Monday, March 28, 2011

Apology not accepted

When we were in B.C., the thing I was most looking forward to was visiting a church I'd read a lot about. Unlike many B.C. churches, it doesn't have a million dollar facility, or several hundred families on the roster, or a unique blend of liturgical and modern media elements. This little group meeting in a school cafeteria caught my eye because it esteems people with disabilities.

From what I'd read about the pastor, I knew he believes God often speaks to those of us who can pretend we need nothing through the people society sees as needy. His books are full of stories of people who can't read, pointing to a verse in the Bible that says exactly what someone needed to hear. Or someone experiencing a divine moment as they spun in circles to the music with a nonverbal child.

When we walked in, we were greeted by a cheery older couple. Guy Smiley explained that the service would be different from what we were used to, the back would fill up with wheelchairs and other people from local residences with their caregivers, and would be very noisy (and isn't it great that our church welcomes them when other churches ask them to leave). We should sit at the front with the regular people.

My hubby T., the ever-gracious-and-conciliatory one, thought Guy meant "the people who attend regularly." I heard: "the people who don't have a diagnosis." I couldn't help wondering, if I'd come with my kids, where should we have sat then?

T. and I sat near the worship team, on the side of the semicircle, so we could see the back. I was troubled by the huge aisle between the front "regulars" and the back dwellers. This was not what I had expected.

The woman at the mic said, "If you have attended formal worship services, this church will be different from what you are used to. We are part family picnic, part Upper Room waiting on God." That summed it up pretty well. As the worship team sang, I looked around at the picnic - I saw people getting up to hug each other, walking up to the communion table at the front, and praying for each other in a little kitchen tent at the back. A little girl pranced up to the first row and planted a kiss on the pastor's cheek. It was a beautiful family scene.

And we were welcomed in: when T. and I stood at the communion together, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Guy Smiley and his wife were praying over us. T. and I sat down in the tent, and the couple from the church there prayed for us too. But no wheelchairs rolled to the Lord's table; no wheelchair squeezed into the tent.

The pastor's wife, who like her husband has also written a fabulous book on prayer, got up to speak about waiting for God through the tough stuff. A few minutes into her sharing about the challenges of life, a cry came from the back. She stopped. And interpreted. "He's saying 'What's the good news?' I'm not allowed to get up and speak here unless I give you good news." I gathered that this gentleman has a ministry of reminding preachers to get to the good stuff on a fairly regular basis! I hung on every word of the bad news and the good, because waiting on God was on my mind during this trip (and not only because we had to sit for three hours in traffic ready to slap each other silly, trying to reach Vancouver, which should have been a 4o minute trip). Running ahead of God is so much easier than waiting (and I'm not alone. Read Genesis: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the patriarchs of impatience).

So, in the spirit of patience, I'll give the church the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the wide aisle between the front and back isn't there to keep the "non-regulars" away. Maybe the people at the back requested more room to move their chairs around, or maybe their assistants - many of whom wouldn't come to church if they weren't being paid for it - are more comfortable observing the family picnic from a distance. Maybe, other Sundays, some one has rolled up to the prayer tent, and the regulars tripped over themselves clearing the furniture to make room.

What I'm not ready to accept, however, are Guy Smiley's disclaimers. May I suggest a new script? Here's the conversation between the greeter and visitor in Ange's head when she sees your picnic:

This church has saints crying out in words only God can understand: great, that's worship! Half the people are in wheelchairs: isn't it nice they choose to worship with you? People are free to rock, flap, spin, pant, or pick: awesome, I feel like I'm with family! If you're a church built on the passionate presence and heavenly messages of people living with differences, then celebrate it; don't apologize for it.