COLUMN: Ed Olfert — April 3, 2014

Ed Olfert
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Two different encounters prod my thinking today.

Last Friday, a friend, someone whom I appreciate a good deal, got in my face and announced to me that on the weekend, his plan was to get “totally stoned and pissed.” “After all,” “Jerry” maintained, “What else is there to do on a weekend?”

Jerry has a bit of a provocative streak. I responded, also in a bit of a provocative vein, “Well, you could go to church.”

Jerry was not done with his passionate repartee. “Ed, if I ever set foot in the door of a church, both that church and me, we’d just burst into flames!” When I asked why that might be, Jerry shook his head ruefully. “Ed, I’ve done some bad stuff in my day!”

The other encounter occurred the next day, as Holly and I lunched in a local restaurant. In a booth near us sat, we guessed, three generations of family. Two parents, approaching my age, a pair of daughters, early twenties, and a little girl, perhaps a year and a half old. The wee one appeared to belong to the younger of the daughters.

The blond cherub must have had a bit of a food mishap. The next time we took note, the young mom was returning from the washroom, baby under one arm, baby’s blouse under the other. Grandpa (we assumed) stood to meet her, a short stocky fellow, reached for the wee one, picked her up, and she grinned, then immediately melted her blond head and perfect shirtless body onto his shoulder, totally relaxed. At the same moment Holly noted, “That’s a safe place for her,” I was observing, “She’s been there before.”

My pondering this week connected those two glimpses.

In the first, the exchange with my friend, Jerry, I went away somewhat angry. Certainly not at Jerry, he’s simply too refreshing to be mad at. No, angry at the way we as “church” have portrayed ourselves, have sold ourselves, have defined what it means to enter the “holy” doors. Jerry’s impression of church might be due to an unfortunate incident, or a series of incidents that were far from my control. But I, we, have done nothing to disabuse Jerry of that notion, the notion that church is for “Godly” or “perfect” people, that he doesn’t belong there.

Looking for God, glimpsing God lessons, these happen only when we acknowledge that we are broken, that we are weak. At some level, I believe, church goers know this.

Then why can’t we live that way? Then why can’t we portray our places of worship, our sanctuaries that way? Why can’t our church signs and church names define us as screw ups, as mixed up and confused, as broken people looking for a little hope?

The name of the church where I find myself on Sundays begins with the word, “Grace.” It’s a good word, a Biblical word, a hopeful word. But I wonder, as I look up at the sign, is it a word that intimidates Jerry and his ilk? Does it suggest to them that the folks that will be ensconced in the Grace pews are totally “grace-filled,” ready to pass on the perfect goodness of God through equally perfect goodness of their own?

Tain’t so. We are, instead, pretty ordinary folks. We carry stories probably not too different from the “bad stuff” to which Jerry alluded. We screw up. I expect most churches have about the same folks, with similar stories.

I picture again the little waif, swept up into Grandpa’s arms, throwing herself onto his broad shoulder, her muscles relaxed. There is trust there, there is a relationship of love.

How can we present a similar image of church to Jerry? How can we sweep him up, put arms around him, and allow him to melt into the safety and trust that we hopefully, represent? How can we set aside the structure, the history, the traditions, the rules, that stand in the way of simple and warm acceptance?

Jerry, we need you. You have holy lessons to offer.

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