The Stand-in Church
A former associate minister, one who had stayed too short a time to affect much at all, I was suddenly the Church of Jesus Christ writ large, present at the moment when Pete would die, and I would witness my very first experience of life leaving one body and going somewhere else.
I think we do this for one another all the time, we mad people of faith. We interact with those who will not step foot in the institutions we love. We make friends with nonbelievers who claim that we are crazy. And then in these moments of utter crisis, we find ourselves called into the eye of the tornado. And suddenly we realize that we have become, for them, the church. And we are called to play a role greater than our role as friend, family member, or colleague.
"Do you believe in heaven?" they may ask, as Pete had asked me many times over coffee, just checking to make sure I still thought it was true.
"Do you still believe in God as you watch him suffer?" they may ask, as the wife of a dying man asked me, angrily challenging yet longing for some word of hope as her love slipped away. Forever?
And suddenly, instead of thinking that a debate is about to ensue, you realize you have been called upon not for your answer, not for your argument, but for your testimony. Not just your testimony, but the testimony of the church that has stood in the midst of utter sadness and made claims that only the mad would make.
Many quietly faithful people struggle with testimony. We don't want to shove our faith down people's throats. We don't want to be pushy, obnoxious, or self-righteous. But sometimes people put us on the spot, put us on the witness stand, and ask for our testimony.
Testimony is calling out that you have seen light in the midst of darkness. Testimony is telling the story about how you met God, even when you have forgotten it. Testimony is telling the story of a community over time, of a particular people, and how God has intervened. And when the unchurched call us into the most intimate and sad moments, we become the church. We can either sit mute or give our testimony.
It may not be eloquent. Some of the best testimonies are stumbling words choked out of the same sorrow that the nonbeliever stands drowning in, but at least the believer can say, "Yes, in the midst of this tragedy, I believe there is more than all of this."
The Gospel from the Bottom Up
I remember, when I walked into Pete's hospital room that day, that not only was my role unclear but my place was unclear. Was my role to be friend or to be some kind of pastor? What was my place in this situation?
And what was my place in this physical room? Pete's wife was next to him; there were no free chairs and no one to act as host. I wondered where to place myself.
Like the disciples who asked Jesus where they should sit, with regard to who could be at his right side, loved ones around the bed of a dying person often wonder the same thing. Where is my place?
There can even be a hierarchy of the grieving. Who sits closest? Who does the doctor address? Who is forgiven from speaking and who is called upon to explain?