Sunday, June 2, 2013

That House on Straight Street

Today's entry is by good friend, extraordinary writer, and joyous sojourner, Scott Whisler

The New Testament story of Saul is haunting me now.

In preparation for Pentecost Sunday we studied the rather dramatic story of Saul's Damascus Road meet-up with the well-lit voice of Jesus from the 9th chapter of Acts.

That was weeks ago. We've all moved on. There is a lot more bible to read, right?

But I can't seem to let it go. Or maybe vice versa.

I confess that I had always bought what I had largely been sold about Saul's conversion: that it was a one-off deal, an exceptional event, an experience unique to Saul that was necessary for the invention of the great Apostle Paul.

The more I read it and think about it, though, the less I am inclined to think that Chapter 9 is the story of an unparalleled event. In fact, now that the thing keeps following me around so, and I can't stop thinking about it, I am starting to see wonderful patterns there, ingenious design, even beauty.

There's gold in this story that I never saw before. It makes me thankful that the story never gave up on me.

Like this thing: I had never really noticed that the blinded, dirty, and confused Saul was hand-walked by his buddies into town and checked into a house on Straight Street owned by a guy named Judas.

I had never really noticed that Saul sat there in this guy's house for three days, not eating, not drinking. Just sitting there. Like a lump.

A big, scary, confused, blind, withering lump.

I had never really noticed that there were these three days of darkness and confusion and hunger for Saul, and then a knock on the door, and then there's another guy--Ananias--walking in to whisper his little message from God for Saul.

I had never really noticed that Saul was such a lump and Ananias was just some guy and that all of this was being done in Judas's house.

I had never really noticed, I guess, that God orchestrated all of this in this story so that all of these characters ended up in the same place, under the same roof, for this incredible scene where Ananias forced himself, through his fear of this terrible man, to extend his shaking hands out towards and onto Saul's face so that Saul might see again.

The story is really pretty specific about these names and the places and the times between events. And specific about the place: Judas's place.

A certain house on a certain street.

A house where it was safe to take a dangerous man who probably didn't have many local friends.

A house where it was safe for an important man with a big reputation and lots of power to sit awhile and be helpless and ponder his lot without really knowing anything for sure.

A house where it was safe for enemies to encounter each other.

A house where the hunted can have a hand in healing the hunter.

I guess I had never really thought about this story being a story about a particular kind of house. But it has reminded me of the importance of this particular kind of house.

It has reminded me, I guess, about how a guy’s house can become God’s house.

One summer during my college days I worked as an intern to the music minister at a large Pentecostal church located in a blue-collar Illinois town. The people of this town were struggling to make a go of it as the manufacturing jobs dried up during the 1980's. Even so, the church seemed to keep growing. The church's sanctuary was enormous by my small-town standards, but all three Sunday morning services were filled every week. There were about 150 folks in the choir. By the time I arrived the church had 14 mostly full-time clergy staffing the various departments and ministries of the church. In sum, this church was a sprawling, lively organism. It was all a little overwhelming to me.

These were the first pastoral staff meetings I had ever been privy to. They were as crowded as many of the Sunday morning services I had experienced growing up in my little Iowa church. Once a week we gathered around a large conference table that barely fit into the meeting room, with the senior pastor at the head of the table. 

The senior pastor of that church was a giant man with a deep, resonant voice, a Zen-like golf swing, and a too obvious toupee, but he was also a serious theologian, a deep thinker, and a wonderful writer and, most of all, a true shepherd. 

I felt a little important being there with all of these professional God-people. At the beginning of the first staff meeting I was invited to attend, the senior pastor noted my presence kindly and confirmed my welcome. Right after that, though, his face went all serious and, in a stern voice, and in front of everyone else, he told me that the business that was conducted during those meetings was "pastoral business" and that the things spoken of there were "not to be spoken of elsewhere."

And then he asked that I acknowledge that I understood the import of what he had just said.

Which I did, voice a bit shaky. "Yes, sir," I said.

I got it. "The cone of silence." This was serious stuff.

I didn't say "cone of silence," but I was thinking it. Shakily thinking it.


And then the serious business of pastoring was engaged. And my education in church business began.

Here's what I learned in those meetings:

People who come to church aren't perfect. They have problems.

The pastors who work in churches aren't perfect and they have problems.

The people who sing in the choir, even the ones who have sung faithfully for 20 years or more, they have problems as well, both musical and otherwise.

And this: everybody who comes to church--all the people,

and all kids of all the people, and the parents of the people,

and the preachers,

and the associate pastors who want to preach but don't get to,

and the old preachers who used to preach and probably shouldn't anymore,

and the spouses of the preachers and pastors and old preachers,

and the singers,

and the nice lady at the organ,

and the bashful teenage girls who hide out in the nursery with the unhappy little kids,

and the ushers who sneak out to the parking lot during the sermon for a cigarette--

all the people,

all of them always bring all of their problems with them to the church every time they come to church.

All of them.
All of their problems.
Every. Time.

It turned out that I was the only person in the staff meeting that first day who was unaware of this. As I think back, I wonder if my mouth did not hang open in shock during the entire three hour meeting as the woes of all of the people were laid on the table, pondered, argued, then prayed over.

I really can't say much more specific about it or, you know, the cone of silence….

But I can say that I also learned this from this senior pastor: I learned about "sanctuary".

This being a lesson about "what the church is for."

This senior pastor had a thing about "sanctuary". For him, Sunday morning was not a time for loud hootin' and clanging things. This pastor seemed to have some sort of secret empathetic connection to the cuts and scars and bruises and scabs of his people that was the primary focus of all of his church business. This pastor seemed painfully aware that his people were all week getting let go, turned down, beat up, run over.

In that first meeting, and all of the remaining meetings that summer, and in all of his sermons, and the many books that I learned that he had written and was still writing, the objective appeared to be the creation and maintenance of a place--both physically and figuratively--of safety, of resort, of restoration, of healing.

Mainly, I remember that this guy was deadly serious about the physical sanctuary of the church being an actual "sanctuary" for the souls who showed up there with all of their wounds. That's what God’s house was for.

That's what the songs were for.
That's what the sermon was for.
If any of the songs or sermons or decorations or announcements or furniture were not about making that house safe for the souls, those things were not going to happen in this house.

That’s the kind of house you want to be dropped off at when you have a particularly bad fall on a dirty road and you can’t see straight and you are hearing voices.

That's where you go when you get to the end of the Damascus Road. You get somebody to walk you into town. You take a left on Straight Street. You go down to that third house on the right where Judas lives.

You go to the place where everybody knows your name, even if your name isn't really all that pleasant, you know? You go there because you are allowed to sit there and be quiet and confused and you can refuse to eat if you want. You can fail to see what the point is--that's okay, too.

You can play the lump if you want.

You can wait there, in the dark, and ponder your lot, for three days or for 20 years.

You can wait there until you hear the knock on the door.

And even after that, you can stay. Because it’s safe that way.

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