It was hard to be present by the end of the 3.5 hours sitting in service. I’d eaten breakfast, but definitely not enough to delay lunch until after 2pm. It would be funny (later) that I’d asked my friend when we sat down if this was one of those churches that had 4-hour services. She responded that it would be an hour and a half, maybe two hours since it was a special service. I was already feeling bad about being under-dressed compared to the full seats around me. At least I could escape at a normal time.
Let me step back just a little bit to explain. Two weeks ago I decided to join a friend at the church she had been saying great things about for months. I did not have anyone to sit with at my church and figured it was the perfect chance to take her up on the open invitation. She warned me that it was a more formal church, but since I was housesitting, my outfit options were limited to the one I’d packed: a tank top, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirts. She also warned me that the church would be busier than usual. The text message said something about the lead pastor being there. I didn’t understand why that was a big deal; did he not come around much? But the question stayed in my head rather than being typed onto the screen. I shall call this mistake number two (number one was not stopping by home for a different outfit). Mistake number 3, because of course there are three, was only grabbing two granola bars for breakfast. There was more food available in the house I was looking after, but that seemed enough for church and I had plans for a lunch out after church. I didn’t want to ruin my appetite. Turns out that would not be a problem.
We arrived at church 20 minutes before service was scheduled to begin, and scored one of the final spots in an overflow parking lot. And were among the final people to sit in the main sanctuary without being split up. Holding the program in my hands, I understood why the service was so large and would end up so long. It was the retirement celebration for the head pastor who had been there for 32 years. He and his wife were moving across the country so this was a celebration of all that had occurred over his generation of leadership.
In the moments when my better angels were in charge, I looked around amazed at what I saw. Hundreds of people, coming together to celebrate leaders who were clearly loved, respected, and appreciated. Speaker after speaker came forward for “two minutes” to share about how they had been mentored by the two or things they had witnessed over the previous decades alongside them. After a few speakers, the choir would fill the air and invite the rest of us to join along. Sound filled the space, putting a comforting pressure like a blanket over the room. Several cycles continued between speakers and song, until the pastor’s wife came to the stage for a brief sermon and then the pastor himself. Their messages were both like a blessing for the church to continue and to use the hands and feet present in the room to be a force of change and love in the city.
By the time the final song finished, I was seriously debating eating my program so that my stomach’s growls would be dampened. There was also consideration of ordering a pizza to be delivered, but being the only jean-wearing adult in the room already felt pretty rebellious.
Escaping the crowds inside, the sunshine and breeze on the front steps was almost everything I’d ever wanted (add a pizza and I would have been in paradise). My friends followed shortly after and we walked quietly to the car. After I got the fun lunch I’d been craving, I was able to think and speak straight again. And forgive my friends for that unexpected adventure.
A few things will stay with me from that morning. If I return to that church I’ll wear a dress and bring a snack. And although I had never met the pastor of that church, I knew he had made an impact in that community. He was leaving a legacy of what one speaker called “shameless love.” He cared about his wife, his children, and his church much more than his reputation or comfort. I have no idea about the size of his house, the age of his car, the heft of his bank account, or the length of his resume. What I do know is that he was part of something real in this city, and there are people dedicated to keeping that legacy alive and growing. I know that he is a good man.