I've been involved in ministry or "church work" for over two decades. Don't let my youthful persona fool you; I'm now closer to drawing Social Security than I am to drawing Crayola inspired pictures on construction paper. Obviously, Social Security may not be an option for me or my generation, but that's a column for another time.
Back to the ministry: Yes, the church has been my life. I have loved it and hated it; embraced it and attacked it; been welcomed by it with open arms, and been told I have no place under the steeple (or at least behind the pulpit). I escaped the church for a time – partly because of crisis, mainly out of exhaustion – but God won't leave me alone and won't let me leave.
So while my ongoing participation in faith has not changed, my approach to faith has. For many years I participated in religious systems that made it hard on people to get to know God. This was my religious upbringing. And later, I wasn't just involved, I led and perpetuated such structures.
In the words of Jesus to the Pharisees, I loaded people "down with unbearable religious demands and never lifted a finger to ease the burden. I shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces." Why? It was usually because I concluded that some people weren't good enough, moral enough, committed enough, straight enough, white enough, wealthy enough, or clean enough to be allowed in.
And in those moments of clarity and conviction when I knew what I should do – greet all who came seeking God with open arms – I often didn't do it. Because ultimately I didn't want to feel the wrath of the elders at the next administrative meeting; I was afraid to offend the person or persons with the deepest pockets; And more to the point, I didn't want to get fired for bucking the system.
Now, believe me when I say that I do not consider myself now enlightened in comparison to my younger self (that's as laughable as it gets). But I do consider myself forgiven of violating the practice of grace. And I pray for the courage, that when I say to my own congregation, "All are welcome!" I mean it and live like it.
I hope to aspire to the courage and clarity of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Daytona Beach, Florida. Author Jon Acuff got his hands on a copy of a bookmark that the Florida church hands out to all Sunday newcomers. And while opinions on the following words have ranged far and wide, for my part, I love it. In part it reads:
"We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, and 'yo no hablo Ingles'...You're welcome here if you're 'just browsing,' just woke up or just got out of jail. We don't care if you're more Catholic than the Pope, or haven't been in church since little Joey's baptism. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.
"We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, and junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you're having problems or if you're down in the dumps or if you don't like 'organized religion,' we've been there too.
"If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you're welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don't work, can't spell, or because grandma is in town and she wanted to go to church. We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both.
"We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts...and you!"
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.