come to the table of grace.

Come to the table of grace; come to the table of grace; this is God’s table, it’s not yours or mine; come to the table of grace.

 

My journey of the last ten months is well-documented in my blog – I’ve told the story time and time again and I find myself tempted to re-tell it again and again and again and again and

-finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to walk forward in it. It’s like being in a room, then the lights are switched off completely. You feel around, you get your bearing, and then you start walking.

That was me and church. The lights shut off when I left. Now I’m starting to move a little bit.

I wrote extensively on this a few months ago, but I’ve found that rediscovering Christianity in a context other than ministry is a whole new beast. When you’re released from the pressure or even necessity of “pouring into” others, you’re ironically unmotivated to go to church. Or, maybe that’s just me.

When I was trying new churches, everything – and nothing – felt just like the church I tried before. The music, the emphatic preaching, the free coffee, the children’s ministry with some catchy name, the outreach, the college ministry, the attempt to be diverse in personality and disposition, etc.

It was all very tired.

I was very tired.

I didn’t want to join your small group – especially when I didn’t know anyone. I wished the greeting time didn’t last five minutes – I can get to know someone at lunch, but trying to do it in a loud group of people is just awkward. I could just go somewhere, have a red solo cup, and do the same thing and it’s a lot more fun. I didn’t really want your (bad) rendition of that song I could hear on the radio.

[I realize these are cynical sentiments, and I own that and acknowledge it.]

I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ve realized that these things aren’t necessarily bad about church – but maybe that different people need different things in church. (by saying ‘maybe,’ I really want to assert this as fact but I’m trying to write with a personal spin so maybe I shouldn’t try to assert facts.) As a guy who was in a pretty modern church for a long time, and a guy who still felt dry when he want to other modern churches, and who was really frustrated trying to find God in the bright lights, who was really frustrated when some associate pastor (who puts the “ass” in associate…too far?) did all of my thinking for me and spent twenty minutes after the sermon telling us what we should do now that we heard what we did, who was really frustrated with someone preaching to a very specific demographic of people (working-class men who had families) when really, the gospel will go to everyone: rich, poor, male, female, black, white, Jew, Gentile, etc. You don’t need to spin your series to someone in particular. If you’re gonna aim at a specific demographic, make a small group or write a damn book. Don’t waste everyone’s time.

Anyway, don’t be mistaken into thinking that I find any solace or relief in ranting and being cynical about church – because I really don’t. I’m sort of mad at myself for getting into all of that, but at the same time, I am not the type to edit my own writing (probably why it’ll never take off!) My heart is at a little less ease after writing that, but I’m getting to the point now.

Flash back to, oh, I can’t even remember…probably August. My friend Liz and I decided we wanted to try a nice, mainline church. Something old, traditional.

We wander into this wonderful, 200-year-old Presbyterian church on Main St. and we both fall in love with it. All of a sudden, I’m in this wonderful place where you take less than one minute to shake hands, everyone smiles and it’s not fake, and then you sit down, have brief announcements, have a call to worship, sing a hymn, pray publicly and privately, hear a sermon, sing again, take up an offering, and then my favorite part – we go and take communion.

Everyone in the church fills the front three pews, and the pastors serve you communion. As you receive the bread, whoever hands it to you says, “the bread of heaven.” You respond with, “amen.” Then you pass it on and say to the next person, “the bread of heaven,” and they say, “amen.” (it’s a good, old-fashioned “ah-men,” too. Not this “eh-men.”) And then you get the cup, when someone says, “the cup of salvation.” And you say, “amen.” Oh, and the cup is real wine. These Presbyterians aren’t afraid. If you don’t want wine, you can have grape juice – it’s on the outer rim of cups in the tray they hand you. But I always drink the real wine.

Then, as we reflect and eat, we sing. We sing a simple song that says, “come to the table of grace, come to the table of grace. It is God’s table, it’s not yours or mine, come to the table of grace.”

