What Church is When It’s Church

I know I have written about this before, but I went to church last night, and I got to sit in a pew. It was the first Ash Wednesday service I have not led in 30 years. Pastors go to worship the way chefs go to dinner. You feel called to what you do, but your role can get in the way of your experience. Go to someone else’s restaurant and rather than just enjoy the meal, you find yourself considering the menu, noticing the decor, wondering why the fish has so many chives or the broccoli is so stiff. But not last night. It helped that it was Ash Wednesday, when Christians remember their mortality and need for God’s grace. It is a powerful thing for someone to make the sign of the cross on your forehead and tell you up close to “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” That will deliver you from a critical spirit.

I was reminded why I like church. I think church is a lovely thing. My friend Meredith said that one time, and I keep thinking on that phrase. She is right. You sit on a pew with people you don’t know but who share something you believe in deeply, even when some days you feel a little odd for believing at all. You can go to a city that is not your own and still your people are there in church. Last night at Atlanta First UMC there were all kinds of people. A variety of races, young and old, housed and homeless, all sat on pews together. Pews are wonderful. No defined space on a pew. People can sit far away or right next to you. Not much boundary to a pew. All God’s children just sit there together. Pews are good church furniture.

The service was led well by a young man who was the liturgist. He was warm and confident, his welcome kind and his prayer sincere. The choir sang songs I have known my whole life. Their singing was comfort food after a long day. Rev. Jasmine Smothers absolutely brought it when she preached. She was insightful and convicting. She told me to get my act together but reminded me that God was pursuing me, coming my way with both forgiveness and expectation for my life. She told me that I needed the season of Lent. She did not let me off the hook. I was reminded of how good it is to put yourself in a position where the Lord can speak to you through a diligent servant.

If you live in Atlanta, you should go hear Rev. Smothers preach. It is worth it just to be in her presence. I watched her place ashes on the foreheads of her parishioners. Her face absolutely lit up as she spoke to them and embraced them. The older I get, the more I find such moments emotional. As a pastor you often know the backstory people carry with them into church. So when you serve them communion or put ashes on their forehead, and you think how much grace they need or how much grace they have been given—when you know the burdens they carry or the service they have rendered—it makes you love God and love them more than you ever expected. It makes you grateful that God loves you too. Because you know that you are as much in need of grace as anyone in that line. That is the divine encounter you can have in church.

When I watched Rev. Smothers, there was such a look of love on her face for her people. It made me think about the goodness of being church together, that the love of Christ can reside in our hearts to such a depth that imperfect people can love imperfect people instead of judging and condemning them. It kind of broke me up. Even as I write this I find that emotion returning. There are just so few places in our society where people are valued for being children of God, where they are loved because we can see the divine handprint on their being. That was what I saw as those ashes were placed on forehead after forehead. That’s what church is when it’s church.

The service closed with an old familiar hymn. The smell of the sanctuary at Atlanta First UMC was identical to the one I attended as a child. The sense of smell can take you back a ways. As the hymn played I could hear the voice of my mother singing next to me in that old sanctuary of my boyhood. “Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to thee…”

That building where I first went to church was demolished over 40 years ago, but before it was torn down, the church managed to write that song on my heart. That is the kind of remarkable thing that can happen in church.

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