In preparation for me taking paternity leave as soon as #3 arrives (I constantly imagine the baby singing Dylan’s lines “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released) the church has set aside today’s “message” and the next two Sundays’ messages to be led by people from the congregation (and friend of the congregation – Seth Martin). The invitation isn’t exactly to give a “message” as it is to share one’s story about God. Today’s story was shared by a woman who I have known for about 2.5 years through the church and hearing her story was beautiful and powerful.
In sharing her story she was able to talk about the difficult stuff as well as the good things that have happened to her. The story that came forth was one that was honest about the struggles she’s had in searching for God, the various churches that she’s been to (and many, turned off by), and the “many teachers” that have crossed her path and helped her learn and grow. One of the most powerful parts of the story she brought was when she shared the first time she ever heard Jesus say directly to her that he loves her. Another came when she talked about the realization that she was being invited to forgive someone she had no intention of forgiving and what it was like to work through that.
But the image that really stuck with me from her story was a bright red phone. She said that she once attended a fairly large Pentecostal church (I don’t remember where, nor does it really matter) that had a red phone next to the pulpit. Apparently on the Sunday she attended the red phone rang and the pastor answered in the middle of his sermon. What is even funnier is that I guess the stage was surrounded by elders and a variety of other leaders but only the pastor could answer the phone. It was not clear who was on the other line, the president, God, or was it som denominational mastermind?
And I totally understand the desire to have a red phone, you know? Right there next to the pulpit, ready for whenever I say “line please.” How nice would it be to have a phone that we just pick up and get the answer to whatever question we have? Straight from the top, no if’s and’s or but’s. It’s kind of like the bat signal or a direct line to the vatican. Fire it up and your answer will appear shortly. And yet, fortunately, this is not what spirituality with God is at all. It is far more participatory and engaged, despite what some churches want to make it out to be.
The story that our friend at Camas shared this morning was in a way antithetical to a red phone. She had no quick answers and no top-down spirituality. Hers was fought for and hard-won. As a kid, growing up in a family that never went to church she road a bus that took an hour to get to the nearest meeting place (she lived in Alaska). As a single-mom she knew what it was like to struggle to get by. As a seeking adult, she paid her dues in “judgment-based” churches, but she was able to get out from under those things that held her back and find God inwardly. She sought, and when she came up empty-handed, she kept seeking. Her story showed me that it is through trial, seeking, self-motivated work and wrestling with forgiveness that one is able carve out a space where one can encounter God, no red phone will ever teach that.
And yet, just as in this woman’s story, we do have a connection to God, a direct line to Jesus. As the Quaker George Fox famously said, “Jesus is here to teach he people himself.” Jesus can speak and guide us, if we will do the work necessary to pick up and listen. But this is not some external red phone by the pulpit, nor is it mediated through hierarchy. It is inward and available to all who will ask, seek and knock. There is no red phone, but there is a direct line that people just like our friend from this morning have to God. And no one gets to dictate how God is experienced in our lives, and it is ultimately up to us to pick up the phone.