The Day God Came to Church

“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
                                                                         – Genesis 28:16 

“Our real discoveries come from chaos, from going to the place that looks wrong and stupid and foolish.”
Chuck Palahniuk 

I finally got back to church during Advent.  I had quit months before.  I was never going back.  Done, finished, enough already.  I was not going to be God’s stooge anymore…if there was a God.  And I would have not ever gone back except that I am a sucker for Christmas.  Christmas occupies some primordial place of innocence and hope in my soul. Amazingly, this place of innocence and hope cannot be destroyed or even altered.  So as Advent arrived it didn’t matter what had transpired or what I had promised myself.  I knew I would sneak off to church like a not quite reformed drunk going back to the bottle.

I had meant it the previous June.  When I walked out of church I was done.  My faith was all but gone.  My love of humanity was dashed.  I no longer cared for much that was going on.  The world was a god awful place and I knew it.  Lies, evil, darkness those were the winners and there was nothing I could do about it.  I hadn’t always been this way.  No, I was ordained filled with hope and the confidence that I could make a difference.  And on Tuesday September 11, 2001 I still believed it and I dare say I lived it.  I especially believed it when I stood before my congregation a day after the disaster and prayed for the days ahead and warned that none of us should take any comfort in more violence.  To my chagrin it was almost the only thing that people seemed to believe in.  The country brought together by tragedy started to tear apart because of the polarized response.  Killing, death, and destruction is never the answer in my mind and yet we were involved in a lot of it.  I believe Jesus when he encourages us to love our enemies.  That idea never had a chance as our country went to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq.  What a disaster but anything I offered to the contrary was met with opposition and anger.  My place as pastor was completely compromised.  I resigned my pastorate of sixteen years because my call seemed to dissolve before me.  I would love to say that I wasn’t bitter but I was desperately so.  Jesus’ message of love and peace, that I hold so dear to my heart, was the message few wanted to hear.  The world was going crazy following the same lies that we had followed during the war of my childhood in Vietnam.  It almost seemed verbatim as the drumbeat of war quickened and the government announced how very necessary it was to invade Iraq.  It made me sick and horrified.  I was sure that all the heartbreak and disaster that went with Vietnam would now visit us again but even I did not have an inkling of how great was the disaster on the horizon.  It didn’t matter I had seen enough.  I was not going to speak for a loving God who had abandoned the cause…or so it seemed.

So I did not enter a church again for six months after I resigned but then Christmas loomed.  I went to a church near my house, arriving late.  I snuck in the back and sat in the first pew that was open.  I tried to not disrupt anything.  I slowly brought my head up and looked around.  The sanctuary was decorated for Christmas.  The kids were up front doing something.  I considered the people around me.  It felt good to sit in a pew and be reminded of Christmas.  I looked to the people who were in my pew.  The person right next, the person I had just randomly found myself next to was, to my surprise, a man who had been a member of my previous church.  He was not only a member of that church but he had been particularly vocal in his opposition to my views and had been instrumental in making things quite unbearable.  My enemy was sitting right next to me! I tried to imagine how such a thing could happen and then it seemed obvious.  God had sat me down right next to this man.  The whole sanctuary lit up with God’s presence.  I was astounded.  The thought I had was that I may have abandoned God but God had not abandoned me.  I said to the man, “can you believe this God of ours?”  We shook hands and it was the beginning of my new life.

You see I had missed it.  In my self-righteousness I had ignored the very thing that I thought I was living for.  I didn’t realize until that moment that God wanted me not to condemn this man for his views but reconcile with him in spite of his views.  This is where God was calling and is always calling.  I wasn’t just to spout the words but live the reality.  Love your enemies.  It is God’s most compelling and difficult challenge.  But the truth is that we’re not called to be right we are called to be loving no matter what.  In my new life as a minister these are the words I try mightily to live by.

These days I am starting to think that this kind of reconciliation is the only thing that will get us through now.  There are plenty of voices claiming who is right and who is wrong and it is tearing at the very fabric of our community and nation.  That argument will never lead us to a new day.  However, a reconciling depth of love for each other (even the ones we suspect most) is our only hope.   It seems counter intuitive until you live it.  When you live it the very presence of God cannot be denied.  And so it is exactly what we need now.

Tim Ives is a therapist who has a special interest in teens and families.  His office is in Bedford Hills. He is also a Presbyterian Minister at Scarborough Presbyterian Church.  He is married and  has two teenagers.

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