My wife, Gail, and I were early arrivers at church this past week, and when we entered the sanctuary, only a few seats were already occupied. That meant that we had—I'm guessing here—about 350 seats to choose from.
Would we sit near the front? Probably not. I've spent more than a few years in the front rows of worship sanctuaries, and a tiny rebellious spirit within me now seemed to say, "if you're not preaching today, go for one of those sought-after back seats. Hey, why not go all the way and do the balcony?"
But another, more conscientious, part of the inner me was instantly mindful of late-comers, families with cry-prone infants, and older people who need to locate as near to the bathrooms as possible. Back row seats were created for them. We're not late; we have no children; and we don't have to run to the bathroom … yet.
Perhaps you can see how, for those of us who've done church all our lives, even seat-selection can be a mini-crisis in which super-conscientiousness takes control.
We eventually selected our seats in the middle part of the auditorium: an aisle seat and the one next to it. In airplane-speak, seats 12b and 12c: exit row seats where there is ample leg room (but you must know how to open the emergency doors). I love the 12c seat. Gail—because she loves me—always settles for 12b.
Soon after we'd taken our carefully selected seats, the sanctuary began to fill with people and finally reached that critical mass of attendance where the service could begin. The worship band swung into motion, and before long all of us were on our feet singing and contributing our energies of praise to the worldwide flow of adoration in the direction of Jesus.
As we sang, I noticed the older man (older for me is 80+) standing alone just in front of us. There was no one else in his row. Just him. His hair was poorly combed as if there'd been no one to call it to his attention. His suit needed pressing. His hands trembled.
During the second song, he suddenly sat down. Instinctively, I reached forward and put my hands on his shoulders, leaned forward and spoke into his ear.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"I'm okay," he said back. "It's painful for me to stand too long."
"I hear you … ankles or knees or hips?" I asked as the people around us continued to sing.
"All three" he said. I patted his shoulder and went back to singing.
The congregation sang two more songs, and then the worship leader said we could sit. It was announcement time.
While the announcement-lady spoke of upcoming events, I found my attention returning to the man in front of us. I couldn't escape the fact that he was alone while I was enjoying Gail's warmth as she sat close by my side, her hand enclosed in mine.
The thought of this man's aloneness and my contrasting sense of togetherness alerted me to the fact that there were more than a few others scattered about the auditorium who also were alone. They too had no bodily warmth, no one to hold their hands during prayer time, no one with whom they might discuss the sermon on the way home.
Impulsively, I turned and whispered to Gail, "Could we move down one seat?" She nodded yes even though she didn't know what I had in mind. We both moved. Then I leaned forward and, again, got the attention of the man in front of me.
This time I pointed to the now-empty aisle seat (12c) and said, "Why don't you come back here and sit with us?"
He was about to brush me off, but something changed his mind. He collected his coat and the church bulletin beside him and took the empty aisle seat I'd offered.
This meant, you understand, that I was now—for the rest of the worship service--in the dreaded "b" seat, with the seats on both sides occupied. This, for a United 100K flier, is a bit of sacrifice, like momentarily laying down one's life.
Once he had re-folded his coat and settled himself in the 12c seat, I said, "Nobody should worship alone."
He whispered back to me, "I lost my wife two years ago. Now there's no one to come to church with."
"Well, you're with us today," I responded and gripped his forearm.
We sat shoulder to shoulder through the rest of the songs, the offering and the sermon. And then worship ended.
"I'm glad you sat with us," I said when the final "Amen" had been pronounced.
"Thank you," he said. Then he continued: "I got the shock of my life yesterday. My step-son and his wife told me that they are getting divorced after 26 years of marriage.
"Think of it," he went on. "Twenty-six years and then … I had no idea. They're my only …"
Now there were tears. I could read between the lines of his stammering sentences. They're my only family.
That he would offer this much personal information to a virtual stranger after only a minute or two of conversation suggested to me that he had no one (no one!) on whom he could offload his sorrow.
We exchanged a few thoughts about what he had just told me. And then I said, "Think I could say a prayer for you?"
He nodded. "I'd be very grateful."
I pulled him into a manly embrace to which he easily yielded. Putting my cheek next to his, I prayed:
"Father, thank you for bringing my friend and me together so that we could worship today. Lord, his heart is broken, and he feels alone. Would you press your love and courage into him this morning? Would you remind him that you're present to him. Would you please remind him that the people in this church are part of his larger family. And if you would, please heal his step-son's marriage. Make something happen that would bring this small family back together again. Lord, I introduce my friend to you in the name of Jesus."
He thanked me, and then he was gone.
An hour before, when we'd picked our seats in the almost-empty sanctuary, it had never occurred to me that, even in seat-selection, one might actually be experiencing the mysterious guidance of the Holy Spirit, who might have had this future conversation in mind.
The rest of the day I kept recalling that serendipitous encounter. What if I'd resisted the impulse to connect with the man in front of me? What if I'd not invited him to sit with us? What if I'd not been responsive in that service-ending conversation?
Bible stories came to mind where the twelve disciples insensitively ignored children, widows, beggars, and blind men only to be rebuked by Jesus, whose eyes and ears were always attuned to the cries of the weak, the vulnerable, the alone. How often I've been like those disciples. Yesterday was my chance to do it differently.
Can I be honest? I do not remember which songs we sang at worship. Nor do I recall much about the sermon (even though our pastor is a wonderful preacher). And I remember nothing about the announcements even though the announcement lady is good at what she does.
But I do remember in vivid detail this connection with the man to whom I gave my aisle seat (12c). He remains front and center in my heart today.
With each thought of him, I keep asking myself, How many other men and women came to church this week and sat alone? And grieved alone? And brooded on an uncertain future … alone?
No one should worship alone.
Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership and lives in New Hampshire.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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