The Stand-in Church
And the newcomer, entering the room where death has settled, is always unsettled. Do I hold the hand of the one who is slipping away? Or do I hold the hand of the one who will be slipped away from?
In this case, I felt my place was at the foot of the bed. Pete's wife had his head in her arms, his heart next to her heart, but I at least could keep vigil over his feet. I rubbed his foot, first one then another, gradually realizing that indeed I had found my place, not just here but in a longer story.
The great prayers of the church, the testimony that life will go on and that the dead will live forevermore, often get heard from the feet up. They come, for most who grieve, as background noise in the surprising busyness of death. Even the details of the funeral overshadow the words that are spoken, and family members worry over who brought the chicken salad, or who will read the poem at the graveside.
But God has never objected to speaking from the bottom end of things. It was, after all, his son who washed the feet of the disciples who preferred to argue over who would sit at Jesus' right hand. Jesus preferred to proclaim from the foot of the bed, and to take his cues from the foot of his own body.
Sometimes, the church has to work through church stand-ins. Sometimes, as people of faith, we are called to witness the good news to people who have no interest in our beliefs. Yet they have called us to their sides at a moment of crisis, as friend, family member, or comforter. And we could no more leave behind our faith than we could leave behind our bodies. And so we are there, present, being as much of the church as they will see.
The membrane between the church and the world is thin. We want to cross it lightly, gracefully, so that suddenly, even for those who do not show up on Sundays at God's physical house, a house with many mansions still might shine through in their imaginations. This kind of agility is not born by taking the physical house, the church, lightly. No, worship is what prepares us for the strangeness of life. When we read about Jesus washing the disciples' feet before the Last Supper and his death, God prepares us for a later moment when the only seat at the table will be at the bottom of a hospital bed.
Rather than hammering the unchurched with the gospel from our mouths and heads, rather than arguing with them or badgering them, rather than capturing the moment like a pious pirate the stand-in church is called not to be brilliant, not to be persuasive, not even to tell the entire story right then and there, but rather, the stand-in church is called to simply be.
After all, we follow a savior who knew when to preach but also when to be content washing feet. Jesus delivered the gospel from the bottom up. We can do that too. As I rubbed his feet, as the stand-in church, Pete's body buckled under the white blankets and left us with a violent shake of an old rocker whose guitar solo had taken it all out of him. I held on to his feet a little longer, as they grew cold, until I knew that this was no longer my place. It was time to move to the rest of the room and the tears of the living, where Pete's song played on.
Lillian Daniel is the senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois. This is an excerpt from When "Spiritual but Not Religious" Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Jericho, 2013).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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