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A Lenten Lesson: Of What Use Is The Church, If We Won’t Make Room At The Cross

We are nearing the end of this year’s Lenten Season.  And I, like many other Christians, have committed this time from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection Sunday, to increase religious practices like prayer, fasting, and service to others. This is also a time of great self-reflection.  I witnessed an interaction the other day and I can’t stop thinking about the church and "If we are not careful will our actions drive away the very people we have been praying to come into the church all because we have not done our best to address and change church culture that lends to an atmosphere of bias and subtle micro-aggressions that are actually exclusive rather than inclusive." My witness of this interaction provoked much thought and an old hymn came to mind, “There is room at the cross”. I wondered, "Is the church being intentional to make room at the cross for sinners to feel free to come to Jesus?"  Sinners must be welcomed into the church, onto the pew to hear the Word, and then, invited to come to the altar, at the feet of Jesus where God has drawn, Right?  However, after the incident, I questioned the impact of my role as a witness and the actions of another; and a had the church visitor felt completely welcomed, completely included, and completely at home.  I don’t know, but this is what happened. 

First, as a disclaimer, I share this with grace and the delicacy of care, and not to condemn or to make anyone feel bad.  I am convinced that we are all sinners saved by grace.  However, the irony of witnessing this exchange that occurred during Lent, during a church service, happened during a time of self-reflection, and subsequently, the preached message that morning was titled, This is Toxic (Matthew 21:12-13).  In this chapter we find Jesus performing an earthly judgment of detoxification in the Temple after finding it in what could be called a “toxic” state due to the improper use (den of thieves) instead of the House of Prayer.  Lord have mercy on us, the church. 

I was visiting my local church. I sat eager to worship and hear the preached word.  The service had started, and I was enjoying the atmosphere of praise and worship.  I had arrived early, had a good end seat, and there was only one other woman at the opposite end of the row.  An Usher caught my attention, as she was directing a visitor to occupy one of the seats that separated me and my row mate.  Let me say, I don’t know if he was a visitor or not.  I had no facts to validate this first assumption.   We made only slight eye contact as he took his seat.  As he sat down, I smelled alcohol.  Now again, I don’t know if it was fresh alcohol or leftover from the night before, but I used to drink (I choose not to now) and I know what alcohol smells like. 

Nonetheless, the second assumption came when I noticed as he sat down, he had a tall plastic water bottle.  He had taken a swig and placed it on the floor in front of him.  It was about a quarter full of what looked like water, a clear white content.  Then I thought, “I wonder if that was water or liquor in a water bottle?”  I’ll admit that I tried to shush the thoughts I had going on in my head that persisted in assumption and judgment.  “Melissa, mind your business, relax, and return to the service,” I told myself.

However, my next thought was should I move my purse that occupied the seat that separated the two of us?  No, I said, that would imply that I thought he came to church to steal my purse. (I know SMH (shaking My Head) at myself.  I’m being truly transparent and honest here. All of this discourse happened in only a very few minutes. Then I noticed the same Usher who had welcomed the visitor at the door, walked him to the row, and helped him to his seat - had returned.  I turned to see and she was reaching out her hand, across the woman, to hand the visitor a few mints. (Blank stir) 

I immediately wondered, “Did he ask her for some mints?”  Or had she smelled alcohol and decided he needed them?  I don’t know.  Sometimes we have good intentions but according to the principle of “intent versus impact”, even with the best of intentions the intent of one's actions does not outweigh the impact perceived, even with the most innocent intentions. 

