I want to Give a quiet shout to GRACE for the inspiration for this post. It's been a while since I wrote anything and I guess this as good a time as any. She posted about her latest experience in a small unorganized church that she attended Sunday. It was sort of amusing and kind of disturbing at the same time. But, one thought that came to my mind was about how we judge others when we are the outsider looking in.
It really started me thinking/remembering about one similar experience that I had.
As most people who have read my blog at all know, I was in prison for 2 1/2 years. I am not proud of that fact, but it has helped to form who I am. So, it is just a fact. Any way, this experience took place while I was in prison.
I had gone to work release (which was actually at the same camp I was doing time in) and one of the so-called benefits of that status was to attend outside church. Well at first in this program (because it was brand new, and we were dealing with guards on a work camp who now had to run a work release as well) there was no service we could attend. But there was a man sent to find us and to eventually get them to bring us to one church service a week . Some times we got to go on Sunday mornings and sometimes it was a night service during the week. There were even a few times when we were able to do both. But it was a very unusual experience to say the least.
We attended this tiny church that was dubbed a "mission" in a very small country town in North Florida. It was in a store front that was probably a laundry mat in a previous life. It was divided into two main sections with plate glass in the front of both places and no connecting door, you had to go outside to go into the other room. Any way, it was small, there were kids from the surrounding area that the volunteer youth leader and his young wife would drive around and pick up. They would drive around, see kids in the street and ask them if they wanted to go to Sunday School.
The pastor was a short little fella with an unbelievable southern twang accompanied by a full on high nasal tone. The Congregation was a mix of White, Black and Hispanic, mostly poor people from the now almost ghost town where the church and work camp were located.
Now, I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, and I had many reasons for not attending church for a long time, once I was of an age where I could refuse to go. I was 16 I think when I told my mother one Sunday morning that I didn't want to go and (much to my surprise) she said,"ok". Before that day it was never an option, and I had not gone at all from the age of 16 to 29. I had spent every Sunday up until that day in a church somewhere and I was tired of doing what was expected of me. It was one of my first attempts at freedom (at least in my eyes).
Any way, I had been attending a Charismatic church before I actually went to prison, and what got me going there was the love that I sensed from God after I was charged, with a very serious crime and thought my life was over. God had showed me that He loved me in a very personal way and spoke directly to my heart and changed me forever when I was sitting in a county jail cell. So as soon as I could, I went to church and I kept going every chance I got, because that is how I understood I was supposed to honor God for his love for me.
I did however still have huge problems with the Southern Baptist denomination. I was very much against going back to a Baptist church.
Well, when you are in work release, you go to what ever church you can, if you want to go to church. So I went to an Independent Baptist Mission in a tiny broken down country town where most of the people you meet are dirt poor or corrections officers. Oh there were cotton and peanut farmers as well, they seemed to do ok for the most part.
It was quite superficial to me the way the order of service went. The pastor gave what some in my past have called a "sermonette" and we sang some old songs, and we usually had some food after the service. It was mostly a really nice gesture by some folks trying to ,"visit the prisoner".
I liked getting out from behind the fence, but I didn't see this as a spiritual feeding ground really, I sometimes had a problem taking it seriously at first.
Until, I think it was the third time I went to this mission and it was the first Sunday morning service we had gone to since I had been able to go. This seemed very much the same old thing with a sermonette and some hymns, along with a really nice group of people trying to do something good for the cause of Christ. Then there it was, the slap in the face. It was time to take up the offering. Now I will remind you that this was a group of people not exactly marked by wealth. There were maybe 15 people including about 6-8 prisoners in every service. They had abundance of pretty much nothing.
When it was time for the offering they didn't pass the plate around, much to my surprise. The pastor asked every one to come and bring their offering to the altar where there was a single offering plate that sat on a small pedestal . One by one, people went up and knelt around that plate and gave up what small offering they had to bring, including the short, ineloquent, full time construction worker/contractor, 60 year old pastor and his wife, holding hands.
I, never felt so convicted in my life about casting judgment on anyone as I did that morning. It changed me. God changed me that moment and opened my eyes to how real those people were. I never saw anything so beautiful in a church service before or since.
I guess I was wrong. I thought they were just going through the motions, I saw this as religion and as just an act that most of them were putting on, I didn't think it had anything to do with God; not really.
Then as I kept going they showed me how, in an unsophisticated way that some might discount as small meaningless gestures, to love people where they are. Sure, they were in an attractional model of church, so was I before and after attending there. But they got to know the kids they picked up off of the street and bought them school clothes and one night I remember every kid there got a new pair of shoes. And they would have celebrations for us prisoners when one of us was leaving or getting out. Even on our birthdays, we were treated like people who mattered to them. We were drug dealers, and thieves and violent criminals and they treated us like men. Not just men, family. We ate home made fried chicken and cakes and every bite tasted like the love of God for us. I never had it so good. I never saw Jesus in another person until my misconceptions were shattered by grace. And, even in the process of showing me how wrong I was about His people, God gently told me over and over that I am His, and He loves me right where I am , right now. I guess I should do the same.....
Thanks Grace, you really got me remembering something very important. The race is not given to the swift or the strong, but to he that endures to the end.
Thank You Jesus.