Pete was the sexton at the first church I served, in charge of maintaining the physical plant of the church. Sextons, not Saint Peter, hold the all-important keys in church life, securing the building after twelve-step meetings, cleaning up before Sunday worship, making sure the boiler is ready and running. A rock-and-roller who had turned his life around, Pete the sexton had finally met the right wife, finally quit drinking, and finally started to think about one day quitting smoking.
With his ever-present dark jeans and T-shirts, salt-and-pepper beard, and rock-star-skinny build, people were always telling Pete that he looked like Eric Clapton. He still played the guitar with other men in that New England suburb, who parked minivans after work and descended into basements where tube amps and Stratocasters kept out the noise of the children's cartoons upstairs.
As sexton, Pete spent as much time visiting with the church members as he did fixing up the church, more comfortable sharing his philosophy of life than hammering in solitude, unless it was on that guitar. The beauty of working with Pete was that he might come over to my parsonage to fix a leaky pipe, but he'd end up being convinced to have just one cup of coffee, and then another, and then another. Soon you'd discover that three hours had gone by. While the sink was not yet fixed, you sure had learned a lot about Masonic conspiracy theories, the hazards of a bad acid trip, or why life in the Connecticut suburbs had never been for Pete.
After I left that church, Pete and I remained friends as I followed the gossip of the church I had left behind over yet more cups of coffee, now in my own home, where leaky pipes did not beckon to him to be fixed. The news he brought from that old church was nuanced in that Pete did everything there except attend worship.
Scarred by church long ago, Pete had been drawn into an intellectual dance in which he read much about all religions but could not bear to rest in one. Fascinated and horrified by the life of faith, he had found a job that pulled him into the inner workings of a community of faith without demanding any confession of faith. In many ways, Pete practiced the Christian faith, but his early experience of a church obsessed with doctrines had left him gun-shy of the institution. While he never sat in those pews at the appointed hour, he was participating in the church in every other way.
Becoming the Church
When lung cancer caught up with him, when a cup of coffee became too heavy to hold, when bad cells had wrapped themselves around the last safe breathing space in his thinning body, his wife called me to a Catholic hospital, where I saw Pete be still for the first time in my life.
To watch his wiry, fidgety body at rest, moving only with the up and down of the respirator, to hear the gurgling of fluids in his chest that would end up bringing on a death by drowning, to watch the tears of the "right wife at last" as she held on to him in this small moment, I was suddenly the 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.