I’d like to tell you a story. I’ve been given permission to tell it for your benefit. In some ways, many of you already know the tale’s beginning, because it is a telling of familiar things.
What I’m about to describe happened last Thursday. Even at 9:00 AM, the December sky was successfully holding back the sun’s exuberance, leaving a pre-dawn feeling.
Through my office window, I saw the counterpart to my morning meeting making her way from the parking lot to the church doors. I’d promised her the evening before following the Advent service that I’d have coffee ready and waiting when she arrived, and so I reached for and dropped a K-cup into my Keurig. A newly washed mug was already in waiting below. The reservoir was empty, so it took a quick moment to fill it. In an instant, the coffee was flowing. As it did, I was out and down the office hallway toward the darkened entryway searching for my guest.
I didn’t see her at first, although admittedly, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Assuming she may have taken a sideway into the restroom, I stood near the door to the offices. The day school children—all but a few of the 131 of them—were already in the church nave, gathered at the chancel and practicing for the Children’s Christmas service only a few weeks away. They were rehearsing the final hymn, a masterfully orchestrated rendition of “Silent Night,” which, if you’ve ever been to this Office of Evening Prayer service, then you know there is little to compare. Because I’ve participated in it for more than twenty years, I can see it now as I think on it.
The air is cool. The pews are filled. Family and friends sit compactly, yet happily. The nave and sanctuary are dimly lit. The candles throughout are fluttering, each child holding their own light. The Advent and Christmas décor is twinkling. The voices of the children hover above all of it on the pipe organ’s melodies, as if the collective sound is coming from the heavens above, rather than the earth beneath.
It’s always quite moving. Even the rehearsals can carry a listener into divine spaces.
And then I saw my guest. Actually, no. I didn’t see her. I heard her. She was barely a step from the entryway into the narthex—and she was crying. When she saw me approaching, she quickly began wiping the tears away only to begin sobbing more deeply.
“I needed this, today,” she choked. “This is the first thing God gave me when I walked into this place this morning, and I truly needed it.”
I was gentle with my words, making sure there was no shame in the moment. What she was doing was well and good in such a place. The Lord Himself knows I’ve been in similar situations. It can be overwhelming to hear the Gospel wrapped up and delivered in a way that truly communicates its divine origin. Tears are sometimes the soul’s only reply.
We made our way down the hallway to my office. We spent the next hour sipping coffee and talking about a multitude of things. Amidst the confession of some harder histories, she noted there was no place she’d ever experienced like Our Savior. Having been raised Christian, she fell away in the years beyond her 18th birthday. But in these latter days, the need for something more had begun to overwhelm her.
She’d visited countless other churches—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and mostly otherwise—still, she never found herself in a pew or stadium seat that actually communicated a station before eternity. She didn’t say it with the precision that I intend to share right now, but again, I’ve been given permission to tell this story.
Her words crafted a narrative of far too many churches that, by their practices, imply the selling of religion. They sought to draw her closer to their ranks in the same ways the world might try—rock bands, screens, you name it. But in the swirling confusion of their seat-filling stratagem, they never could quite reach that part of her insides that was suffering. Their Gospel of justification before God always seemed wired to her ability to produce good deeds (which, for the wayward, can only default into terror), or by making a personal choice (and yet, how can a spiritual corpse—someone who knows oneself to be dead in trespasses and sins—choose Jesus?). Their sacraments were symbols, bringing very little consolation or certainty to a broken heart in need of more than referring to Jesus, but actually meeting with Him—literally—and knowing He’s there for her.
But at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, there was the sense of something unalike to these others.
“Our Savior is so different,” she said, repeatedly. “You’re not like the other places I’ve been.”
For her, the facility in which she was currently seated was different. For her, it not only had a sign that bore the title “church,” but once inside, it seemed to be a dwelling place for someone or something so much more—something holy. And over the course of the several Sundays she’d attended, of the people greeting and sitting beside her, none gave any sense to having been gathered by some sort of baiting impetus. None in the surrounding pews were there because of a lead guitarist with amazing skill. None were there because the pastors were stand-apart showman among a sea of humdrum preachers. None were there for a show.
