Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Altar Is Open

On this Christmas Eve, I present to you a true story from August 2011, of finding GOD in a storefront church.

The church on 4th Street in Flagstaff evades us. Nearly hidden in a strip mall, we overshoot it by about three streets, ending up at the top of the hill where the bigger churches stand.

We are hitting the streets in Scottish mode, dressing in our tartan finery on the summer morning after a Highland ball. I choose my red Royal Stewart kilt outfit and blue Jacobite bonnet with the red-and-white diced hose, and she matches it with her tartan dress and red shawl.

We finally locate the New Testament Christian Church in the middle of strip mall, right next to the shell of an old printing company. A man in a suit waves to us as we pull up to the door next to a homemade sign hanging in the window.

Madame and I glance at each other.

"Do you have a bad vibe about this place?" she asks.


Not a bad vibe, but a curious feeling. If GOD is working through this couple to lead us to this micro-church, maybe there is a reason we need to be here.

"GOD led us here," I said.

That man in the suit, Pastor Leonard, welcomes us into a small room of white walls and metal folding chairs with hymnals resting on the end of each row. A worn console piano stands in one corner. The pulpit stands in the other. In front of both of them, a prayer altar waits, presumably with room for two, flanked with boxes of tissue.

Madame and I quickly find seats, and the hymnals immediately attract her attention. Pastor Leonard's wife engages my lady in conversation as Madame flashes back to the church of her youth, that old-time religion with the prayer books instead of the praise band. I quickly deduce Pastor Leonard's wife is the one who had handed Madame the business card last month at the Flagstaff Celtic Festival that is our invitation for this morning.

"A lot of people arrive at the last minute," Pastor Leonard observes as the 11:00 service time draws nearer.

Two more women enter, one with a baby. They sit across from us, quiet and unfazed by this strange couple in bright Scottish dress.

Pastor Leonard starts things off with a prayer, a very charismatic prayer, the kind where people stand up and hold their hands up as the leader radiates with passion towards Heaven. I have not ever experienced anything like it in any church, not the Presbyterian Church of my youth, or the Cool Church of my present, or the other churches I have visited at one time or another. Feeling a bit awkward about it at first, I dive in with my hands out.

Our pastor switches to the role of music director as he sits down at the battered piano and invites us to turn to "Washed In The Blood," one of those old-time Gospel favorites. His voice booms through the microphone as the console instrument resonates powerful chords at full volume -- joyful noises, even if he makes some changes.

"I had to change the key on that," he admits with a humble, aw-shucks demeanor. "One of the keys doesn't work on that piano."

He soon makes another role change, to that of usher, as he collects the offering... from all four of us parishioners in the room.

Those other people who Pastor Leonard thought might show at the last minute have not arrived. He is preaching to his wife, his daughter, two ladies, one baby, Madame, and myself. This is more prayer meeting than worship service, but our Pastor goes on undaunted by the numbers, confident in his mission as he plunges into his teaching from the book of Isaiah, on what it means to be "Washed In The Blood" of CHRIST, as we had just sung.

Over the next half hour, he delivers a teaching of one part sermon and one part blue-collar stand-up act.

"But Pastor Leonard," he calls, his voice morphing into a high-pitched wail to imitate those people who think they are faithful but aren't, or weren't sure if they were.

And yet, he doesn't sound like an evangelist nor a televangelist, but rather just a guy who's own fire for GOD wants everybody to know it in his own way, freely admitting he had made lots of sinful choices before Getting Right With GOD. It's a refreshing honesty, or maybe it sounds fresh because we're sitting so close to it. It's GOD straight up in my face, undiluted, unhindered by what others would call a safe distance or an indoor voice.

As he winds down his sermon, he invites us again to pray with him, charismatically and to have our own conversations with GOD, especially if we feel we have unfinished business with HIM.

"And if you wish to come up here," he said, "the altar is open."

"Do you want to reaffirm?" Pastor Leonard's wife says.

Madame and I turn to each other. We didn't need to say a word.

Seconds later we kneel at that altar built for two, Madame in her plaid dress, me in my kilt, hands folded, heads bowed, Pastor Leonard singing with all his might as he plays the piano, his wife praying with exaltation and encouraging us to speak up so GOD could hear us. The tissue waits for us, but we won't need it.

The only things I can ask of GOD in that moment is for HIM to forgive me, to use me, to guide me. That's all I can see from where I kneel. Anything else seems self-serving in that moment, surrounded by strangers praying for us, not minding our clothes. It washes over me like a second baptism. I can tell Madame is hungry for it. She needs it. I need it.

The two women and the child leave shortly after the service. I can't tell if they've learned anything or made any connection with their MAKER, but Madame and I stay and talk with our newfound pastoral friends for what seems like half an hour as we share our lives and our love of history, particularly Scottish history on this day.

Eventually Madame and I climb back into the car.

"Remember what I told you?" I say. "GOD guided us here for a reason."

The reason stood clear: A church is not merely a building, but a group of people gathered in GOD's name. It's not about the pulpit or anything else up front, but the effort we put into understanding what GOD is trying to say to us, and the willingness of people to take up the mission of helping us along the way.

EPILOGUE: Sadly, the little storefront church is gone now. I have not been able to find Pastor Leonard or his wife, but I am sure GOD is taking care of them and leading them on to the next missionary assignment.