Jesonian … January 6th, 2018

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Sitting my eleven-year-old self down right in the middle of the Junior High Sunday School class, my attention was riveted on the astounding, emerging breasts of Terry and Linda.

All at once I was startled by some words that came out of the mouth of our schoolmarm-deacon’s-wife teacher. She was reading the names of the twelves disciples when she stated, without flinching, “James, the Less.”

It just piqued my curiosity–so much so that I raised my hand to ask a question. She was so flabbergasted at seeing a student express interest that she paused for a second, and then finally acknowledged me.

I asked, “James the Less? Who made him ‘Less?’ And who has the right to call him that?”

She was stymied. My particular question was not covered in lesson book under “potential points of discussion.”

I waited for her response. At length, she replied, “Well, I don’t know for sure, but maybe it’s because he wasn’t as important as the other James.”

This infuriated me. A God in Heaven who thinks some people are more important than others? How can He be “no respecter of persons” when He’s keeping a private list of “Faves?”

I objected, and all at once some of the other students (who had been deep in Sunday-morning comas) began to listen, and agreed with my concerns. What right did we have to call this James “the Less” and give the other James more value?

Even though this was many years ago, I had been trained in a spiritual communism. Amazingly, we still tout these concept even today.

Everyone is the same, as far as their worth.

Everything that everyone does is just as precious as what another person does.

Of course, this is total foolishness.

I do expect my airline pilot to have more expertise than the city bus driver. I’m not taking anything away from the bus driver, but I am asking the airline pilot to take his job very seriously, and to show up with integrity and deeper knowledge.

We must understand that James the Less was given that name on Jesus’ watch. Jesus had three disciples he favored over the other nine. Favored in what way? Whenever he went into critical situations or needed men of great faith, Peter, James and John were ushered to the front.

Yet we never feel as if the others are slighted–until one day they decided to get fussy. They sat around and discussed who would be the greatest. To stimulate the conversation, they had to begin with the premise that each one of them was just as essential as the other.

Jesus rebuked them. He said, “These are concerns that the world has. It won’t be that way with you. For you, he that would be master must be a servant.”

Jesus offered a Jesonian philosophy. It still works today. When Jesus found people, he did three things:

1. This is who you are.

When a man with many demons cast out of him wanted to join Jesus’ troup, he sent the man back to his own town, to spread the word.

“This is who you are.”

Much of our life span is wasted denying who we are. Maybe we find it insufficient. Maybe we think we should be given more focus. But in the process of arguing over who we are, we fail to reach the second point.

2. This is why it is good.

The greatest gift we can give anyone is to help them understand why who they are is so good. James the Less was not offended because James the Less knew who he was and why that was a great contribution to the cause.

James, who was considered greater, was balanced out by realizing that in order to maintain his place in the front lines, he needed to be “servant of all,” even to James the Less.

3. The Gospel will show you how you can peak.

Yes, once you find out who you are and realize that it’s good, Jesus has a style to grant you relevance.

I always have to giggle when I hear someone advertise “The Great Smoky Mountains.” Actually, when you place a Smoky Mountain next to Mount Everest, it might look like flat land. But because the Smoky Mountains are strategically placed–where there are no other mountains around to compete–they are not only beautiful and entertaining, but considering their location, can be called “great.”

Find your location and peak. Don’t situate yourself next to people who have a different mission and try to pull them down, criticizing them to make yourself look better.

The Gospel of Jesus teaches you how to peak in your own arena.

Unfortunately, my schoolmarm at the church that day could not give me an answer to my question. She was just like me. She was taught that calling someone “less” was an insult.

Actually, when you’re James the Less, you just use wisdom to make sure you don’t hang around the other James too much–but instead, find out who you are and why that’s good.

And then let the Gospel show you how to peak.

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Jesonian: Reverend Meningsbee (Part 24) The Unbroken Circle … October 9th, 2016

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Reverend Meningsbee

It was Meningsbee’s style to arrive at the Garsonville church mere moments before the service was set to begin.

He chose this profile not because he had a flair for dramatics or wanted to bring attention to himself, but rather, desired to communicate that he was arriving with the congregation instead of waiting to greet them.

But a phone call from a very confused deacon, Mack Robbins, had summoned him immediately to the church because of “strange doings.”

