in your church life, the more natural your conversation will be.
Tomorrow I will try to give you a parable of how that can take place.
In a society which has been captured by a horizontal view of reality, there is a hunger for the experience of wonder and awe. When a person speaks of an experience of grace, not as a possession but in wonder and awe that it has touched them, there is a special power to their sharing.
Liz, who could not have been more than 30 years of age, stood up to speak. It was clear that she was nervous. “Tonight I can tell you that I have not had any drugs for one year.” Then, with a sense of wonder in her voice, she continued, “You know, that is the first time that I could say that in the last fifteen years.” It was not a sense of pride in her accomplishment with which Liz spoke but rather with a tinge of amazement in her voice that this gift had been given to her. We knew the grace of God in her presence.
In a society which holds a great antipathy for authoritarianism, the church needs to be sensitive to the way we proclaim the Word. The authority which is most readily received in our society is the authority of experience if it is claimed and not imposed.
If you were having problems relating to one of your teenage daughters and I told you that you should go to church and that would help heal the divide, you might well think that I did not have a clue to what was going on in your family and that my suggestion was worthless. On the other hand, if I shared with you that when I was having trouble reaching my daughter, I had the marvelous experience of being able to talk to another teenager who was part of my church and she gave me some very helpful insight, then you might see the healing possibilities of a church. “To be saved…is to enter into a new relationship with God and fellow human beings in the community of God’s people here and now.” (Christian Doctrine, revised edition, Shirley Gutherie, p 355)
Ted had been very frightened when he was told that he had cancer. While he had never tried to persuade his wife not to go to church and to please her had even occasionally accompanied her on Easter or some other special Sunday, he had never seen the church as important in his life. Yet, almost immediately upon news of his cancer, cards began to arrive in the mail from members of the church. Often, a note would be included and several times it was mentioned that they had prayed for him in church.
Finally he asked his wife about it and discovered that he was regularly named in the prayers for the sick. Since somehow he had concluded that church was more for women than men, he was surprised that some of the men of the congregation occasionally called and asked if they could visit. One of the special visits was from a business colleague of his who came and during the visit had hesitantly asked if he could have prayer with him. It dawned on Ted that the man was very uncomfortable in asking but had done it anyway and the prayer, while simple in form, had reached in and touched Ted’s very soul. It was a few days later that it suddenly dawned on Ted that from that moment on he was no longer afraid and that was the beginning of his healing.