I’m glad I went

It was a milestone celebration at a church a plane ride away from my home. It’s an outstanding church, and I was part of it a long time ago. The church has long been known for its active involvement in social justice. Sunday morning is big, but it’s a seven-days-a-week church. It contributed to my theological education for two years.

Part of my role was on-the-job training in campus ministry at an adjacent prestigious university. More visible to the congregation was my guitar playing regularly in “folk worship” and occasional other times. One Sunday a month, the Sunday worship service was one I helped plan. Two other musicians — a pianist and an upright bass player — and I led it. I also participated in myriad meetings, retreats and anti-war protests. I think I was a brash enough young adult to speak my mind in most gatherings. Shortly before I completed my degree and moved away from the area, I preached there one Sunday morning. My “License to Preach and Administer the Sacraments” was granted by that congregation.

I enjoyed the recent celebration. It was good to be back in the building. The liturgy and other activities were appropriate and meaningful. As the history of the church was recounted, a good chunk of it was presented by some of the very people with whom I have a history. They covered a lot of that shared history.


At this point, the cynical reader might expect the insertion of a “But.” Not here, though. It’s more of a “That said. . . .”


I went with hope but not delusion. There were several people still in the church that I remembered from my time there. It would’ve been great if many/most (all??) had greeted me like a long-lost friend. Yet I had visited a couple of years ago, and only two of those remembered me. One was someone with whom I had been close. The other was someone I knew, though not as well as a couple of people who seemed to have no recollection of me. I expected it would be the same this time, while holding out hope that the occasion and my being there for much of the day would jog some more memories.


It was as expected. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. The same two seemed to be the only ones who remembered me, though when I spoke to others, I made a point of saying when I had been there.


Countless times, I’ve heard someone say about some service opportunity in which they’ve participated, “I got more from them than they got from me.” I guess I always realized this to be true about my time at this church. I just wish the score hadn’t been so lopsided.


I knew going in that I was at most a blip on the screen in the long history of a church filled with dynamic individuals. I had just thought — wished rather — that the blip were less imperceptible. It wouldn’t be honest not to admit to feeling some disappointment, yet I wasn’t blindsided.


Still, it was good to be in a place with a lot of great memories. To see faces still recognizable despite the years, even if mine wasn’t recognizable to them. To recount the illustrious history of the congregation and to see that the characteristics that drew me to them are still at work today.


I enjoyed the personal memories that flashed through my mind. I was able to share a couple of these verbally with one person or another. Yet feeling more like a welcomed guest than a returning family member, I found I was taking in the festivities primarily from a third-person point of view. I know and appreciate that for many there it was first-person.


To resort to an overused cliche, it was the hand I was dealt. So I played it. I was just glad to be in the game. It was a learning and a growing experience.

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Note of possible interest: This is the church to which I referred in “Wearing Your ‘Sunday Best’” when I said, “I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up.” For this recent occasion, I was the most dressed up I have ever been in that church building — dress pants, button down shirt and sports jacket, along with my black sneakers and, of course, no tie.

Characters as humans

Early in 2018, I was a supporting character in a Playmakers Repertory Company production of “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath. The drama is set in a mega church, complete with choir, which is on stage for about 2/3 of the play. I sang in the choir for 10 performances.

There are five main characters. As created by the playwright and presented by the actors, they are all full-dimension human beings. I found in each things with which to agree and to disagree. All were sincere individuals struggling with their beliefs.

Some people who saw the play missed a lot of what it offered because they chose to see the characters as flat.

The action centers around some changing beliefs about heaven and hell that the church’s pastor shares from the pulpit and the fallout therefrom.
For one friend, generally open-minded about most things, mega church means religious right. He wrote the pastor off as “a Billy Graham,” showing little (or no) interest in what happens to him and those around him. There’s some irony here in that the new theology the pastor espouses is not something Rev. Graham would believe in. Also, Billy Graham was never pastor of a mega church. But such distinctions don’t matter when one deals in stereotypes.

Another friend, who is Jewish, dismissed the whole play with “I’m of another persuasion.” It angered my wife, who also is Jewish, to hear this. This same man, I am sure, would never, ever dismiss a drama about African Americans because he’s not of that race.

The theological themes raised were not issues that only Christians ponder. Further, one doesn’t have to focus on the theological questions. They play works as a study of relationships and personal issues. Some who have little or no use for religion may have tuned out a compelling human drama.

During some performances more than others, there would be those in the audience who would laugh at lines that were not funny. Did they just not get the seriousness of what was going on? Or did they not care to? This was during a time when the pastor is being taken to task. Perhaps some in the audience figured, “I’m glad to see this Billy Graham mocked.” Maybe others, conversely, held on to the conservative view from which this man departed and thus were glad to see him put in his place.

In either case, they were flattening his character and that of the person questioning him.

Playmakers Repertory Company photo.