Now, the term “strange doings” in a small Nebraska town could range from a fourteen-cent hike on the price of gasoline at the local pumps to somebody wanting to show off a two-by-four that had stuck itself in a tree during a tornado years ago.

But in this case, Deacon Mack was very concerned because fifteen young people from the high school had arrived at the church early with candles in hand and had slowly marched to the front of the sanctuary, sat down lotus style in the front, lit their candles and quietly hummed some unknown tune. (Mack did not recognize the melody, but felt it was not a common hymn.)

Those who were arriving for normal church did not know exactly what to do. Should they be seated? Should they ask the young people what they were up to? Or should they freak out, call their minister and plop the problem on him?

Being good religious folks, they chose the latter.

So when Meningsbee arrived, he saw his entire congregation standing in the vestibule, peering through the partially frosted windows, staring at the circle of adolescent candle-bearers. Collectively, his sheep turned to him, looking for direction from the shepherd.

He whispered, “Why don’t we just go sit down?”

Everyone nodded as if they had heard wisdom from the great King Solomon.

The ninety-five people tiptoed their way into the sanctuary, found seating places and then waited for the Reverend to take care of the bizarre predicament.

Meningsbee perched himself near the front, crossed his legs and then, as if he had sat on a cactus, leaped to his feet, stepped up onto the altar, found a candle, lit it and eased onto the floor with the students.

This was very baffling to the Nebraskans. Was the parson suggesting they do the same? Many of them had not been that close to the floor since the last time they fell and couldn’t get up. So they chose to sit quietly and see where the odd escapade would head.

After a few moments, the youngsters stopped their singing. When they did, Meningsbee took the opportunity to do a little singing himself.

“Michael row the boat ashore, alleluia…”

Meningsbee glanced at the congregation, encouraging them with his eyes to sing along. Some did.

The students listened through one or two passages, and then joined in to the best of their ability. When the song was done there was a moment of silence. Meningsbee spoke.

“It is very important for all of us to return to the last place we sensed something good. Although our questions will never be answered in full, we should remain full of questions. I want to thank you for coming today and giving us the soul of our service. It was Jesus who said that we are the light of the world. You have brought light into our presence. It was David who told us to sing a new song. You have brought us a new song. And it is every intelligent teacher and prophet throughout history who tells us to challenge ourselves. You have sat here, humbly offering your gratitude and expressing your desires. We welcome you. You have made our church today. You are our church today. We thank you. And we want you to know that you’re welcome here anytime–to bring anything you feel–to help us understand the depth of your soul and what’s important to you.”

One of the young men from the circle of visitors spoke up.

“We didn’t mean to interrupt. We thought you would just go ahead and have your service.”

Meningsbee replied, “You see, son, that’s the mistake we make in the church. We think you’re supposed to come in here, learn about what we do, follow the routine and develop a taste for it. That’s not really what church was meant to be. Church is the people coming, expressing what they need, and letting the opportunity of being with God supply it. Don’t ever forget that. And when you come back here again, it’ll be the same way. We don’t exactly have an order of service. We let the service that needs to be provided grant us order.”

The unbroken circle of young folks nodded in approval. The congregation smiled as some cried.

If church was supposed to be a series of beautiful moments of human interaction and revelation, then Garsonville was slowly on its way to becoming a church.

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Jesonian: Reverend Meningsbee (Part 11) Bible-less Study… July 10th, 2016

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Reverend Meningsbee

The answering machine was full.

Meningsbee had taken the precaution of turning off his phone for the Sunday afternoon drive which landed him in South Dakota, and now checking it for the first time, he realized that his “professional preacher profile,” which he had selected the previous Sunday, had not fooled any of his congregation.

He had at least thirty messages, all basically intoning a recurring theme: “Are you all right?”

He was in the middle of the eighteenth inquiry when there was a knock at the door. He opened it to discover Sammy Collins, a deacon who had been part of the great exodus from the Garsonville Church. Meningsbee invited him in but Sammy explained that he was in a hurry.

He said, “I have a Bible study at my house on Monday nights, and I would like you to come and see if we can’t make this thing right.”

On any other day, Meningsbee would have been reluctant, but he remembered Kitty’s words at the Four Heads Motel. Maybe he did need to listen.

