After being out of town for several weeks, I walked through the main entrance of the church building and into the foyer. As always there was a buzz of activity; familiar faces were there greeting one another, engaging in small talk and shaking hands with visitors. I was glad to be back, but at the same time dreading the inevitable peppering of questions regarding my absence of several weeks.
I was bracing for the usual “welcome back” comments, the real intent of which was to find out why I hadn’t been at church. The “we missed you” comments are always predictable and go something like, “I sure did miss you. Were you visiting at such and such congregation with your cousin?” Or, “Where did you worship while you were on vacation?” Or a simple, “Glad to see you back” with an expectant pause designed to allow one to explain his or her absence. Of course, these are all polite, but thinly veiled attempts to determine if I’d been attending church at a “sound” congregation. But this time it didn’t happen.
On this morning there were none of the usual remarks designed to find out where I’d been so that they could gauge my commitment and faithfulness. There were no judgemental glances nor accusations disguised as caring and sincere inquiries. Everyone who approached me was warm and was genuinely delighted to see me again. There were only sincere greetings with no comments at all as to my whereabouts. I was glad to receive such a positive greeting from my brothers and sisters in Christ, but it put me a little off balance. As I made my way to a pew I wondered, what happened around here while I was gone?
As the worship period got underway the order of services were the same as always, but the atmosphere was different somehow - in a good kind of way. More than once visitors to my congregation have remarked about how somber everyone is during the worship. We even had one visiting preacher comment that he’d been to funerals where people’s mood was better. It wasn’t that way this morning! Everyone had a smile and it was obvious they were happy to be assembled together.
The opening prayer was encouraging and different. Gone were the usual platitudes “guide, guard and direct”, “ready recollection”, “another portion of thy word”, and so on. No apprehension was expressed in the prayer which manifested itself by asking God to help us do everything “decently and in order” by His authority. It seemed clear that the one leading us in prayer knew that God wasn’t eager to find fault with us. The Holy Spirit was invited to continue the transformation of our hearts and minds so that our everyday actions would be in accord with God’s desires. The usual pleading with God to forgive our sins was also absent. Instead, the prayer expressed gratitude to God because He had already forgiven us once and for all when Jesus sacrificed Himself to take away all of our sins - past, present and future!
Perhaps my biggest surprise occured when the singing began. I’ve never heard such beautiful and joyful singing in my congregation. It was self-evident that my siblings in the Lord were singing on this particular day not because they were compelled by a command to sing, but because it was a natural response to the loving-kindness of God. It was on the inside and it had to come out. A few people even felt the liberty to just close their eyes and listen to the words being sung and reflect upon them. Gone was the legalistic mindset that had been present just a few weeks ago which demanded that every person must sing (not merely listen) to be pleasing to God. While I was gone, somehow these people had come to understand that serving God wasn’t about anxiously obeying a list of rules and regulations, hoping against hope that He will allow us into Heaven on Judgement day.
It was now time for the sermon. I was fairly certain the preacher was going to let us have it. What had gone on so far this morning was pushing the bounds of acceptability within some circles of our “brotherhood.” Nothing had been done that was over the top and it was certainly all sincere and proper. However, our minister and elders are very self-conscience about what other preachers and congregations think about us and tend to defer to the most pharisaic members of our tribe. This fact had been a source of discouragement to me for a long time.
To my pleasant surprise the preacher did not rebuke us. He did not accuse us of being irreverent or of not being serious enough in the presence of God. As a matter of fact the sermon was not his usual style at all. There were no unfavorable comments about “the liberals” or “the denominations.” There were no warnings about straying from the pattern. The typical sermon topics such as proper use of the treasury, weddings and funerals in the building, church kitchens, the five acts of worship, etc. were not mentioned. The sermon was very encouraging and practical. I could apply it in my everyday life in such a way as to help me become more like Jesus, and that made the sermon memorable.
I started to find it very hard to focus on the preacher’s lesson because my mind kept trying to figure out just what had brought about this change in my congregation. These were all the same people, but they had radically changed. As the sermon continued I also continued to mull over these events and speculate about how these things could be. Just as I was starting to feel like I was reaching a conclusion about the whole matter, I was jarred from my thoughts by an unwelcome noise. Time was up. The alarm clock was going off, and it was time to wake up and get ready for church. As I began to realize it was only a dream, disappointment gave way to dread as I remembered that I hadn’t attended my home congregation for a few weeks.
As I got dressed, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the ideas that occured in my sleep. Even in my dream I was under no illusion that my church had somehow been magically transformed into a flawless and perfect congregation. Nevertheless, the experience had already begun to change my attitude and outlook for the better. I knew from past experience that God honors prayers to gain greater insight into His truth. At that moment I resolved to ask God for that very thing, and to have the courage to follow wherever the truth may lead.
And just like that, I wasn’t worried about all the questions I was about to be asked regarding my absence.