And I take solace in those words. I take solace in the act of communion now, moreso than I ever did before. I don’t need a big, long reflection on it. I love the invitation. I love that we’re all coming to the table, the table isn’t coming to us. It’s our choice. There’s something about the act of coming to the table that hits me hard and sinks really deep. It’s like God is having you over for dinner.

Recently, I went home to my parents house, because I needed a night to relax. When I’m home, I’m out of my head, and I feel welcomed, warm, and invited. I don’t have to fix anything, pay any bills there, clean anything, I barely even have to make my bed when I stay over (I do, because my mom wants me to!)

Communion is like that. It’s like a welcoming, a chance to take off burdens. It’s an invitation to bring them, and lay them down. Even though my burdens involve years of baggage of ministry and church, all the latter frustrations, all the things that happen to me and through me in the work week – I still get to come. Even though twenty minutes earlier, I had confessed all of the things I did this week in a silent prayer, I’m still invited. Even though the woman to my right is kinder, older, and wiser than I am, I’m invited. Even though the gentleman in front of me has worked longer and harder than I have in my life and has been more generous with his resources than I have, I’m still invited.

It’s the table of grace, and in the midst of this crazy, crazy life, grace is the thing I need more than anything else.

(oh, and the service only lasts an hour. An hour.)

When we’re released, the pastor quotes Numbers 6:24-26 to us, the priestly blessing to the people of Israel, and I leave you with this:

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

one step forward…[a discourse on change and kindness.]

one step forward. one small, timid step forward.

you meet the girl. you leave the job. you move to the new city. you make the big phone call. you book the trip. you make the first step.

one more step. this time with just a hint of swagger.

you make a gesture. you look for the new niche. you start looking for your place in the world. you go to the interview.

one more step.

you meet the family. you get the callback. you find your favorite restaurant. you start the networking process. you find friends. you start to feel at home.

one more step.

you say, “I love you.” You get the job. you become a regular. people know your name.  It starts to become your city, and you start to fall in love with it.

one step back.

a little fight. a realization that sometimes the job is stressful. a 60-hour week. one wrong experience at just the wrong time and all of a sudden it’s not what you think it was.

one more step back.

the streets don’t feel familiar. you and your significant other feel like strangers. you mess up the big project. the audience “boos” you.

before you know it, you have the progress only of the initial step. and then you start to wonder if making that step was the right decision.

Sometimes, you just need to take a second.

you need a second to take stock, you need a second to take a break. maybe you need a second to go home and see your parents, or a second to go see your old stomping grounds. You need a second to remember where you come from and who you are, and to put your progress in perspective. You need a second to realize that you’re capable of all of this change,  and even if you take another step back – breaking up, losing the job, feeling out of sorts at the new place or in the new city, whatever it is – you still were brave enough to take the first step, even if your first step wasn’t as big as someone else’s first step. To realize that you’ve grown, and your strides forward have become longer and longer and your steps backwards are actually much smaller every time you take one. Even if all you take is steps backward – even if you feel like you’re telling the same story and over and over again until it makes more sense to you, even if you feel weak, even if you, in your humanity, feel dizzy and overwhelmed by all that’s changed – by the break-up, by the people you saw in the summer but have disappeared by the fall, by the hobbies you had when you were younger and now don’t go near, by the old job you wonder if you’d still love, by everything that’s changed – you’re not alone in it all. If the world’s changing for you, the world is changing for everyone.

And realize that the most important thing, above anything else, is kindness. Kindness to others, yes, but kindness also to yourself. After all, those two kindnesses should be hand-in-hand, you are you love your neighbor as yourself, which means you are to love your neighbor and you are to love yourself, and one is not more important than the other.

So take a second. Breathe. Figure out what your heart needs and when it needs it, and do it. Sometimes you have to work hard, sometimes you have to rest. Sometimes you have to fight, sometimes you have to retreat. Sometimes you don’t have time and you have to match the pace of life, other times you have to dictate the pace yourself.

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Whatever you do, be kind. And never stop looking forward, even if you have to step backwards for a moment.