So he agreed to come–with the stipulation that it would be a secret. Sammy agreed and departed. The following Sunday, Meningsbee was shocked to discover that everyone knew about the upcoming Monday night Bible study. They were thrilled, apprehensive, overjoyed–but mostly wanted to pray for him. Some wanted to come and give moral support, but he declined.

So all through Monday, Meningsbee fidgeted and wondered what his approach should be with the former congregation members.

He knew he didn’t want to be defensive. He knew he didn’t want to take too much time–and mostly, he knew he didn’t want to get there early.

Since it was a pot-luck dinner, which was served after the Bible study, he made his famous hot dog and beans for the occasion.

He arrived promptly at seven o’ clock, to discover that nobody was there. No one but Sammy Collins, his wife and Patrick Swanson, who was formerly the worship committee leader at the Garsonville Church.

Sammy was humiliated, frustrated, and just could not figure out what had happened.

In the midst of Sammy’s attempts at an explanation, Patrick interrupted and said, “Sammy, would you mind giving the Reverend and me an opportunity to chat privately?”

Sammy agreed, took Meningsbee’s casserole dish and headed off to the kitchen. Meanwhile, Patrick motioned for Meningsbee to come and sit down in the living room. Once seated, Mr. Swanson began his discourse.

“I need to be candid with you, Meningsbee. I told the congregation not to come this evening.” Swanson paused to see Meningsbee’s reaction. He offered none, so Swanson continued.

“You may wonder why. It’s because we aren’t coming back. There isn’t going to be a reconciliation, because we need our church out at the Holiday Inn. I know you think that you broke up the Garsonville Church through your policies. I’ll have to admit–they were pretty heavy-handed, and you didn’t really seek anyone else’s confidence, but I had decided months ago to abandon the property. I hadn’t said anything to anyone else, but two years ago I thought the new bypass was going to come through, and we’d be able to sell at a huge profit. But when they picked another path, I realized that the church basically had no financial worth. Simultaneously, the building’s getting old. The roof’s rotten, carpet is threadbare–I even had a guy come in who told us we have termites. Plus, after all my years of being at the church, I was tired of the flow of pastors. Most of them gave hapless attempts at being administrators, with no real business sense of their own. And then you arrived, on some sort of Mt. Sinai mission, to make us into something else. Well, it was enough. I made my move. My prayer was that all the old people would stay with you and all the young couples would come over to the new church, where we could talk about current events, politics, and plan excursions. You know–trips where we could fellowship and have fun. The church was dead, but I didn’t have the heart to kill it–and then you showed up. You became my gun.”

Swanson paused. Perhaps he was expecting an explosion of anger, a retaliation or a threat or two, but Meningsbee remained silent.

Swanson concluded. “Any questions, Reverend? What I’m saying to you is, you can try to keep that church together, but I will fight you.”

Meningsbee stood to his feet and stated, “Will you tell Sammy I’m going to pass on dinner?”

He headed to the door, leaving Patrick in the living room by himself. His hand was shaking as he reached for the knob.

Walking down the stoop to the sidewalk to his car, he felt like someone had taken a knife and hollowed out his insides.

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Jesonian: Reverend Meningsbee (Part 5) Late … May 29th, 2016

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Reverend Meningsbee

Sunday morning, and Meningsbee woke up late.

He wanted to blame his alarm clock, but since he was fully aware that he was the master of all of its decisions, he scurried along, skipping two of his pre-shower rituals.

He scooted into his car, started it and zoomed toward the church at what he hoped was a reasonable speed. He was thinking about what he wanted to share.

The Gospel of Mark. Most certainly.

It had been an interesting week.

After the breakthrough, with Betty and Clarice being reconciled, there was a sweet buzz of contentment among those who were present, but simultaneously, there were around twenty-five former members who had begun meeting in the banquet hall of the nearby Holiday Inn Express. They were stirring a flurry of frustration through the town.

Their contention? Meningsbee had “stolen their church.”

He understood their perspective. Yet there was a push in his spirit to continue the experiment–to find the real meaning of gathering together instead of marching in time to the drone of repetitive hymns.

Arriving, he ran to the door of the church, and then paused. He could hear the sounds of conversation. It was not the usual pre-church verbal exchanges, but instead, purposeful–what sounded like meaningful, prayerful tones.

