The man in the white dress was coming around. He handed out gifts to the kneeling children while we, a mixed group of silver-haired saints, sticky-faced toddlers, working class stiffs, and menopausal moms looked on. Some ancient tune was played in the background. The notes brought peace I didn't know I needed. He put the bread in my hand. I took it and ate. He gave me red wine. I took it and drank. Nothing had changed, but everything had. I got up, gave a slight bow, and as I walked away from the rail back to my seat I said, "THAT is why I joined a dead religion."
Dead. That's what I had always thought. That's what I was always told. Any stodgy church that doesn't have a rockin' band is dead. Any church that isn't growing is dead. Any church that limits the Holy Spirit is dead. Any church without a youth group is dead. Any church without a coffee shop is dead. Any church that's older than fifty years is dead. Why on earth would I ever want to set foot in a rotting graveyard like that?
Creeds are for zombies--the dumb moans of spiritless shells. Confessions are for the walking dead--lifeless words that can't cast heavenly spells. No, none of that 500-year-old Reformation garbage is for a "true believer." The time for that has come and gone. We've evolved...don't you know? In a "spirit filled" church, pastors must wear skinny jeans. They all do, you see. They tell funny jokes, give relevant references to the upcoming Star Wars film, and can life-coach like nobody's business...from the stage.
Pastor has the Words of Life but never uses them. He doesn't even know what to do with them, except throw out a nugget here or there. Mostly he keeps them shut in that book of red letters. Then, like the performer that he is, he skillfully turns the mirror on you and there you are: kind of happy about it because you love yourself most of all. Only it's not the squeaky clean image everyone around you sees. No, it's your blackened self. Your zombie self. Then he throws a sprinkling of magic words about a Jewish guy, and something about a cross, and tells you how to repay that holy man for what He's done. He deserves your best, after all. Pastor tells you to have fun with that and slips away as the words fall to the floor and the band takes over the room. The lights go down. The fog machine winds up.
Music repeats the word "I" over and over so God knows you mean it. Tears, it seems, must stream down cheeks. Bodies must sway while hands touch the sky. It's a sure sign you're really into worship. Maybe if you cry enough that Jewish man will know you're really scared and confused and that you don't know what the heck you're doing. Maybe then He'll hear your prayers and tip towards your tears. But not for you. He didn't tip toward you.
Plates must be passed and records must be checked for faithfulness. Don't forget, your faith shows through cheerful giving. And if it doesn't hurt a little, maybe you're not committed. You can't cheat God. He's always watching. Put it in the basket. You'll be blessed. Then that Jewish man will come closer to you.
Can you speak languages only angels understand? You must if you are a true believer. If you can't speak in tongues, maybe you're not one of us. Make it up, if you have to. Mumble something, anything. Just string together some slippery sounding words so the congregation thinks you can speak in tongues, and maybe they won't notice that you can't. The people will keep coming back. They will keep pressing their otherworldly hands on your body to make you one with them. Make you talk like them. Make you feel like you're together. You're all one big, Spirit-filled church. Everyone is close, so just whisper your prayers. They'll see your mouth move. It will make them happy, and maybe then they'll go away.
Give your time, your talents, your everything because Someone gave everything. Give your attention, your heart, your soul, your gifts, all you are and more. Pray more. There's still twenty-three hours in the day. You can't remember everything you forgot. Be diligent in prayer. Get it all out in fresh new words every time.
It's how it was for me. I felt like I was stuck in the Matrix with Neo. What are those red letters in the Bible? How am I supposed to even know what they mean? I know they must mean something. How do I hear Him speak, see His face, feel Him near, know He loves, and even maybe forgives the monster I see staring back at me from the mirror? Is God even real? Is any of this Christian stuff real?
The fog machines. The angels overhead and demons at my back. The weight was too heavy for me. Skinny jeans and skits, money and music, slain in the Spirit all around, but I wouldn't fall down. The swirling water a symbol of grace. A Saltine cracker a symbol of a Jewish carpenter I imagined I once knew. A thimbleful of grape juice. A symbol of Jesus' blood once spilled. Is He even real? Is any of this real? I just wanted it to stop.
I had passed by a little building with stained glass windows and a sign about a potluck a hundred times, never paying any attention.. The letters LC-MS were on the sign. What is an LC-MS anyway? Some kind of cult, probably. But I might look it up. Can't hurt to try.
A week later we went in. I remember sniffing the air suspiciously. Little old ladies with polyester jackets were everywhere. The off-key organ made me cringe. Kids were crying at inopportune times. The coffee was burnt. The songs...well, I didn't know them. Why did everyone stand up, then sit down, then stand up, then pray, then go up front, then come back and sit down, and on and on. I had no idea what was going on. This was not what I expected. But in a way, it was. And I loved it.
We were told about that Jewish guy. His name is Jesus. He is the Red Letters--the Word. We were told who we are to Him. That yes, we are blackened sinners, but He loves us anyway. He knew we were the walking dead heading towards a cliff, so He got on a cross to rescue us. He died, took away our sins, rose from the dead, and then He was gone. But, He's came back. And we are His saints, because He said we are--not because of what we do or say or think or feel. We are saints because He is who He said He is and He did what He said He'd do for us. We heard the man in the white dress reading the Words of Life--all of them, all the time. He told us what they mean. They are about Jesus. All of them, and now we are alive as a consequence. We receive the bread and receive the wine, and Jesus is there, Body and Blood, because He said He is. We are forgiven. We are free because He said we are free.
We do not have to wonder. We don't need to muster up tears, fake whispers to angels, or cast out demons from our past. We don't have to pray away our sins we can't even recall, or give 'til it hurts, or writhe on the floor in prophetic ecstasy, or visions, or dreams, or anything at all. Jesus gave Himself to us, and that's everything.
So what do we have to do now--my husband and I and our children? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Word says our work is to believe in Him and He does the rest. ALL of it. He saved us in baptism. He washed away our death because He was there in death for us. The Words of Life tell us. He saves us in the bread and wine--His Body and His Blood that brings new life. The Words of Life tell us. He comes to us through that book as it's read and preached to us. Every scarlet word between the covers tells us He was there and He is here now, and He will be there at the end.
The man in the white dress comes around. He hands out God's gifts to His kneeling children. Our pastor puts God's body in our waiting hands. We take it and eat. Jesus is there. Our pastor gives us sweet red wine. We take it and drink. Jesus is there. Forgiveness. Forgiven and free. For real. The pastor speaks the Word that tells us this is true. Then we get up. We give a slight bow out of respect for the Holy of Holies, and as we walk back to our seat, I say to myself, "THAT is why I joined a dead religion."
Tanya Saueressig-Nevin is a member at Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Chesterfield, Missouri.
Created: December 11th, 2015