Today’s guest post was written by my friend Greg Garrett, a talented teacher, preacher, speaker, and writer of fiction, memoir, essays, and reflections about religion and popular culture. (Yep, he’s a busy guy.) Greg’s most recent book, The Other Jesus, hit the shelves yesterday. He contributes regularly to Patheos and The Thoughtful Christian, and blogs at The Other Jesus. If you like what he says here, be sure to check out his other writing.
For much of my life I believed churches were buildings filled with fake and/or stupid people gathered in self-congratulatory glee to celebrate what they perceived as their superiority and their set-apartness. On the one occasion in my formative years when church might have proved me wrong, when my parents divorced and I became the only child of divorce in my youth group, my particular church failed spectacularly.
It ostracized my mother, as though divorce were somehow contagious. It treated me as though I were a freak, and that treatment certainly encouraged me to feel that I was. On the one occasion when my church could have been a vehicle for God’s love, grace, and inclusion, it instead pushed my family and me out the door, where I remained, until I was rescued by another faith community, St. James Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.
That is when I discovered what a church is actually supposed to do: rescue people.
I came to St. James through a series of coincidences and spirit moves. I didn’t really want to go to church, because I thought I understood all about church.
But I also had the feeling I really really was supposed to do this.
And I was really really quite badly messed up. Depression had its fingers around my throat, and I figured I was down to the air in my lungs and then I was done for. And so on a Sunday morning in 2001, I walked into St. James, took a seat in the back pew, looked around.
The church filled up, black and white and all the colors of the rainbow gathering around me. African American matrons in gorgeous hats. Gay white guys. Young couples.
I was scared to death, but people smiled at me, and the matron on my row gladly scooted over to make room when I sat down, and then they all began to sing.
And my Lord how they did sing, about joy and pain and hope, and here was I, shivering with fear, listening and marveling as they sang about faithful life together. When they passed the Peace of Christ midway through the service, it seemed that almost every member embraced every other member. It was like a love feast.
And then when the priest, Greg Rickel, stood behind the altar to do communion, he offered an invitation that was open to everyone.
“Wherever you are in your walk of faith,” he said, words that would save my life, “you are welcome at this table.”
I wasn’t saved just by words, though, or by some kind of Jesus-magic. I was saved by Greg and the people of St. James. They welcomed me, loved me, nurtured me.
And, when I was able to breathe normally again, they sent me out to save others.
Because that is what a church is: community and encouragement and challenge.
And the face of God’s love in the world, when it does its job right.