So Meningsbee chose to enter quietly and climb the stairs to the balcony, where he could view the proceedings.

He had noticed coming in that there were a few more cars in the parking lot, and was delighted to see, when he looked down from his perch, that there were four visitors and a few of the original congregation who had returned.

But most enlightening was the fact that the three chairs he had placed in the front on Saturday night were filled with people, surrounded by other folks who were sharing and praying for one another.

On the seventh row was a young family who Deacon Smitters had befriended, and was quietly but feverishly entertaining with one of his stories.

It was a reverent scene, in the sense of the true meaning of reverence–full of humanity, compassion, tenderness and just a bit of the childlike freedom that was so often absent from the normal Sunday morning drill.

Reverend Meningsbee wanted to just hang out in the balcony and watch. He knew that as soon as he entered, the holy spell would be broken and they would turn to him to find order.

Finally he decided that it was not good for him to stay away for the whole time. He climbed down the stairs and came into the church as the gathering fell silent.

He turned slowly and addressed them.

“I overslept. But I have been here for fifteen minutes, just watching all of you. It is so beautiful for you to treat each other so beautifully. I know that’s not a good sentence, but it’s what I feel. Thank you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for loving each other.”

All at once, a hand went up. It was Clarice, from last week’s reconciliation.

“Hello, Pastor. I just wanted to let you know that after Betty and I mended our fences, I got inspired to contact my son in Lincoln, who ran away from home a couple of years ago because he was mad at me for being such a–can I say ‘bitch’ in the church?”

Meningsbee laughed. “You just did.”

Clarice continued. “Anyway, I invited Michael home, we made peace, and I told him to come here with me today to seal the deal.”

The congregation burst into applause without being coaxed. It was spontaneous and it was electrifying.

One after another, there were testimonies about those who came and sat in the chair to receive God’s grace through the kindness of God’s people.

The good Reverend just stood back and shut up. There was a small part of him that felt useless, but most of him felt he had discovered his true use.

Lead the sheep to the green pastures, and then let them eat.

It came time for the end of the service, and Meningsbee wasn’t sure what to do.

Betty stood to her feet and said, “Did you know that Clarice’s son, Michael, plays a mean piano and can really sing?”

Michael feigned a bit of embarrassment, but also exuded a willingness to display his talent. So Meningsbee pointed to the piano, and Michael slowly rose to his feet, walked over, sat down and played and sang “Let It Be” by the Beatles.

It was an inspiring conclusion to the morning.

Meningsbee listened to the song very carefully.

“Let It Be.”

What good advice.

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Jesonian: Reverend Meningsbee (Part 4) Needful … May 22nd, 2016

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Reverend Meningsbee

The fourth Sunday at the Garsonville Church was marked by the return of Deacon Smitters, who entered the building with very little ceremony, but much pomp over renewing his efforts as Chief Usher.

He immediately became distressed because there was no bulletin to hand out–just a chalk board in the narthex with these words scrawled upon it:

Welcome to Church

1. Our thought will come from Luke the 18th Chapter, Verse 31 through Luke the 19th Chapter, Verse 1

2. Take a moment to think about what you need

In an environment which was experiencing tremendous upheaval, the absence of a reassuring piece of paper to guide the congregants through the minefield of spirituality seemed cruel and unusual.

But everyone made their way into the sanctuary and sat in the first five pews, with Deacon Smitters making sure he was as far back on row five as humanly possible.

Promptly at service time, Reverend Meningsbee walked in and addressed the congregation.

“If we do not know why we gather in this building, we will very soon ask ourselves, why are we gathering? Makes sense, don’t you think?

You don’t have to look very long into the ministry of Jesus to realize that he never preached. He taught his disciples, but when he was in front of the masses, he only offered two possibilities: he was always ready with a healing touch or a great story.

More often than not, it began with a healing.

Even though I look out today and we have a few less than we did last week, what we should be focusing on is what the few of us here really need in our lives.

I just don’t think you need a retelling of the story of Jonah and the whale.

So let’s look at what happened over in Luke the 18th Chapter, verse 35, through Luke 19:1.

Jesus was on his way to Jericho when he was interrupted. He was stalled by a blind man who refused to shut up and observe how the service was supposed to progress. The man kept screaming for mercy.

