Listen To Article
That Sunday night, I had to push myself to go to church, to listen to the still small voice of should in order to get dressed and leave the house. I went mostly because I knew that being there would beat the alternative, the guilt of not having gone. Going to church that night was “an exercise in spiritual discipline” – to use the acceptable language of contemporary piety. Sometimes in the chambers of my dark soul, church-going simply relieves guilt. I know that’s bad. I don’t need a lecture – I came from the factory with a humming Calvinist conscience.
By the time I left the driveway, I was late. The bank clock in town said two minutes to, and I was five minutes away – and church in rural Iowa operates on time. When I pulled up, I figured I’d be last and just grab a seat somewhere in the back where no one would see me anyway – don’t make yourself a distraction, that kind of thing.
On the way in, I met a couple, also late, a couple we’d just been talking about at dinner, when my daughter and father-in-law mentioned a terrible accident not all that far from where we live–a fatal crash that had taken the life of a local man, a husband, and a father to four sons.
“We were just talking about you,” I told that couple as we hustled up to the front door of church, the organ already playing. “Were you related to the man who was killed last week?”
“My brother,” he said. That’s all, and then he stopped and looked at me with the emptied eyes of someone who’s not so much lost as dizzy. He’s a good man, a strong man, a square-shouldered, broad-chested Iowa farmer; and right there on the sidewalk outside of church he held out his hand for me to shake, but also, I think, simply to hold.
And why wouldn’t he? His brother left last week early Tuesday morning in the twinkling of an eye. The man needed to be touched, needed to be held – we all do – because that brother of his had been there Monday night, like always, and then simply was gone, just like that. Gone. And not coming back.
We ended up sitting in the same pew, the three of us, and having them beside me changed everything about worship because it was impossible not to hear what I heard, to sing what I sang, to experience what I experienced through the eyes and ears and mind and heart of a man who’d just that week lost a brother.
One of the first hymns, chosen by a teenager in an old-fashioned hymn sing, was the prayer of St. Francis – “Make me a channel of your peace.”
I’d been reading a biography of St. Francis, because he and his life and devotion meant so very much to Mother Teresa, who I’d also been thinking and writing about – two storied Roman Catholic mystics, a man and woman who, by their profession, actually spoke with God.
It’s hard to imagine worlds more distanced – a retired English prof and a grieving farm family on the emerald edge of the Great Plains worshiping in a tightly-bound Calvinist church peopled almost exclusively by Dutch-Americans; an Albanian oath-bound “religious” who gave her life away on the streets of Calcutta, and a goofy, holy fool friar and preacher from 13th century Italy; all of us singing and praying the same words. It was, at least for me, a joyously ecumenical moment.
Mother Teresa was a saint. If I were Catholic, I’d use the present tense, because she is.
To Roman Catholics, she’s become one officially, after passing a rigorous investigation that includes her having to have performed documented miracles.
Sometimes I envy the Mother Church for daring to describe some of us as more than creatures of dust. Together, the Catholic saints are a museum of grace that Protestantism – with its stress on individual experience – simply doesn’t have. We have Billy Graham and the Reformers, Jonathan Edwards maybe; but we stress immediacy so greatly – me and my God, me and my being born-again, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – that history, even church history, all too often seems matter-of-fact.
Christianity isn’t just spiritual therapy or a political persuasion or even a “worldview.” It certainly isn’t a place to go for socializing. But it is something of all of those things, as well as a system of thought and a means by which we find ourselves in a world that’s a moving target.
To those who share it, the Christian faith is something akin to oxygen, to the air we breathe,. It outlines our values and makes pressing demands. By our faith, we gauge the shape of things in the world we live. It’s organic, alive, capable of acclimating to time and space, and yet principled enough to be an unshakeable foundation, all at once. It helps us determine how to live – and how not to. The Bible, Calvin said, was a pair of spectacles through which we see the world. So is the Christian faith itself.
Still, Christianity accepts immense varieties of human experience and all kinds of people, even when we don’t.
Christian believers are different after all – multi-colored, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, even multi-valued. I have friends and family, believers all, such died-in-the-wool political conservatives that we can’t really talk about much; but then I have other friends and family, believers all, who roll their eyes at the right-hand tilt of any political argument. Sometimes Christians are enemies – historically, deplorably, quite often in fact.
I have an odd personal history in the American melting pot of American religion. I am – or have been – the child of a single religious tradition, an ethnic denomination that may or may not be on its way to extinction, as are all such ethnic fellowships in the cultural mix we Americans so proudly claim. I am a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, have been since birth, as have been, since immigration, many ancestors on both sides of my family. But take it from me, no two of us are exactly alike, despite our experience and doctrinal character.
It’s helpful to remember that way back when, each of the disciples had his own particular view of who Jesus was and is. Differences exist – and I think they always will.
All that being said, it was a great blessing for me to sing all four verses of the prayer of St. Francis that night not so long ago—me and a grieving family singing words precious to a Albanian street saint and a strange priest who preached the gospel to birds, every last one of us in need of grace.
In an act of shameless self-promotion, I just thought I’d mention that a bit longer version of this post is the Preface to Reading Mother Teresa, a series of meditations I’ve written on the life one of the 20th century’s most recognizable believers. That book will soon be released by Dordt College Press just in time, and just as shamelessly, for Christmas.