Dave Comes Home

A story from within the life of my community

The first time Dave came to church, he was pretty tentative.

Frank, a regular attendee, had pretty much drug him there, and Dave was looking a lot like someone who had been drug there.

He was fine before the service started, but when the prelude music started, he bolted for the door and sat outside, chain smoking cigarettes. Frank offered up Dave during prayer request time, saying Dave had a long history of drug abuse, and that while he is sober now, his family had pretty much disowned him. And because his family is heavily involved in the church, Dave does not do church well.

When Frank said that Dave did not do church well, there were three or four “Me eithers!” shouted from the rest of the congregation. One of them may have been me.

In any event, after the benediction, Dave wandered back in and joined us for the potluck dinner we had scheduled for that day.

I figured we would never see him again.

The next week, in come Frank and Dave, five minutes before the service starts. Dave sits down, opens a hymnal and manages to stick with us through the first song, at which point he heads for the door and chain smokes the rest of the service.

The following week, Dave makes it until after prayers of the people, but when I start in on the ancient words of institution that begin communion (“On the night he was arrested, the Lord Jesus took the bread…”), Dave is gone.

The fourth week, he sits all the way through the words of institution. Then I say what I always say:

There are a lot of different theories in the church about who is allowed to take part in communion. But here, we take the position that this table isn’t my table, or even the church’s table, but that this table belongs to Jesus. And at Jesus’ table, everyone gets to eat.

So here, we don’t care what you have done, or what your past is like, or if you’ve been baptized or not. All that matters here is that you want to eat at Jesus’ table. If you do, then you can take communion with us.

The line forms in the middle, and one by one, folks line up to accept the bread and dip it in the cup. Dave is the last in line.

“Can I really take communion?” he whispers as he approaches me.

“Of course,” I say, as I hand him the bread.

Dave takes it and dips it in the cup, smacking his lips as he devours the juice soaked bread. Then he wanders back to his seat and weeps silently as I pronounce the benediction. And before we’re done saying amen, Dave is out the door.

On Monday, Dave pops by the office.

“You know what I did last night,” he asks. “I wrote my mom.”

“Really? How long has it been since you talked to her?,” I ask.

“A long time. Maybe 20 years. Anyway, I told her that for the first time in years and years, I had been to a church and had taken communion. I thought she would want to know.”

I bet she did. And I thought you might want to know, too.

God didn’t make America

Lord almighty, the prayers that will be offered up today, asking God to bless us.

When the idolatry of America worship gets to be too much to bear, I re-read this passage from Will Campbell.

# # #

“I believe God made the St. Lawrence River, and the Rio Grande River, and the China Sea and the English Channel, but I don’t believe God made America, or Canada, or Mexico, or England, or China. Man did that. . . .

It is doubtful that there has ever been a nation established for bad reasons. Nations are always established to escape tyranny, to combat evil, to find freedom, to reach heaven. Man has always been able to desire to build a heaven. But it seems he has never been able to admit that he didn’t pull it off. So he keeps insisting that he did pull it off.

And that is really what patriotism is all about. It is the insistence that what we have done is sacred. It is that transference of allegiance from what God did in creating the whole wide world to what we have done with (or to) a little sliver of it.

Patriotism is immoral. Flying a national flag—any national flag—in a church house is a symbol of idolatry. Singing ‘God Bless America’ in a Christian service is blasphemy. Patriotism is immoral because it is a violation of the First Commandment.” – Will D. Campbell, “I Love My Country: Christ Have Mercy,” Motive (December, 1969)

Praying for our enemies

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to pray for those who persecute us, and to love our enemies.

Yeah.

I’m not always good at that part, either.

But I want to be. And I know it isn’t impossible to do it, because others have done it.

For example, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich was a Serbian bishop in the last century who spoke out against Nazism until he was arrested and taken to Dachau.

I know, right?

And that guy? He wrote this prayer.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

From Prayers By the Lake, by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich.

Keep the faith

The book my friend had written was on the table. He had signed it for me, with the inscription saying “Keep the faith!”

Faith is something that is often hard for me. I am, after all, a Christian Humanist. I tend to discount supernatural ideas and focus on people. I told that to my friend.

He just looked at me.

“Don’t be silly. Of course you are a man of faith. Where’s a Bible?”

He flipped around, toward the back, and found Hebrews 11:1, and asked me to read it out loud.

I had memorized it back in Sunday School in the King James English, but I have come to prefer it in the highly readable, and sadly underused, JB Phillips translation.

“Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see.”

My friend looked up at me from his chair.

“What do you hope for Hugh? What do you hope is real? What do you hope to be true?”

Damn.

It turns out my friend was right: I am a man of faith.

Because while I am often unsure of what I believe, I have zero doubts about what I hope for. And while I don’t know what is true, I know what I hope is true.

And I bet you do, too.

So keep the faith.

Will I be safe?

Often, when I am talking to privileged church folks about stepping beyond their walls and following Jesus into the broader world – a world where people are hungry, homeless, and without friends – the heads are nodding and everyone is on board. But then somebody will bring up safety.

“If we go into that neighborhood, will we be safe?”

“If we let those people on our property, will we be safe?”

“I don’t want to have anything to do with those people, because it makes me feel unsafe.”

Of all the idols the American white church loves to worship, none frustrates me as much as the worship of Safety. This isn’t the same thing as taking precautions to protect yourself, or your community. Rather, the fetishizing of safety prevents you from ever leaving the church building itself.

“Let’s feed the hungry!”
“Is that safe?”

“We should get to know people in that neighborhood downtown!”
“That neighborhood isn’t safe.”

“That Muslim woman is being harassed. I am going to go intervene.”

“Don’t – that isn’t safe.”

Our preoccupation with safety prevents us from being our best selves, from making the world better, from taking risks that matter, from making the world as it is into the world as it could be.

Don’t mishear me: There are legitimate concerns about making sure people are safe. But that often isn’t what we are really talking about in these conversations. More often than not, when we say we don’t feel safe, what we really mean is that we don’t feel comfortable.  And if that is what is holding us back, we have some reconsidering to do.