OK, there was a sixteen year break in the middle, I’ll grant you that. But I began attending Bethany Community Church in 1976, left Seattle in 1979, and returned as Senior Pastor in December of 1995 to lead a church of 300 in a city I love. Last night, after a poignant and important meeting with a friend, I sat in that same chapel where I sat as a college, where I first preached over 25 years ago . The side walls have stained glass windows, each one depicting a different “I am” saying of Jesus (”I am the light of the world”, ”I am the Vine”, “I am the Good Shepherd” etc). I’d been invited as a guest speaker in the spring on 1995 and had prepared a series of talks on the “I am” sayings, not remembering at the time that they were the windows. One thing led to another, and by November my family was packing up and moving to Seattle! Blink, and it’s now almost 26 years, two building projects, deep Ministry partners in Rwanda, Costa Rica, and just down the street, plus five new daughter churches later, I’m still here. I sat there, playing the piano, and the stained glass window behind the cross caught my eye, reflecting as it was on the lid of the piano. On seeing that reflection, I stopped playing and looked around at the stained glass, its shards of dusk light expressing an aching beauty. Suddenly, the room seemed to come alive with memories; so many tears, so much laughter, and hope, and loss has happened here.
“Welcome back” the walls said. “You’ve not been over here much this past, um, eleven years. I’ve missed you.
“Oh; yes. Sorry about that. I remember that night I was in here alone with you before we opened the new sanctuary. Yeah, I’ve been busy. That bigger building needed to be built, and then occupied, and then it was clear that we needed space for children too, and then there were all those new locations, and books to write, some travel to Europe, three kids married, and now 3 grandchildren with one more coming.”
“I know. And I’ve been here. Keeping memories in these walls, and still creating new ones. And speaking of memories, do you remember the first time you walked through my doors?”
“The first time? No. But I remember the first months I started attending here. Bethany was reading a book together, “Free for the Taking”. It was about grace, and how, if you know you’ll be loved, you’ll be able to come clean and run into the arms of God, and even other people, knowing, KNOWING, you’ll be accepted, because grace wipes the board clean again and again. It spoke of how that kind of knowing not only creates safe spaces, but how those spaces are the vital ingredient for any transformation and healing. I needed that message so much then; still need it now. I knew from that book that Bethany would be home while I was in college.
Then Jonestown happened, and the associate pastor held a class in the elementary school across the street. I remember him talking about the danger of charismatic leaders, and the danger of believing someone just because you like their communication style, or their tribe. It was, I know now, a plea for Christ followers to be wise and have discernment. My God! We need that today exponentially more than we even needed it then. I can’t count all the conversations I’ve had with people who’ve been burned by charismatic leaders who, it turned out, were in it for themselves, who shunned accountability. You’d think as a culture we’d have learned to avoid this by now, but no. There are disasters on the horizon culturally that could be 1000 times worse than Jonestown if we don’t wake up. Anyway, that class deepened my loyalty to Bethany.
Finally, there was that Sunday the Sonics were in the playoffs. The game was on, and we truly faithful saints were skipping the game to be at worship (pre-DVR days!!). Some deacon got up at the end of the service and said, “Now we all know that mature Christians are called to discernment, and another way of saying that is, “Christians need to know the score. Well I’m here to tell you that it’s Seattle 87, the other guys 81 at the start of the 4th quarter”. Thank God for churches that know how to laugh, that know they don’t have it all together, that know not to take themselves too seriously. I still have the bulletin from my last Sunday in Seattle in 1979. I didn’t think I’d ever back.
“Instead, you came back, and you and I became good friends“ the wall said. It was right. Many night sitting alone in here by the piano from 1996 through 2009
“It wasn’t my idea” I said, pointing to the window that said, ‘I am the good shepherd‘. “I was called here. And if you’ll recall, by the end of that first year under my leadership there was plenty of room here inside your walls. I disappointed a lot people. It was my hardest year, professionally and personally.”
“Admit it, you made some mistakes that first year.“. I shook my head, thinking about some of the insensitive comments I’d made, things I wouldn’t say now that I understand the role of shepherd better. “But you stayed. Why?”
“Because the people who called me here believed in me; kept believing in my calling even when things appeared bleak, even when I’d stopped believing in myself. I wish every pastor in America could feel that kind of support when they’re shaken by challenges”.
”My friends, the other walls at other churches, agree with you on that one! But you stayed even longer than the five year commitment you made…. Way longer. You’re still here. What happened.”
“I could say ‘calling’ again, but that’s too spiritual. I think a better way of saying it was that during my time here I’ve always felt that I’ve been in the middle of a movie in which I have a role. I keep wanting to see what happens next. That’s part of it.
The bigger part though, is that Bethany won my heart by becoming, for a long time, more of what it already was, what I’d already seen way back when I was a college student attender. She’s been on a journey moving toward more grace, more discernment, more respect for people with differing views. It’s like she was becoming more beautfiul. The older I get, and the more I teach elsewhere and chat with pastors, the more I see what a rare gift I’ve been granted to serve this place that is bigger than me, older than me (105 now!), wiser than me. It’s like I had a first row seat in the ongoing story a maturing grace and faith.
