“I appreciate your invitation,” said my friend. “But I really can’t come back to the church. That’s quite impossible.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“It’s … ” she hesitated. “It’s because I’ve never been part of any church. It’s embarrassing, but other than a couple of weddings, I’ve never even been inside a church. And you can’t come back to somewhere you haven’t been.”
“No, I guess not,” I said. “And that makes it my turn to be embarrassed. Didn’t you say – I must have surmised, from some of the things you said earlier, that you had spent some time in Sunday School when you were a youngster.”
“No. My uncle and my mother used to argue about religion quite a bit, and I picked up some things from that. There were a few times that my uncle said that he was going to come by to drive my brother and me to Sunday School, and once or twice my mother almost seemed to agree; but he never actually did.”
“It sounds like that was a little disappointing, that he didn’t show up to take you,” I suggested.
“Yeah, it was,” she sighed. “We kind of wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”
“That does mean, then,” I nodded, “that ‘come back’ is probably the wrong way to put it. But, of course, it’s not too late even now to come and find out the reason for all the fuss.”
“That might be kind of nice,” she said. “But I just don’t think I could. Everybody else there knows what to do and when to do it, but I hardly even know what happens in a church. I don’t think I’d fit in.”
“That could make it a bit more difficult,” I conceded. “Of course, if you had gone as a child, you would have found out what goes on in a church a long time ago, and by now you’d be an old hand at it.”
“Yeah, I guess I would,” she said. “I wish we’d at least tried it out.”
“And yet you might well have felt just as uncertain then about what you were supposed to do as you feel now.”
She laughed. “Yeah, the first few times would have been pretty difficult then, too. But maybe when you’re a kid you don’t realize quite how embarrassed you are when you don’t know what to do. And at least you have the fact that you’re just a kid as an excuse.”
“Yes, I think the young may sometimes be a little more resilient,” I agreed. “But perhaps grown-ups have the experience and maturity to perceive that they have many times learned to do things that they had at first thought they wouldn’t be able to do, and so they know they can learn to do some other new thing now.”
“Well, maybe,” she said. “But it still feels pretty awkward. I mean, all those people have been friends with each other for a long time. Not only do they know what to do, but they know each other, and they don’t know me. I just don’t think I’d fit in.”
“Actually,” I said, “they would want to offer you a warm-hearted welcome. One or another of them might be a little clumsy about it, because people do sometimes stumble even while they’re trying to do the right thing. But even beyond their own desire to put you at ease, they would have another strong reason for helping you feel at home.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“In the Bible, the Apostle Paul makes the comparison between the church and a great olive tree, the Tree of Life, nourished by deep roots. Many of us, he says, were like wild olive shoots, scraggly and dry: but now we have been grafted into this great olive tree, so that we can share in its richness and fruitfulness.”
“Well, that’s nice,” she said. “But I certainly don’t feel as if anything like that has happened to me.”
“And that,” I suggested, “is because you can only see the beginnings of it happening right now. There is a place in this great olive tree for you, a place where you will fit in so very well, because the guy who owns the olive grove has prepared that place especially for you. And the people in the church know that they, too, have been grafted in so that they can feel the essence of the Tree of Life flowing through them: and so they know they want to help you fit in as well, in order for you to find the growth and nourishment you need.”
“It sounds good,” she said. “But I just don’t know if I can really believe it would happen that way.”
“None of us does, before we start,” I said. “But God has indeed prepared a place for us, a place that is there waiting for us, as soon as we are ready to come find out about it.”
Jay Ayers is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Louisiana and the First Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green.