I play at golf. I have no faith in my game. I hit the ball all over the place and when I address the ball I never know if the good Larry or the evil Larry is going to hit the ball. Lately, my golf game is kind of a metaphor for my religious views.
I continue to play golf in spite of the evil Larry because when the good Larry stands at the ball, takes a back swing and hits the golf ball on the sweet spot of the club and the ball rises and goes straight and true and long, it is a wonderful feeling. It is why I play golf, eternal hope that the good Larry will prevail more than the evil, chili-dipping, shanking, slicing Larry. It’s the same with my faith, I try to be eternally optimistic that I’m going to believe as I should believe.
I identify as a Christian because that’s how I was raised and that’s what I want to believe. I struggle with my belief or more accurately my unbelief. Not every day, because I don’t think about it every day, I struggle on the days I think about what I just cannot believe. I have often wondered if I am Christian enough because I have doubts about the Bible, Immaculate Conception, the Holy Ghost and a litany of other beliefs. But, sometimes, events occur that shine a light on the importance of my doubts.
On Christmas day Marty and I sat in our van in the parking lot of 1st Presbyterian Church in Waco, our church of 20 years. It was misting, it was cool, it was overcast and there were only about three other cars in the parking lot. I looked across the street at the building that is our church and remembered the past, flashed on the events of our lives that revolved around the church and wondered how we fit into this place that has always been such a prominent part of our personal history.
Marty and I were sans caregiver today so I moved her wheelchair to the lift and down she went into the damp parking lot. We scurried across a sleepy street, up the ramp to the church and the heavy wooden doors came open, opened by a familiar face welcoming us to our church.
Church services on Christmas day are sparsely attended because of all of the family functions and the fat man with the beard. It’s a toned down affair where everyone sits at the front for the abbreviated service. Our minister, Jimmie, was dressed, not in his normal robes but jeans and a plaid pull-over hoody.
He greeted Marty and I warmly and helped me situate Marty in our pew, the pew we sat in for Erin’s wedding, the pew that had been moved over to accommodate a wheelchair, the pew our children sat in Sunday after Sunday while Marty and I sat behind them.
The small crowd settled into their spots around us as Jimmie dipped his hands into the waters of the baptismal font and said, “Welcome home children of God.” There we were, Marty in her wheelchair, me dressed in doubt.
I knew this was going to be a little different service as Becky, the organist, sat at the grand piano right in front of us and began playing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Marty and her women’s chorus rocked this gospel tune many times; it’s a toe-tapper. Becky was bobbing her head and weaving as she played. Presbyterians, being the frozen chosen, don’t often bob and weave in a church service.
As the service progressed we said prayers and began singing a Christmas carol. Marty loved to sing but doesn’t sing very much anymore. The strokes affected her vocal control and she can’t maintain her pitch very well and she doesn’t like that. But, there she sat, in our pew, singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” just as surely and loudly as the rest of us. I looked up at Jimmie standing behind the pulpit singing, watching Marty singing, and I remembered why I loved being there, it wasn’t about my belief or unbelief, it was about our belonging to a community of doubters and believers.
We moved through the rest of the service praying, singing and listening, then as the service came to an end Jimmie and his sidekick DeDe came down from the chancel area to stand between the pews and deliver the charge and the benediction. The charge is the same every week, I have heard it, Marty has heard it hundreds of times, it is part of the service Marty knows and loves. It is part of the service that carries great meaning for me.
As Jimmie walked past the baptismal font he once again dipped his hands in the water, shook them off, walked up to Marty and put his hands on her face, connecting Marty to him, connecting Marty to our past, cementing Marty to our faith in a loving God.
Jimmie stood and started the charge, “Go out into the world in peace.”
Marty, surprisingly, without hesitation, without embarrassment or self-consciousness said, in full voice for all to hear “Have courage.”
Jimmie looked at Marty and continued with the litany, “hold on to what is good,” and Marty replied “return no evil for evil.”
Jimmie then walked up to Marty, bent over and wrapped his arms around her shoulders and together, with her broken memory responding and his gentle reminders, they continued and completed the charge to all Christians, to all people of faith, even those like me who doubt their own belief, “Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak and help the suffering, honor all people, love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
DeDe, the young woman minister assisting Jimmie that Christmas day struggled with her tears, and closed the service with the Benediction. I sat there and struggled to tamp down my own tears as I felt Marty’s action bring a sense of peace on this day for all who were there. It was no longer about my doubts or my faith.
Marty and I went back out the doors of the church, through the heavy mist and across the still deserted road. I put Marty on the lift and in the van and got her locked down in the van, forgetting about my doubts, not worrying at all about what I didn’t believe. Through Marty’s unrelenting courage to recover and Jimmie’s recognition of God’s grace through Marty, I remembered, it’s not about what I don’t understand or struggle over, it’s about what God does and I believe God smiled at us that day through my wife.