I was disappointed to see the Rapid Transit bus for my route pulling away as I made my way to the second level of the downtown bus terminal, but got over this disappointment quickly as I realized that taking the slower bus would give me all the more time to read Moltmann’s “Jesus Christ for Today’s World”, which I needed to read before facilitating a discussion the next morning. When I got on the bus with my ridiculously large backpack, my bulky pump in its stylish black carrying case, my purse, my book and noted that it was already a very full bus, my disappointment surfaced again. There were a few empty seats towards the back so I started to head there. I had noted an empty seat right at the front, but it was next to a woman who had a very large plastic box at her feet and I thought adding my bulk would just be too. much.
I didn’t even get past this woman before she called out to me. I discovered pretty quickly that this woman with long, graying hair was a bit of a firecracker- spunky!
“You can sit right here, honey, unless I look that scary!”
“Oh no, ma’am, you don’t look scary. It is just that you have a lot of stuff and I have a lot of stuff and I didn’t want to crowd you.”
A gentle man sitting near her, with whom she had apparently been speaking, said “It’s alright, ma’am, we all have a lot of stuff.” He nodded in the direction of a very large army duffel propped on the shelf offered for such things.
I thanked them and took my seat. And went to open Moltmann to dig in when the woman said “Ooh! I just LOVE Jesus!” And then I closed the book. I knew that I would not be reading.
At first we talked about our respective stuff. I learned that her big black box was a crate for hauling groceries. She had taken the bus across town to shop at T.J.’s and wondered if I knew about that store. Indeed I do. And then she asked me who wrote my book, and said she’d have to get that because she loves Jesus so much. She asked me if I was a divinity student. “No, actually, I’m getting a Ph.D. in Theology. I’m already a pastor.”
“Oh really?” She said with some excitement, “What church?”
“PC(USA).” I replied. I don’t know how I knew she was asking for my denomination nor how I knew she would know the acronym, but that’s what I said, and she was and she did.
She groaned. “My daddy was a Presbyterian pastor, but I’ll tell you, so many of those churches in the PC(USA) are apostate it is not even funny. Why I was a part of one in Satan Monica… APOSTATE!” (And no, that is not a typo, she did say Satan Monica.) And thus the conversation began. I replied with, “I’m sorry you feel that way. What makes you say that your church in Santa Monica was apostate? That’s a very serious charge. On what do you base it?”
“I could go on and on…” she said. And she did. It sounds like there was some dysfunction (perhaps some serious dysfunction), but then she also feels very differently than I do about the appropriate posture of the church towards (she whispers) homosexuals (her word). And some of those church leaders think Hindus are going to heaven and they don’t even believe in Jesus. Etc. Etc. Etc. (Um, yeah, we are on very different pages.)
After awhile I asked her if she has a church home in Nashville. I wondered what non-apostate church she had found here. It took her awhile to answer me. First I heard about the problems she has with PC(USA) churches in this city (she’s only been back for awhile, she’s been rescued out of L.A., she told me several times, here to care for her mother…) but did I know that one of the downtown churches was having TAZE (rhymes with haze) services and that’s just UNCHRISTIAN! While previously I diplomatically let things she said slide or said “Well, ma’am, you and I have very different understandings, but I am sorry for the pain you are carrying from your previous church experience.” I didn’t feel like initiating certain discussions with her. But with the charge that Taize is unChristian- I bit.
“Ma’am, that’s just blatantly untrue. Taizé…”
“It’s Taze,” she interrupted.
“No, actually it’s Taizé and it is highly Christian. Taize worship services involve the singing of simple chants which are almost entirely scriptural. For example…” And then I sang her “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
“Well, that’s just lovely,” she admitted.
“Yes,” I said, “And that’s what Taize worship is, sung prayer, sung scripture, in many languages, and what is unChristian about that?”
“Well, someone told me it was pagan like. You’re teaching me something. I have something to learn. But is it ecumenical?”
“Yes,” I started to reply, “All the music comes from an ecum…”
And then she was off again talking about the evils of ecumenism. And I bit again…
“Ma’am, what is evil about Christian churches working for unity with one another? Did Jesus not pray that his followers might be one as he and the Father are one?” (quoting the scripture, speaking the language of my conversation partner…)
“Well, then what could possibly be evil about churches trying to restore unity and heal divisions?”
“Well, the Evangelicals say it’s evil, compromise they say, one world religion, Hindus going to heaven…”
“Ma’am, ecumenism is about Christian churches seeking greater unity. Interfaith discussions are a separate matter.”
“I’ve been doing lots of reading and it all says ecumenism is bad, bad, bad…”
“Well, I think your sources are distorted and you need some new sources.”
Then we returned to the state of PC(USA) churches in this city. “They’re all dying,” she said, “Every one of them. The Spirit isn’t in them.”
“I worship at a PC(USA) church that is very much alive.” (Oh my goodness… I didn’t just say that, did I? Have I been in the south too long?)
“Where?” She said.
We were then less than a mile from the church and would soon be passing it. She was shocked that it was so close to where she is living. “Can I get there by bus?” she asked. I assured her that indeed she could, and pointed out the church as we drove by. I explained that it is almost entirely an African-American church, more Pentecostal, free-flowing in worship style, but that it is PC(USA) and very alive. She got tremendously excited. And asked me to write down information about the name of the church, the time of services, etc.
“Oh my goodness,” I thought to myself, “Would I want this person to show up at a church I were serving as pastor? What have I done?”
She declared that God had sent me to her, because she really hadn’t found a church yet. And then she started sharing very personally about childhood wounds and healing she is seeking with her parents (one now deceased, one under her care). We moved from vitriol and accusations, to confession and wounds… She was in tears.
And before I got off the bus we knew each other’s names. And I promised to pray for the healing she was seeking.
This church is changing me friends… I’m not sure that conversation would have gone the same way a year ago.
She wasn’t in church today to see us come forward at an altar call. It was pre-meditated, so that felt strange to me. But Kev is now officially a member of Living Church (that’s what I just decided its blog name will be).
And maybe the woman on the bus will find her way there as well. I trust that if she does, God will be working to cultivate true love in me. That’s what the church is really for, as I’m learning from Augustine.
Even if she doesn’t come, I know that Living Church is working on me in that way. The sharing at Sunday School this morning… Oh my goodness. The pain. The REAL struggles. I’ve much growing to do.