Listen to “Crossing Over” by Fred Smith
The church service before I taught Sunday School was not to my taste. It’s hard for me to believe God finds this edifying. The music was too loud and hands were raised throughout the worship center, perhaps tentatively at first, but then accompanied by a little swaying and pointing toward the ceiling. People started to move their lips. Murmurs were heard. I have thought about recommending we rope off a special section at the back for people so inclined. Thick Plexiglas shields would only add to the security.
Furthermore, we’ve switched from offering plates to those velvet bags for muffling the sound of small gifts of change. That’s fine but they keep you from seeing what others are putting in. And the large screens make the service feel more like Cinemark than church. We all miss going to movies but is this the way to respond? Worse, it also makes it more difficult to establish eye contact with the pastor letting him know when he’s off course.
Years ago, I started coming in late to miss the “shake some hands and hug some necks” ritual. In that way, the pandemic has been a personal blessing. Social distancing is the silver lining. As well, once I’m down I don’t like to get back up or have perfect strangers (especially those hand-raisers) grab me without warning. And I’ve started leaving early to miss the crowds at the bookstore with all the racks of trinkets, plaques and books by young authors on topics that ceased being relevant or interesting to me years ago. By the time I get to my class I am impatient to get started but have to wait for everyone loitering in the halls talking.
The Sunday School lesson was from Paul’s teaching on how we are to treat our weaker brothers. It’s one of my favorite passages to deliver as it gives me an opportunity to speak to my fundamentalist friends about the freedoms I enjoy as a mature believer. I like to tell them about the pleasant land they are missing – the land that lies across the dividing river of legalism and keeps them forever wandering in the wilderness of rules and regulations.
I know this wilderness well and, sometimes, I spend most of the lesson describing the parched terrain and paths leading to nowhere but frustration. I go to great pains to make it clear how much those of us who are mature want to help them – our weaker brothers – cross over to the other side full of the milk and honey of liberty.
But this week, somewhere between the worship center and my class (maybe near the new and distracting coffee bar), I had an unexpected and unsettling thought. “What is the primary characteristic of the weaker brother?”
The answer was easy – but troubling. It is to condemn the joy and freedom of others. It is to be disdainful of them, even to the point of despising their liberty. It is the discomfort the legalist feels around people without lists of things to do to stay right with God. Why? Because it is jarring to the way we think God prefers us to worship – traditional hymns, solid exposition, nodding not hugging, calmness, and being on time.
Like the new believers who came to the church in Rome with misconceptions about what is necessary to please God, my ideas about the way church should be had become a mark of my own immaturity. I had my own rigid set of rules and regulations about church based on my personal preferences and my belief that God and I were in agreement about why things needed to be done in a certain way. Many people in our congregation had crossed over the river without me knowing it, and not just in their raising hands, hugging and enjoying loud music. Finding a bridge or a shallow spot, they had moved from the fear of displeasing a stern and demanding God to finding joy and delight.
In a very real but disturbing way, I realized I was the one wandering around in the dry terrain of the way things used to be. I had become the weaker brother with my uneasy conscience and preferences based on a check list of what pleases God. I had moved without knowing from the perch of rolling my eyes and looking down on people who were immature to the place I had worked so hard to leave behind.
While I don’t think you’ll see me next Sunday swaying and pointing, I may at least recover some of the joy and peace Paul describes in a fellowship where everyone is confident and fully convinced even when they are different.
Art by Thomas Hart Benton