We timidly walked up to the old church building, a beautiful stone edifice that has ministered on the same street corner downtown for over a century. Years ago, the local soup kitchen purchased the building when the church had dwindled in size. For that reason, it was difficult to find the entrance to the meeting space that the church now rents on Sundays. We entered through the oversized front doors into the sanctuary only to find a few homeless men sitting in the pews. Boxes upon boxes of food and clothing were stacked on the pulpit – likely offerings from the community to serve the ever-increasing number of neighbors who need support.
Outside, a few of the regulars were eager to point us in the right direction. A gentle man, whose face told a greater story of battles fought and won, greeted me at the side door. “Are you here for church?” He welcomed us in, pulling out a few old folding chairs from a dark corner of the room. They weren’t expecting guests. This was a church service for a comfortable community, a small gathering of folks who had been coming here for years. This was my first time, though I didn’t feel like a stranger. I imagined that this is what an AA meeting would be like. A close circle of worn faces, in various stages of brokenness, coming together to experience Immanuel – God with us.
I listened to a female priest teach from the Gospel of Matthew. How refreshing to hear a woman’s voice from the pulpit, or rather from her chair in the circle where she remained one of us. No pretense, no arrogance, just a part of the body with a word for the weary; motherlike in nature. Her interpretation of a familiar text was refreshing in its newness. In walked a younger gentleman. He’s late, and it appears he has a developmental disability. He’s loud and unaware of the social faux pas he makes as he barrels into the room, large in form and in personality. He falls asleep in the service and Mother Pastor gently wakes him to offer him communion. There is no shame, no scornful face or wagging of fingers, and no offense taken. She doesn’t want him to miss the opportunity to partake in this sacred ritual.
She offered prayers to every soul. Some people just wanted a general blessing, because perhaps that week had been gentle to them. Others requested prayers for their loved ones. “Please check on Rachel. She’s feeling really down and she’s talking about suicide.” Pastor Mother had already spoken to her. Another woman thanked everyone for their prayers – her struggling son is doing okay for now and just moved into his new apartment. It was a vulnerability you don’t often see in a church space. It was as if Mother Pastor was gathering her hens one by one to store under the care of her wings. I’ve never seen such intimacy at a worship service; such things aren’t often discussed on Sunday mornings – they’re hidden behind shame and this false belief that if we have the “joy of the Lord” everything should be going well with us. If we are right with God, then we will be blessed. If we’re struggling, perhaps we just aren’t faithful enough. It was refreshing to see God dwelling amid the darkness as I know He does. Immanuel, God with us.
That was the first and only time I visited that old stone church, but the character of Mother Pastor left an impression on my heart that is still very tangible. There are plenty of biblical maternal images for God in the Old Testament. There are six verses alone in the Psalms where God shelters his people under his wings, just as a mother hen provides refuge for her clutch. Jesus himself uses the same metaphor when he assumes that divine role in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Throughout the scriptures we see a God who is a provider, a protector, who is full of mystery and tethered to Her children by love. What if we saw more of that care and vulnerability on Sunday mornings, from our pastors and ourselves?
Maybe our world would be kinder
Maybe we would extend more grace
and be freer to forgive.
Maybe we’d be more honest
and experience more connection.
Maybe we’d have more compassion, empathy and understanding,
and see more hearts transformed.
Maybe we’d be more inclusive,
and more loving.
Maybe we’d be braver
and the world would be more just.
Maybe we’d experience true peace, God’s kingdom revealed here on Earth.
Maybe this is the work that is ours to do – reflecting the motherlike character of God out into the world. Instead of allowing our hearts to become hardened by cynicism and fear and anger, we remain soft. We contend for it. Maybe this is how we actually change the world, by simply loving the people in front of us. Perhaps that is the gift we can offer the world, just as Mother Pastor did that day, at a sparsely attended church service, in a soup kitchen, on a ragamuffin street corner downtown.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so.