It’s a word that stirs many emotions. Some of those emotions are warm and fuzzy. Others are frigid and painfully sharp. We all have different ideas of what church is, what it was, and what it should be. But we all share most of the same memories. We sang the same songs. We studied the same stained-glass window of Christ. We listened to the same children’s choir wander through the notes of “Jesus Loves Me.” We read the same Bible, loved the same God, and felt the same tingle of joy during the last verse of “Amazing Grace.” We grew up at church.
I grew up in the Dunlap Adventist Church. I remember getting into trouble when I was 3 or 4 years old. After repeated warnings from my dad, and more redheaded defiance from me, he would pick me up and walk down the long aisle. My family sat near the front, so this solemn march was always witnessed by the entire assembly of holy saints. One Sabbath, just as I was almost out the door, I called out, “Please, pray for me!” After my spanking, during the long walk back to the front, through tear-fogged eyes, I saw smiles and felt warm acceptance. I grew up a little. I learned that people at church loved me--red-faced, rebellious, repentant me.
I remember the stormy night when Shannon, our family dog, was hit by a car. The pastor dropped whatever sanctified chore he was doing and helped my dad wrap our whimpering, bloody friend in an old blanket. I remember when Mom and Dad let Brittany, my little sister, and me see Shannon. The wet-dog smell, the broken leg, and the deep, hurting eyes tore into my 7-year-old heart. This was my first brush with the horror of this world. And there sat the pastor, holding my soggy, dirty dog, stroking her hair and gently telling her that it would be all right. I grew up a little that night. I learned that the best sermons are not preached but lived.
I remember JP and Marie Lewis. These old patriarchs of the church adopted our little family into their great big love. Every Sabbath they sat five rows up from the back on the right side. Between Sabbath school and church I made it my habit to always stop by and shake JP’s rough hand and hug Marie’s petite shoulders. They loved me, hard and true. Something in their eyes, in their worn-out chuckles, told me that no matter what I did, or how big I messed up, they would be sitting in the fifth row up from the back on the right side, loving me.
One Sabbath, for one reason or another, I didn’t go and shake JP’s hand. Maybe I was too busy, or maybe I forgot. I don’t remember why I didn’t say hello to JP that day. But I do remember that his usual spot was empty the next Sabbath. Death had stolen my old friend, and I had missed my last chance to say goodbye. I grew up a little. I learned to never be too busy to shake a hand, share a smile, and just love.
I grew up in that old church. It was there that I preached my first sermon, played my first guitar solo, and was baptized. I have seen babies dedicated, lovers joined, and funerals held; many lessons were learned under those wooden rafters.
I guess that’s what church is all about. It’s not a place to walk in perfect, talk perfect, and leave even more perfect. It’s a place to be real, to kneel before the Almighty. In this holy sanctuary, in which we pick up Cheerios before they are crunched under tiny feet and listen to an 8-year-old stammer through a verse in Romans, we encounter the Creator of children, the Lord of love, and the Savior of sinners. We come to church to worship, to grow, to learn. I have. And I thank God for my church family. We have grown up a little . . . together.
After graduating with his English Education degree at Southern Adventist University in 2006, Grant Graves will launch his teaching career in Saipan, teaching fifth and sixth grades, enjoying God's beautiful creation, and wearing lots of sunscreen.