Around three years ago, I attended church for the first time in a many years. Prior to that I had rejected the fundamentalism of my youth and as a result ended up spiritually adrift for a long time. When I left the church in 2003, for more details see my forthcoming book from Wipf and Stock Publishers entitled Go Golden, I had no idea that there were other ways to be Christian. Sure, I knew there were other denominations than the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Christ that I had whose doctrines had shaped me until I was in my thirties, but I figured they were all pretty much the same, so rejecting fundamentalism meant rejecting Christianity altogether. Still, I tried to live my life by the greatest commandment and the golden rule. I saw these as the most important aspects of Christ’s teaching, because that’s what Jesus himself said according to the Gospel narratives, and I’d felt like they had been severely downplayed among my fundamentalist friends and family members in the churches I attended, as had Jesus’ pacifism.
By 2015, I was feeling listless and without purpose almost on a daily basis. Out of nowhere, I received a call to go to seminary, which came as quite a shock to me, since I hadn’t attended church regularly in about 12 years and no longer identified as a Christian. Pish-posh to all that sayeth the Lord…and off to seminary I went in August of 2016. Before I began that journey though, I started attending a local United Church of Christ congregation called Wisdom’s Table. The first Sunday I chose to go, I had changed my mind about attending the service as I was walking to the church and figured I would just saunter past as if my intention had never been to enter. The problem arose however that my friend Douglas, who happened to be the minister of music then, and so remains, was out in front of the church, saw me coming, and delightedly welcomed me to the service. I felt that I had no choice but to enter so I sat in the back, alone and mildly bemused. One of the pastors came over to me and introduced himself. We spoke for perhaps a minute before he moved on to greet other people. I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by the size of the congregation and wondered if it was a “going concern” so to speak. That Sunday there were around 25 people in attendance. It was a diverse crowd though, which I was happy to see. It only takes a spark…
I didn’t return to the church for a couple of weeks. When I did, the pastor came up and greeted me by name. I was literally shocked. We’d only spoken for about a minute two weeks prior but he remembered my name which struck me as truly meaningful. I had no clue what his name was though. The Spirit was moving me towards this church and towards seminary simultaneously. I took the next available exploring membership class and found that my questions about matters of faith were not disqualifications for membership the way they are among evangelicals and fundamentalists for whom certitude is sacrosanct and all matters are essentially black and white. At some point while I was taking the membership classes, I finally decided to go forward for communion during the service, which is served each Sunday. The moment I sat back down in the pew after receiving the elements, I was overwhelmed by emotions and I began to sob unabashedly. There was something about the grace of the moment, the grace of belonging, the grace of forgiveness that hit me like a wrecking ball. I was wrecked by grace that day because the pastoral team, the church’s consistory, the music minister, and the congregation had intentionally opened space for it each Sunday and just as intentionally welcomed a spiritually wounded and traumatized man into their midst. Me.
How did this growing, community of faith come to be? There are a variety of factors, and one of the most important is how they/we model Jesus’ call to open commensality. All are welcome at the table of communion, all are welcome to come worship. Communion happens every week for a reason. It brings us all together to experience the love and resurrection power of Jesus. Another difference from other churches that I went to in the past is the focus on grace rather than our sinfulness. Our propensity towards falling short of Jesus’ teachings is addressed in our time of confession but we do not wallow in that mire. We acknowledge our failings and then we embrace the grace and pass the peace with one another. This passing of the peace is taking longer and longer all the time because our church is growing. We routinely have around 100 people in worship now. People of various classes, races, income levels, ages, sexual orientations, and genders. We do our best to model Paul’s teaching in Galatians about those who are in Christ. How gloriously different from the all white, all hetero churches I had known in the past…
Over the course of my many years of attending Baptist and Church of Christ services, I heard a lot of different preachers. Some of them were excellent, though I now find their theological views too often to be authoritarian and lacking in a certain Jesus-like quality, and some were almost impossibly dry and boring. Once in a charismatic church the pastor just walked back and forth in front of the assembled congregants with some rapidity saying things like “hallelujah!” “praise the Lord!” and “amen!” quite loudly for way too long without ever saying anything even remotely substantive the entire time. I once heard a sermon in a conservative Church of Christ in which the preacher argued that it was imperative that communion always be served with one loaf of unleavened bread and one cup of grape juice (never mind the fact that Jesus and his disciples most assuredly drank wine). However, the fact that the Last Supper had been in an upper room could be ignored for some convoluted reason which I am sure had nothing to do with the fact that all Church of Christ churches are a single story high and thus lack an upper room. Basically, I had heard some tremendously good preaching and some tremendously bad preaching in my day.
At Wisdom’s Table, the preaching is excellent. I personally favor highly educated clergy and our pastors are definitely well educated. Each Sunday they bring into the sermon essential contextual details about the passages they are preaching on thus offering historical and social glimpses into the Biblical narratives. Context is key to understanding the Bible and the various genres of literature therein and Lance and Anabel make those connections for the congregation in a way that I’d never experienced before. In fundamentalist and evangelical churches, the sermons were often about the afterlife, sin management, and worldliness, but generally speaking, completely devoid of context. It makes all the difference for a guy like me who enjoys history. They can both flat out preach too. They have different styles and different ways of delivering sermons, and they consistently provide thought provoking, kin-dom building messages for us to take into our hearts and live in our daily lives. Neither is afraid to struggle with the text–and believe me there is plenty in the canon to struggle with– and neither is afraid to speak truth to power in a prophetic voice. That makes all the difference as well.
If you have given up on church, take heart. I am sure there are many others like Wisdom’s Table around the country. Churches that say no to hate and yes to love. Churches that embrace the teachings of Jesus for the here and now as well as the hereafter, whatever that may be. Churches that practice open table fellowship and ask only that each person who comes also welcomes all others who come as well. Churches that seek to serve all of those whom Christ called us to serve. Churches where diversity is joyfully celebrated. Churches who preach the Gospel about the radical love and grace of God. Churches that are growing due to their message not due to their entertainment value. Churches that repudiate racism, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, Antisemitism, and hatred of all kinds and actively work to eliminate it. By your fruits you will be known we are told in scripture…Wisdom’s Table is bearing good fruit. I pray other churches do likewise.
Peace be with you.
Dillon Naber Cruz
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