Yesterday I attended a meeting where one of our most brilliant young leaders had us think about the word “church” and the many different ways we use it in our daily vocabulary. The point of the exercise was to help us see how language impacts our thinking.
As our ideas flew around the table, we were struck by the reality that many of our descriptors had a lot to do with a building. Maybe even more about our own needs and less to do with God.
I had one of those ah-hah moments. You know the kind. Feels like God smacks you upside the head with a wet beach towel. Your eyes sting. You see stars, and then suddenly, you get it.
Our young leader reminded us that the early church was really about family and community. Yes, this man we call Jesus really built a community, and He asked His followers to love. Unconditionally.
I know this stuff, really, I do. Knowing and doing, however, are two very different things.
Unconditional love is a tall order in a world that is seemingly upside down and burning in flames.
I’d call it abundant thought of the highest order, and isn’t it exactly what we’re all longing for? A deep and abiding sense of community.
On the tour map, The Placita, also known as Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, was built in 1910 in the heart and birthplace of the city. It was a big deal in its day, and if you’re a Catholic living in Los Angeles, it’s considered an honor and a privilege to get baptized there. My grandmother Isabel was a big fan of The Placita, and, I presume, of God, so even though we lived nearly one hour away, I walked the long aisle of the sanctuary in my white lace dress and matching veil to receive my First Communion.
Before that momentous event, however, I had to make my First Confession. I hated that part of loving Jesus. Seemed to me that if He knew my heart, why couldn’t He just read my mind and tally up all the bad stuff I’d done. Couldn’t we just talk about it?
To a first grader looking up at the massive doorway arched by menacing angels, the church had an ominous air about it. I can still hear the organ music blaring up against the stained glass windows. I see the healing glow of freshly lit candles, the solid gold devotional altars on all sides, each overshadowed by pictures of saints and the Stations of the Cross.
What I remember most, however, is the dark, dank, and dusty wooden cubicle known as the confessional. And, on the other side of the slated window, the soft shadow of a priest who whispered, “Yes, my child, how have you sinned?”
You want to say, “Father, give me a break. I’m seven years old, for Heaven’s sake.” But you can’t say that because he is, after all, a priest, and the only connection you have with God, so you keep your mouth shut while you rack your brain for some kind of sin that a seven-year-old might commit.
Seconds later I hear myself eagerly respond, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I stole five cookies from my grandmother’s cookie jar.”
The priest tells me to say five Hail Mary’s, and upon leaving the confessional, I realize that now I’ve really sinned because I’ve just lied to a priest not once but twice. One, I didn’t steal the cookies. Two, we didn’t even own a cookie jar.
In that moment, I experience the early waves of shame, guilt, sorrow, and humiliation. It’s doubtful that five Hail Mary’s are enough to keep me from the fires of Hell.
High school brought a new set of challenges. They called themselves nuns, and they made us wear uniforms. Grey pleated skirts and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and, of all things, a scarlet red sweater. You could see the girls from Sacred Heart coming down the street a mile away.
Our skirt hemlines could not rise above the mid-point of our knee. Period. No excuses. Exactly at mid-point, and when a nun in a black and white penguin suit says exact, you listen if you’re smart.
So, in the early morning hours of homeroom, we had to kneel before a cadre of Dominican sisters to make certain that we were in compliance with this very strict rule. This was, after all, the era of the miniskirt, and while we were a student body of all girls, there was always the danger that some seedy element of the male gender might catch a glimpse of our upper thigh as he gunned his engine past our high school campus.
Oh, God, forbid and may all the saints have mercy.
Being a kid who came from a broken home, I liked the structure that Catholic school provided, but I hated the oxford shoes. It was the white polish that drove me wild, how the layers eventually made my shoes look cracked, worn, and dirty. There was enough of that surrounding me in the inner city, and I was either rebellious or artistic enough to step out of compliance. I chose instead to wear white buckskin shoes.
Every single night, without fail, I would remove the shoestrings, carefully bleach them to their purest white, and hang them to dry. Then, I would carefully brush and buff each shoe with a white powder specifically designed to maintain the buckskin quality.
Somewhere along the way between dark confessionals, enforced hemlines, and buck-skinned shoes, I came to know a Jesus that loved me. On Sundays, I would sit as close to the front of the church as possible. I loved the rituals performed by the priest in all his glorious attire. His robe threaded in gold and silver, luminous against the backdrop of the altar that was blinding in its own golden glory. This was where God literally hung out. I liked that about Him. He was always there, the One I could rely on.
Thank you brilliant young church leader for reminding me that I love a Jesus who doesn’t care if my shoes, or my soul, are buffed white to perfection. He’s a Jesus who loves me in spite of myself, who wants me to know the joy and celebration of community. And, I don’t have to necessarily be in the building for us to connect. I just have to love as He loved.
Together, He and I can just sit down and talk about it.