“had…? Why the past tense?“
Because there are times I feel like that journey of becoming more of who we truly are is stuck. The cultural forces of hatred, and tribalism, and anti-science - even anti-fact rhetoric is a roaring wild fire in the culture at large raging hot, and tearing up families, schools, government institutions, and political parties. The lack of grace, the open slander that’s celebrated by fans of some popular voices, and the utter disregard for facts is appalling. These things are killing people, literally. What’s worse though, is that those fires are creeping under the doors, and pouring down through the steeples of churches across America. It’s creating an image of church life that’s sickening to millions of thoughtful people, and I don’t blame them. What’s hard about this is that Bethany’s not immune - I’m not immune, to being swept into this polarizing fire dance of destruction.“.
By now my eyes are misting a bit. The chapel is beautiful, and quiet, and walls (of course not literally talking, though they may as well be, the words are so clear and powerful, and not my own) so packed with memories. There’s just thousands of conversations, some with people who no longer speak to me because of my views on some issue, or perhaps it wasn’t the view but the way I framed it. I don’t always know. Either way, the fires are burning relationships, and it feels like church is a western forest in August, where any single spark can create a meltdown. As a result, I watch my words more carefully. Surely some of this is good, as it leads to more measured responses, more charity. God knows we all need this. But this editing is also exhausting, because too often I’ve said something and been accused, because of thing I said, of believing something very different than what I said, something the culture wars has elevated to the status of “a line in the sand”. And then, friendships end. Fellowship is broken. It’s tragic, and exhausting. I honestly don’t know how to fix it”
The wall changes the subject. “What do you like most about your new dog?”
“You know about my dog?” I ask, astonished that the word is out.
“Of course. Your congregants follow you on instagram. You‘re worse than a new parent! Plus, he has the cutest face on the planet. But what do you like most about him?”
Relieved for the topic shift, I light up. ”I love when we’re hiking and he’s on leash out in front of me and then I just say, ‘OK. Let’s go!” Immediately he becomes a ten pound version of a caffeinated sled dog. He starts sprinting out front of me as fast as his tiny legs can go. In the winter, we do this on skis on the way down, and he’s clocked 25 MPH. He only weighs ten pounds!! And when he’s done, he’s nearly laughing, and smothers me with kisses of gratitude for letting him ‘run it out’.
“He’s made to run it out, bred for it. He’s happiest when he’s aligned with what he’s created to do. What are people created to do?”
A tough question I think. “Lots of things. Buy. Sell. Plant. Play. Cook. Serve. Invent. Write. Lead. Teach.”
“No no. More fundamentally. What are people, all people, made by God to do? Come on, you should know this. You’re a pastor.”
“Well, Jesus said a lot of things. But he did say that everything could be summed up in two exhortations:
”Yes!” The walls shouted, because as I looked at the windows, now nearly void of light, they seemed to give a momentary shimmer of affirmation, like that last ray before sunset. “When people are loving God, they’re seeing the world as a shower of gifts, even in the midst of injustice and suffering. They know there’s a GIVER, and they give thanks. That’s worship! When people are loving others, they’re not seeing people through the lens of their ideologies, or political bent, or view on vaccination. They know that: Every. Person. On earth. Is worthy of love and dignity, of justice and mercy, of compassion and empowerment.
Richard, when people are loving God and loving one another, they can chat about vaccines and the big lie (whatever that is) and CRT (whatever that is), and life in the womb, and climate change, and Buddhism, and immigration, and and racism, and they’ll do what Isaiah exhorted; they’ll reason together. But without love, which is to say, without proximity, eye contact, a shared drink… a relationship — they’re just lobbing ideological grenades over the wall from their tribe to a different tribe in hopes of preserving what they think is most important. But what‘s most important is loving God and loving people.“
”In all things charity” I say, because that’s part of Bethany’s long standing heritage, only it presently doesn’t feel like charity is extended in all things, but only if you tow, literally the party, or doctrinal, line.
I’m touched, yet annoyed with the walls. “But these issues matter!! A lot’s at stake and it breaks my heart that we’re divided, and worse, that dialogue and fellowship in spite of differences, something which has been a hallmark of Bethany forever, is now a threatened species.
My eye sees this window: “I am the way, the truth, the life”. Truth. ”Speak the truth in love” the window says. “That means you’re committed to the relationship AND committed to the truth. This is a season where ‘truth’ is dispensed as a weapon. But no truth dispensed as a weapon is truth, because truth and love are an ecosystem. Good night Richard. How about you go home and pray for those with whom you differ, and find ways to show them you love them. And, I miss you. How about showing sooner than eleven years for our next conversation.“
It’s dark in the sanctuary now as I walk out, wiser, shepherded, not really by the walls, but by the One who gathers within them.