“And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
My husband and I were both religious studies college majors, religious studies high school teachers, then religious studies college instructors. Eric and I were high school sweethearts, and one of the things we joke about is that our first phone conversation was two hours long because we were discussing theology and world religions (or what we knew of them at 17). This shared interest of ours has lasted decades, through graduate school, household moves, job changes and raising a child.
Together, we extensively explored and joined the Presbyterian church, the Catholic church and a nondenominational church with really upbeat music, all while delving deeply into study of other American Christian denominations. In our free time, we visited temples, mosques, synagogues, religious art exhibits and religious conference after religious conference. This has always been a deep part of who we are and what we share—it’s just fun for us.
The downside to this, as with any other field of study or skill, is that the more you know, the pickier you become. I imagine that Italian chefs don’t want to eat at Olive Garden, and clothing designers don’t shop for jeans at Target. When it comes to all things religious, I am less than forgiving. So is Eric.
So we had our usual routine: we attended a Sunday service and promptly went into heavy evaluative mode. We analyzed the sermon’s content and delivery, the music, the artwork, the bulletins, the comfort of the seats, the flow of the service, the presence or absence of liturgical or sacramental elements and how they were explained and offered.
Then we analyzed the duration of the service, the friendliness of the people, the prayers, the offering, the childcare, the noise level, the amount of silence, the contemplative spirit. Next, the sense of mission, the energy, the gender and ethnic diversity and equality, the age ranges, the coffee. … I wonder how we weren’t exhausted from all this!
We were, for sure, disappointed. With all that to evaluate—and since there’s no such thing as a “perfect” worship service—how could we not be?
One Sunday morning, we were in our car in our garage, having a familiar discussion. Eric asked, “Where do you want to go to church?” I replied, “I don’t know; where do you want to go?” On we went, weighing the possibilities. No prospect seemed especially fun or helpful, more like another restaurant for us self-appointed critics to evaluate—not for any published critique, just for my husband and me to discuss privately, to think about how things could be better.
In the middle of our conversation, our 2-year-old son piped up from his booster seat: “I want to go to where the man is.” Whoa! A third voice in this conversation? Surprised and eager to hear his thoughts, I turned around in my seat and asked, “What man, honey? Father John? Pastor Bill?” My little boy said, “No. Jesus. I want to go to where he is.”
I looked at Eric, stunned. Oh—that man. I had forgotten.
That Sunday, after my son’s remarkable proclamation, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. Jesus was the only reason I needed to worship.
It wasn’t as if our son had added one more important thing to consider in our conversation. It was as if he had exploded the conversation, then brought in a new one. My husband and I were silent. I asked, “Where is Jesus?” Our son described the local Lutheran church, the look of the buildings and surroundings. We had visited there a couple times, and apparently he thought Jesus lived there.
It was as good a place as any, so we went. That morning, for the first time in decades, I worshiped. I went there to be with “the man.” I realized it truly didn’t matter what kind of music or lighting or doughnuts they had. If the theology was decent (i.e., about love and grace) and the sacraments were offered to everyone, that would be what “the man” wanted.
I realized that if I were suddenly placed in a remote country and there was only one Christian church for miles, I would go there (unless its theology was horribly shaming, my one deal breaker). The floor might be dirt, the bread might be stale, the music might be bizarre to my taste, the sermon might be long or short. What difference would any of that make? Jesus would be there.
As my husband and I learned about religious art and architecture, myth, ritual, history, literature, philosophy, theology and the psychology of religious experience, Jesus himself faded into the background. His presence was as invisible to us as the art and people were visible, his words as inaudible as the sermon and music were audible.
I thought of myself as educated, but I had also become a bit lazy, unwilling to see and hear with my heart and intuition, and using only my five senses and reason. But Jesus never went anywhere. He just remained unseen, unheard.
That Sunday, after my son’s remarkable proclamation, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. Jesus was the only reason I needed to worship. He was the only gift to receive. I left immensely grateful that I had met “the man” again that day. That feeling has never left me.
My 2-year-old is now 20. My husband and I are Lutherans, and I’m a Lutheran pastor. We love the ELCA for a thousand reasons: it offers the Protestant theology we believe in, as well as the liturgical and sacramental sensibilities we adored as Catholics. It has an open Holy Communion table that welcomes all people, and it strives for justice and peace while also focusing on grace. But the bottom line is that I have found a place where I can intentionally meet Jesus Christ.
As a pastor, I’m often around people who express likes and dislikes about their worship experience. I understand this; no one was pickier than I. However, as I often tell these people, we worship leaders aren’t trying to produce Hamilton; we’re trying to help people encounter Jesus Christ. The bells and whistles are nice but ultimately don’t matter.
When I get caught up in the details of budgets, meetings, paperwork, contracts, hymn choices and the million other minutiae of church, I regularly return to my son’s leveling words, “I want to go to where the man is.” All else follows from that.