In the book This Odd and Wondrous Calling Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver reveal many of the joys and challenges of being a pastor. Copenhaver is now a seminary president, but the book was written while both were still serving as UCC pastors, one in Glen Ellyn, IL, and the other in Wellesley, MA. In one chapter Copenhaver tells of his church deciding to open a “cold weather” homeless shelter. One morning as he had just begun work in the church office he heard a piano being played at a concert hall level. He snooped around and saw that it was one of the homeless men who had sat down and began to play.
Copenhaver formed a relationship with the man, and before long the man had started attending worship and becoming part of the church family. He was a wonderful musician, but he also suffered from a mental illness. His untreated mental illness was the reason that he found himself homeless, but he started finding a new home in that church community. He was generally quiet, would go long periods without speaking, he would avoid eye contact, and he had trouble building relationships. The most notable symptom of his mental illness would be a rare but suddenly loud shout, even sometimes an animal noise, most commonly barking like a dog. This didn’t happen often, but when it happened the first time everyone was shocked.
The man joined the choir, he was a great singer, and most Sundays all was well. But every so often worship would be disrupted momentarily from the choir loft by a loud BARK. The church members knew it could happen at any time, and they had grown accustomed to it. Copenhaver writes that if you were visiting the church, say for your first Sunday, and it happened, it would cause you to nearly jump out of your seat. He says what was most interesting was to see a visitor shocked and rattled while everyone else didn’t even seem to bat an eyelash.
One Sunday as worshipers were leaving the sanctuary a visitor said to Copenhaver, “What kind of place is this, where a person can have an outburst like that in worship and no one even notices!?” That is a great theological question: what kind of place is this where a person who struggles with a mental illness and causes outbursts in the middle of starkly quiet New England worship is included?
On most Sundays if we have room on our bulletin cover I include the words “This is the House of God: All Are Welcome.” I notice from time to time the sign at Powhatan Mennonite Church says: Everyone Welcome: We Mean Everyone. This is the invitation from Jesus, and this is the invitation of May Memorial Baptist Church. Jesus never turned anyone away. He didn’t require a list of past successes or failures from his would-be followers. He offered a blanket invitation to follow him. Some chose to not follow after hearing what Jesus was all about, but all were invited to follow in his way.
I was at a pastor’s meeting several years ago in Chesterfield, and I was talking to a pastor who I didn’t know very well. “I heard so and so was at your church this past Sunday.” I had to think a moment, but then I realized he was talking about a family who had visited May Memorial for the first time the Sunday before. “That’s right, they were at May Memorial this past Sunday.” “Well, I hope you understand that they’re on you know.” He said this, half-jokingly, half-serious, letting me know that he was tired of dealing with them and was glad that they were looking for another church. He felt that he and his church was better off without this family.
In a proper understanding of the Church, of God’s family, and of God’s invitation, there is no one that The Church or a church or our church is “better off without.” Every person is created by God and has a unique calling in God’s family. Every person is uniquely created and called by God and has a part to play in the ushering in of God’s kingdom.
My oldest daughter has become interested in college acceptance percentages these days. “Did you know that it is harder to get into VCU than into Virginia Tech?” No, I did not know that. The acceptance rate at William and Mary, Carolina, U of R, Longwood, all of these have been named and discussed (even though I don’t remember the numbers).
What would you guess that the acceptance rate of the church is? If you had to give it a number, what do you think? I would have to give it a 100% acceptance rate.
What kind of place is this? This is the House of God. All are welcome.