Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Two Ushers Talking Legalism


No, not the singer.  This past Saturday, I had the honor of serving as an usher at a wedding.

And in case you think being a wedding usher is lowly stuff, please allow me to name-drop, and inform you that among the guests I seated were the famed Elizabeth Elliott; her husband, Lars Gren; and her aide.

Mrs. Elliott was confined to a wheelchair and uncommunicative, due to her advanced age and failing health, but still, my youngest nephew was named after her martyred first husband, so I thought the moment was special just the same.

At any rate, following the ceremony, while another usher and I were waiting for our turn in front of the wedding photographer, we struck up what I thought would be a fairly bland conversation.  We didn't know each other, and the other usher was far younger than me.

"Wow," I exclaimed mildly, as I collapsed next to him in a pew.  "I sure could use a nice, cold glass of water!  I don't know why my mouth is so dry."

The younger usher snorted.  "I'm thinkin' about going outside for a smoke!"

Not knowing this young man, but knowing the groom's family has a lot of unsaved - or at least, unchurched - people in it, I wasn't particularly surprised at the smoking reference, but I was disturbed nonetheless.

"Oh... well, there's no way smoking can be good for you," I cautioned him.  "How old are you anyway, if you don't mind my asking?"

He said he was 21, and I think he said something about his girlfriend not liking him to smoke either.  "She didn't come with me down here... and now that I'm back in Texas, around these people, I'm reminded why I left," he offered, his awkward, loaded answer completely unsolicited.

"Oh?  Where do you live now?" I queried, piqued by his bluntness.  He had no idea who I was, or if I would be offended by his dismissive attitude regarding his family.  Yet he obviously didn't care, and he wanted to get something off of his chest.

"I live in Iowa now, and I like it up there," he replied, along with something about this wedding being the first time he'd set foot into a church since he'd left Texas.

This was turning into a far juicier conversation that I'd expected!

"Yeah," he continued, "churches like this make me uncomfortable.  I'm afraid I'm gonna break something."  He indicated the grand Steinway piano, our sanctuary's impressive wood-and-wrought-iron pulpit, and wedding flowers atop carved wood stands.

I followed the direction of his gaze and hand gesture, smiling.  Not exactly fragile, breakable stuff.

"Don't worry," I tried to assure him.  "All this stuff is quite sturdy and well-built!"

I didn't really believe the fixtures in our building were what he was talking about, and sure enough, he came clean.

"Well, I'm not really talking about the furniture," he admitted.  "I was kicked out of my mom's church by some jerk who didn't like me wearing a hat inside it."

I could tell he wanted to talk about it, so I let him.

"Yeah, I walked into my mom's church wearing a hat, and this guy came up to me and told me to take it off, and I wouldn't," he recounted, somewhat pleased with himself at the recollection.  "When I didn't take off my hat, the guy said he didn't like my attitude, so he made me leave.  They didn't like me at that church anyway.  They thought I was trouble."

Before the ceremony, when a group of us ushers had taken a shortcut across a parking lot to get to the sanctuary, one of the wedding guests was making his way across the busy avenue in front of our church, and he was wearing a large, black felt cowboy hat.  The ushers saw him and were admiring his hat.  I know the guy, and sitting there talking with this young usher now, I quickly glanced about the sanctuary, wondering if my friend with the hat was available to talk.  He wasn't, since the reception had been going on for awhile now without us.

My friend would likely have plopped his hat on his head right there in the sanctuary just to prove to the kid that not wearing one in God's house has more to do with politeness than legalism.

But legalism is what this young usher wanted to complain about.

"I like to drink, I like to smoke, and my mom's church didn't want me doing any of that."

Being a non-smoking teetotaler myself, I first felt awkward, feeling compelled to defend activities in which I myself choose not to engage.  But I don't drink alcohol because of the alcoholism that runs in my family, and I don't smoke simply because it's unhealthy and obnoxious, not because there's a Biblical commandment against it.

"Smoking, drinking, and wearing hats in church isn't any reason to kick you out," I began, choosing my words carefully.  "It's what's in your heart, not your actions, that matters most to God."

And dad-burnit, wouldn't you know, but the photographer called out right then and there for us ushers to come for our photo-op!

That isn't the timing we're taught in evangelism class, is it?  You're supposed to be able to let the person to whom you're witnessing mull over the "heart, not actions" thing for a moment or two, and then follow-up with faith not being a system of laws, but love for Christ.

In the flurry of activity as we ushers scrambled to where the groom and photographer were waiting, the conversation evaporated into thin air.  After the photographer was done with us, my new friend dashed off with some other guys, while somebody else told some of us the guests were waiting for the wedding party to join the reception.  We needed to start trickling in to the church's fellowship hall to help pacify the increasingly impatient crowd of well-wishers.

I saw my new friend only once more after that - he was weaving through throngs of guests, the top buttons of his shirt undone, his necktie nowhere to be seen, and his face damp and flushed.  It was a chilly day outside, and the temperature was quite comfortable inside, so I didn't really want to know why he was so disheveled.

Not after the conversation we'd been having, anyway.

So I simply prayed that the Holy Spirit would be able to use my attitude during that conversation - and hopefully my demeanor when he mentioned the smoking and drinking bits - to perhaps show him that the guy at his mother's church who kicked him out displayed only one side of our church culture. 

For all I know, this young usher had been a rascal all during his growing-up years, and the guy against whom he harbored resentment had finally had enough of it.  Then too, this young usher could have been looking for any reason he could find to use as rationale for dropping out of church, and he used his belligerence over a hat as his ticket to churchless freedom.  It's not like not going to church prevents you from believing that Jesus Christ died for your sins.  But I got the distinct impression that not going to church wasn't the deepest problem this young man had.

I don't know for sure.  But when the groom gets back into the country from his honeymoon, I'm going to ask him.  And if I can't pick up from where we left off last Saturday afternoon, maybe somebody else can.

I have a feeling his mother - without knowing who we are - is praying that one of us will.

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