And she wasn’t, either. She was in search of a place where the Divine might dwell, and her hope was that when she found Him, He’d take her back.
Stirring in this humble hope, she discovered herself sitting, standing, kneeling, praying, confessing, singing beside hundreds of others—acknowledged sinners, just like her—being carried along by a historic liturgy of solemnity and reverence. She was immersed in a service that, while strange in comparison to everything she’d collided with prior, she knew could only have been born from the same soil as countless generations of worshippers before her, a framework that began in the tiny house churches of the first century, built on the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets, all in place and sprouting up through the centuries to aim penitently grieving offenders to a gracious God who desires nothing more than to come and sit with them, to give them a Gospel of power that assures our deeds play no part in our salvation, a Gospel that takes hold of spiritual corpses and brings them to life, a Gospel that heals them and draws them close to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is a Gospel that heralds our God as one who holds no ill will for the sinner. He loves us. He forgives us. And He promises to be with us no matter how dark our days may be.
We left the conversation as only the Word of God could rightly describe, with the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7), and we made plans to meet on Thursdays at the same time in order to dig deeper into these things.
So, why I am sharing this with you, especially since in this post-modern, radically individualized age such situations happen frequently enough around here that they can barely be considered peculiar?
Chiefly, because I want to remind the members of my own congregation (and I suppose anyone else who may be on their tiptoes peering through the window of our seemingly mundane, but otherworldly, lives here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan) of two things in particular.
First, be glad that there are churches that still deal in the more reverential realms of “holy.” Be glad there are churches that keep the boundaries between the Church and the culture as crisply distinct as can be. Such places are in the divine business of building foundations for the long haul. Sure, people have the things they like, their preferences, their styles. To each his own, I suppose. “What works for some might not work for others,” we’ll hear said. Still, I wonder if perhaps that’s a somewhat loaded response for protecting a church formed to oneself, a worship community created in one’s own favorite and time-limited self-image. When you’re gone, what’s next? Whatever the next guy likes to do, I guess. True or not, at a minimum, be well aware that people know—they just know—when they’re being entertained as opposed to being led into the substantive presence of a divine Someone who is far deeper than the wowing experientials indistinguishable from the world around them could ever reach. Sure, the self-image ways may speak of Jesus, but do they really point to Him? Do they really give nothing else but Him? Do they make the introduction? And will it last? Will it survive wars? Will it persist even among the prowling monsters of this age and the next? I wonder.
The second reason I share this returns us to the tears being shed in the Narthex. There’s a reason Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan continues putting our time, treasure, and back-breaking muscle into a tuition-free, preschool through eighth grade school. Not only is it an incomparable opportunity set before our community for getting kids out of the mind-bending education system that’s shoving ungodliness down their tiny throats, but most importantly, it stands as a beacon for immersing generations of little ones in the only message that saves. From this, it becomes nothing less than a longstanding avenue for others to hear that same message through those same little ones. All a person has to do is walk in the doors, and it won’t be long before the bright-beaming light of a Christian child will have its effect on the visitor. Children are the consequential emissaries of our school’s existence. And whether this work happens through the Children’s Christmas service, or it happens among their neighborhood friends, or it happens twenty years from now in a conversation with a fellow employee in the neighboring cubicle, what we’re doing here has limitless horizons that prove themselves as thriving in our children right now. And so we put everything into our efforts here. We give it our best. We teach and preach of Christ. We train in Godliness and reverence, learning the rites and ceremonies, the creeds, the prayers, the hymnodies sung by the early Church Fathers and their people before being fed to lions. And we gather all of it up and cherish all of it together as the wonderfully sturdy gift from a loving God that it is.
It becomes a home base for the kind of Christianity that doesn’t roll over, whether it’s before the next big distracting, anthropocentric, contemporary trend, or it’s an armed regiment sent by Caesar to snatch you away to your mortal doom.