As I sat there I began to pray. It just didn’t feel right.  I can’t speak to what or how he felt but I prayed that he didn’t feel singled out or that he didn’t feel as if he didn't belong.  I didn’t want him to feel that.  One of the dancing thoughts I had after smelling the alcohol, was I was glad he was in church because I wanted him to hear the message. Which at the time I didn’t know the title or the text.  But before I could finish my silent prayer, the visitor quietly got up, and he was gone. I immediately thought of the scripture in Hebrews 13:2, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”        

I’m sure there can be much commentary on what you would or would not have done if you were me or the Usher.  I felt convicted in my heart.  I don’t care for the term “church hurt”. I think it's misused and can be an excuse for some to be mad at others and God.  In the past decade, the reputation of the local church has declined drastically and folk look for excuses not to go to church. I wondered, "What had it cost the visitor to muster up the courage to walk into the church that morning?" All day I rehearsed the scene, my role, the Usher’s role, and the role of the church, both the local and universal church. I pondered the random, judgmental, and presumptuous conclusions I had come to - all without knowing anything about him.  I thought about the lovely Usher, whom I’m sure was only trying to be helpful.  However, I wondered if she had offered a mint to anyone else solely based on smell.  Had she been courageous enough to walk up to the person with halitosis in the way she had the visitor?  I’ve sure been guilty of not offering a mint when doing so was needed.   

Is it reasonable to expect that the church is the hospital for sinners and that not everyone is going to fit church acumen?  One of the biggest lies the enemy uses is to cause one to believe that you have to get yourself together first and then come to Jesus and to church.  The church represents the Temple of God, a house of prayer for all people.  Romans 10:14-15 “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”    

The Church is the people.  We are the church, all-inclusive.  Hebrews 10:25, “God calls believers to meet together for encouragement.” Ephesians 2:10, “God created us to do good works.”  1 John 4:7, “We show His love by loving others.”

If we are living in the last days, possibly closer than we have ever been before – might it be time for the church, to be about the Father’s business?  Are we ready?  Is your church ready; not to receive members but souls?  Folk who are not going to look like us, talk like us, dress like us or smell like us.  Might this be a good time to reorder our church priorities to those of the Father?  For we are all sinners, saved by grace. 

Jesus came to save the lost (Luke 19:10).  A very large portion of Jesus' ministry included time he spent amongst those who were not of an accepted Jewish pedigree.  Those who were the outcast, the downtrodden, and those deemed the ill of societal acceptability.  Recording in Matthew’s Gospel, 21:31b-32 Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.  And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

I can recall all of the many times that I came to church, heard the preached word, and thought the preacher was talking directly to me. And each time it was the pull of God on my heart, calling me to come and follow Him.  It was at the altar, at the feet of Jesus, that I cried and met Jesus, my Savior.  The church altar is sacred in God’s house symbolic of being at the foot of the “Cross” where the LORD passionately gave His life.  “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you slew and hanged on a tree.” (Acts 5:30)

Oh, of what use is the “church”, if we won’t make room at the cross?  Mustn’t we forget that we are the Gentiles, the prostitutes, drunkards, and whoremongers that Jesus Christ of Nazareth came to save over some 2,000 years? Mustn't it also around this time The Messiah was preparing to take that dreadful walk down the Via Della Rosa wearing a crown of thorns upon His head and carrying that old rugged cross.  “He was despised and rejected, held in low esteem, Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  (Isaiah 53)

What does Calvary’s cross mean to you?  Is there space at the feet of Jesus for the “who so ever will” to freely come to Jesus?  Let the sinners come wounded, come dirty, come drunk, come smelling, come full of sin and repentance.  Just let them come past “church traditions and church folk” and make it for there is room at the Cross of Jesus.    

Let us therefore examine ourselves, as mature Christians, able to address our own biases and micro-aggressions; and be rid of them.  I don’t want to make it to that great Judgement day when our Great Shepherd shall divide His sheep on His right and the goats on the left (Matthew 25:32-33).  Might the church strongly consider that the Luke 14:23 mandate (“Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”) is still a requirement for the church today.  So the next time you go up to the altar, remember to leave room for the drunkard, the prostitute, the whoremonger, and the sinner - to freely kneel at the feet of Jesus, at the Cross.  


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