On the day I announced that I was leaving Highland, that was by far not the most dramatic thing that happened at Highland. It was at best a very distant second.
Let me set this up this story.
So I’m walking into the church auditorium. I’ve got a lot on my mind, and a real sense of dread in telling a room full of people I’ve grown to love over the past 8 years that I’m going to no longer be their preacher.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a heavy set middle aged woman, wearing jeans and a bikini top in the middle of our atrium.
And I think to myself “Well, that’s Highland” and keep on walking.
Show(ers) and Tell
See, for years now, Highland has opened up the church on Sunday mornings and let people who are homeless take showers. And so I figured that was what was happening, and maybe this was all that this woman had to change into.
Well, a few minutes later, after church has started, this woman decides that the bikini top is a bit too…restrictive.
And so she takes it off.
As in, she was entirely topless.
In the Church Atrium.
On a Sunday Morning.
With lots of church people around.
Now, I’d like to pause this story here, and ask you to consider what you think might happen next? Would she be tacked and covered? Shamed and reprimanded? Imagine the church you attend or used to attend. What happens in this very awkward and surprising moment?
One of the things that haunts me about churches in America, especially churches in the Bible Belt is that we often act like people need to have all their junk in order before they come to church. It’s as if we’ve forgotten Jesus’ words, “It’s the sick who need a doctor” and we all try to come to church as people who lives are doing just fine-thank you very much.
And we don’t do the one thing that can open us up to healing and true Gospel transformation.
Like our original ancestors, we come wearing our fig leaves and hiding whatever shape our shame has taken this particular week.
Maybe that’s the reason we’re so uncomfortable with being confronted by the real brokenness of the world happening around us in our churches. Because if we can’t ignore it in the people around us, we might have to begin to acknowledge it in ourselves.
So back to the story.
This woman is standing topless in the middle of our church atrium, and immediately people begin to…ummm….notice.
Mrs. Nell, a senior saint at Highland is the first to take action, quickly followed by Bro. Dickie and Bro. Bruce (an elder) and they become, shall we say, First Responders.
They quickly gather around her, and walk her into a nearby classroom away from public view. And then Mrs. Nell asked her “Honey, why did you do that?”
Turns out that, as you might imagine, she was high, and she wasn’t entirely sure of where she was or what she was doing. And of course, we asked her to not do that again. She told us that she was, or had always dreamed of being a stripper, and we told her she needed to not come back until she was sober.
So what does this have to do with me and what I want to say as I’m leaving Highland?
A Dignified Community
I’m telling this story because in a weird way it tells so much about the church that I’ve been blessed to work at for the past 8 years. A woman who is strung out on drugs comes into church and takes off her clothes in front of a lot of church people, and she is immediately confronted with the reality of the situation, but also with dignity and respect.
Throughout the years at Highland, I’ve seen some variation of this story happens hundreds and hundreds of times. Not all of them are as dramatic, and most of the time without the nudity, but still something like this.
I’ve seen elders clean up vomit, addicts being loved with equal parts confrontation and acceptance, victims of abuse sheltered, mentally challenged people treated like family and poor people given special honor.
If you were to ask me my favorite thing about Highland it would be this. She knows how to see people…really.
In his great book, Endangered Gospel, John Nugent talks about how this is the best way that the church can tell the Gospel to the watching world. Instead of trying to vote in “Christian Values” or force the way of Jesus on people who don’t believe, the church is an alternative community that shows the world what God is like by how we love serve and treat and receive one another.
Here’s how Nugent says it:
How would our meek, poor, downtrodden neighbors receive our witness to a better world—a world in which their lowly status does not disqualify or demote them? Would it be good news to them that neither their dead-end jobs nor dysfunctional families need to define them? Who would notice if we were to parade this sort of kingdom around our cities? Let’s imagine we did this. Imagine we proclaimed a kingdom where the least are the greatest. We tell our struggling neighbors the good news. We tell them to taste and see the goodness of God’s kingdom. We invite them to church. What do they experience there? Are they greeted joyfully and without discrimination? Or do we size them up like people at work do? Are they welcomed into our homes and around our kitchen tables and fireplaces? Or are they funneled into assimilation programs in commercially carpeted conference rooms? What does our life together say about the kingdom we proclaim?
I can tell you that after 8 years of ministry here, I have seen this vision come true time and time again. People who walk in with their head hung in shame, or fearful of the way they might be received are given a glimpse into the Kingdom of God, and what God is like.
I’ve seen people from all walks of life taken in, rehabilitated, honored and loved.
For the rest of my life, I will always remember that the first words that this topless woman heard on that Sunday morning were “Honey…”
Because that’s the kind of people Highland is filled with. Not because they are so great, but because they are profoundly aware of how much God has forgiven and changed them.
Because they realize that to come to church pretending that everything is fine is to be just hiding behind the same kind of metaphorical fig leaves of our Adam and Eve.
It is to come to church, overdressed.