(No. I am not finished talking about my wonderful spiritual experiences with the Vandelia Church in Lubbock, Texas. I feel sure I could fill a book!)
My dad used to say, “I grew up sitting on church pews….” And, well, he raised me – so, really, I did too. And over the course of my life, I have belonged to well over a dozen churches, (mainly because I have lived so many different places), but even beyond those, I have visited dozens more. Let’s just say:
I know the ins and outs of church culture.
Therefore, when I think of “going to church,” I think of just about every cultural facet. I can remember my grandfather shining his shoes on Saturday nights. I recall getting Sunday clothes for Christmas – even wearing a 3-piece suit and tie when I was in the 4th grade. I can recall pot-luck lunch, church picnics, summer camps, youth rallies, blue haired ladies, Sunday school with flannel boards even, and of course WORSHIP.
I remember as a kid watching the communion tray pass by me in the pew. I remember my mom giving me a few dollars to drop in the collection. I remember singing hymns like Victory in Jesus or Power In The Blood and definitely Amazing Grace. I remember some sermons from 40 years ago, even. In fact, I got to preach one about 40 years ago when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old.
I remember one Sunday night service when an old man sitting near the front cut the cheese during the sermon and some of us kids stifled our chuckles while everyone else pretended not to notice. I remember visiting a church in Denver on another Sunday when a lady passed out while the congregation stood for a prayer. I heard the thud somewhere amid the crowd and could see two deacons rush to her aid on the floor, yet no one dared to interrupt the prayer for the medical emergency. But when the prayer ended, someone ran and called for an ambulance.
But mostly, when I think of church, I sense a baseline impression that it all skates very near the realm of boring. Despite how important it all seemed, there was a sense that we were punching our time cards and sitting through some dull rituals that caused me to wonder whether they had any real meaning. I recall going to a weekly prayer group meeting in my early twenties and a man there declared that America is losing her Christian grounding and soon we will be the mission field for the church from Africa. And pretty much all through my early and mid adult life, I have sensed (and heard spoken) a great concern for the church to “be relevant.”
And I am only striking the mundane notes here. For I could analyze the struggles between traditional worship and contemporary – oh yeah… that’s exciting! Or I could tell the story of the child molester who was uncovered in my hometown church after molesting about 3 generations of young boys there – AND all the political stink that made throughout the congregation! After all, churches are full of conflicts too, and that is not mundane. They certainly are relevant to the ones in the conflict.
So, when I write of New Life Church in Abilene or Vandelia Church in Lubbock, at the very least, I am NOT suggesting that I was loving some boring routine. Not at all! These were lively – life-giving – assemblies. And while the worship was not a whole lot livelier than most, that was still not the big attraction anyway. For me, both places managed to put in huge sacrifice for, and yet dive into adventure with, the poor as a means of loving Jesus.
So, when I found myself loving a hooker for Jesus at Vandelia, I found trouble! And now that is how I see Jesus – a prophet looking for trouble. And boy… He found her!
So, let me say a few words about loving a hooker and a bunch of kids from the other side of the tracks at Vandelia. Because, if you have been following these vignettes, you surely by now know, I made friends with a LOT of little kids – and a drug addicted, mentally ill, hooker with HIV. And I managed to convince the hooker to go to church with me one Sunday morning, when I found her still out on the streets at 6:30 am and took her to breakfast. I talked her into going to church by saying I would get a pillow and let her stretch out on a pew and sleep if only she would come. It was a hoot. I called Special Agent D on the phone and got him to find a pillow and meet us at the assembly with it. The poor girl was sooooooo sleepy by the time we arrived she required two of us to escort her to a pew where she could rest.
And she did. Snored through the whole service! And then later that week, she called Special Agent D to help her check into rehab because she had been to church and found Jesus. (I bet it was the best sleep she had gotten in years!)
Soon, I was going down to Vandelia early every Sunday morning to get the church van and then round up my hooker, a welfare granny and almost a dozen kids. I think I might hold the record for bringing the most people to church at Vandelia (not sure really, but I know one Sunday I managed 14!) And this became an ongoing thing for months… maybe almost 2 years. And I had wiry, wiggly, squirming kids as young as 3 up to about 9 lined up on that pew squirming through every minute of our boring, stuffy, white-people church worship.
I would let them take communion with me.
This was a hoot too. I would tell the kids, “This is Jesus’s body.” Then I would pop a wafer in my mouth, and the kids said, “Oooo… You eat his body?” But then they all wanted some. And I would repeatedly have to speak up (almost shouting), “Only one piece, ya’ll! We have to share him with everybody here!” Then the grape juice would come around, and every little pie-eyed face looked at it mystified as I told them, “This is Jesus’s blood!”
“YOU CAN ONLY DRINK ONE BLOOD! YOU CANNOT TAKE TWO BLOODS! JOHNNY! PUT THAT BLOOD BACK ON THE TRAY!”
And one day a visitor asked me if these kids ate breakfast before coming, so I started bringing pop tarts to the sanctuary, and we ate them under a sign that prohibited food and drink. And some of the white, stuffy people began to ask if they could take one or two of the children to sit with them and help me manage them all through worship – GOD BLESS YOU IF THAT WAS YOU!!! And then one family began asking if I could drive the van up to McDonalds after worship so they could buy everyone happy meals for lunch… and that became routine. And my hooker, well, I treated her like one of the kids.
Oh, and she got baptized.
But then she fell off the wagon.
This did not stop her from coming to church.
She moved back into the crack house eventually. But I began pulling up to the door in the church van on Sunday mornings and knocking. Someone would come to the door, and I would ask for her. If her drug-addict friends did not retrieve her for me, she got mad at them later after she missed church. So she came up with a solution: she quit getting high on Saturday nights. And that reminded me of my grandfather shining his shoes so he could be sanctified in proper churchly shoes the next day.
But the best of all, Vandelia, the part I treasure the most in my heart is how you kept loving her – and the kids I brought to you. I kept looking into your eyes. I kept remembering how in other settings some of you relished your FOX NEWS and dreaded the “tax-and-spend liberals” who it seemed were always “taking over our country” and providing damaging welfare to “these people” – the same people I was bringing to you who you were LOVING once I got them there!
And never was I more encouraged than this one Sunday when I was late bringing the church van back to the building and found Special Agent M-F Banker/S-S Janitor cleaning up the sanctuary. I happened to walk in to return the keys just when he was cleaning up pop tart crumbs and smeared-in jelly off the cushion on the pew where my crew had been sitting earlier that day. And suddenly I felt the weight of the sacrifice VANDELIA was making by allowing me to have this ministry and by encouraging me in it. And I apologized to this man for our mess.
But you know what he said to me?
He said, “Don’t worry about the pop tart mess, [Agent X]. It’s a sign that Jesus was here today, and I am happy to clean it.”