Jesus asked him what he wanted and he flat-out demanded healing.

So Jesus did.

Then, from the excitement of that encounter, Jesus took his entourage, including the blind man, through Jericho, where he caught the attention of a non-spiritual, cheating, lying tax collector named Zacchaeus.

Do you folks really think Zacchaeus would ever have listened to Jesus if he had not heard the excitement of the crowd, celebrating the healing of the blind man?

Of course not.

It is why the people of Garsonville would much rather stay in their homes, eat waffles and watch television than come here. They don’t feel any excitement coming out of the building when we dismiss.

So from now on, in this church, we will begin our services by listening, praying and believing for those who have a specific need. So it’s the blessing of people that will set the direction for our service.

You can see, there are two chairs up here. Does anybody want to come up and begin the service by sitting down for prayer, to have their needs met, like the blind man, instead of waiting for comfort?”

Reverend Meningsbee took a long moment, pausing to allow someone to make the brave step.

Nobody did.

At length he spoke.

“That’s fine. It’s new to all of us. But understand that every Sunday we will begin this way and flip the service by having our singing at the end, as praise, before our departure.”

Suddenly a hand was raised in the congregation, and a woman, Betty Landers, sheepishly stood to her feet and said, “I don’t really have a need, but I’d like to report on what happened when I left the church last Sunday and went out to be reconciled with my cousin, who I have not spoken to in eight years.”

The pastor nodded, smiling.

Betty continued. “She only lives two miles from me, but we had a fight, and we have succeeded in avoiding each other through all family gatherings and piano recitals for the children.”

The congregation chuckled.

“Well, I went to see her, just like you said, and she wouldn’t let me into the house. It was weird. I just stood at the door and spoke, hoping she was there. I apologized. I told her how crazy it was for the two of us to be angry at each other. I even told her why I had come, based on what my minister had challenged us to do.”

Suddenly, in the midst of Betty’s story, a woman appeared in the rear of the sanctuary, and interrupted.

“I apologize for disturbing your service. I feel real silly. But what Betty is saying is true. My name is Clarice. Betty really did come to my door and talk to it like a crazy woman.”

A big roar of laughter.

Clarice continued. “I’ve spent the week with my heart pricked by her actions. I woke up this morning feeling the need to come here, find her and tell her that I am equally sorry for our silly argument.”

Betty scooted past a couple of people, ran to the back of the auditorium and embraced her cousin, as they wept.

The congregation sat very still, afraid to move. After a few moments of tears, the two women turned awkwardly to the pastor and said, “Now what do we do?”

Reverend Meningsbee said, “Go out and have lunch together. We’re done here.”

The two women left, hugging each other, and Reverend Meningsbee led the congregation in an a cappella version of “We Are One in the Spirit.”

The service was over.

The attendance was dropping.

But the spirits were soaring.

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Jesonian: Reverend Meningsbee (Part 2) Front and Center… May 8th, 2016

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Reverend Meningsbee

There was a great glut of human traffic which came to an abrupt halt in the vestibule of the Garsonville Church, as each stalled congregant stared down at their church bulletin, which was only a half-sheet of paper, and mused over the meaning.

It read:

Welcome to Jesus Church!

1. Enter! Take a seat in one of the first five rows on either side

2. Greet One Another

3. A Hymn (Congregation’s choice)

4. Thought Luke 14: 16-24

5. An Effectual Fervent Prayer

As you leave, please drop your offering into the red, heart-shaped box at the back door

That was it.

Through mutterings, groans, misgivings and sighs, the congregation made its way into the church, reluctantly sitting in the first five rows as requested. (Well, three families departed in a huff, and Deacon Smitters perched himself in his accustomed assigned seating near the back door.)

Promptly at eleven, Reverend Meningsbee arrived, shaking some hands and beginning the service. After singing “Wings of a Dove,” as requested by a nine-year-old who was more curious about the title than familiar with the tune, the Reverend spoke.

“Thank you, one and all, for taking a seat front and center. You may wonder why I made this request. In Luke the 14th Chapter, verses 16-24, Jesus tells the story about a man who planned a feast. Of course, we know he’s talking about God. So God has invited people to His feast. They immediately begin to make excuses. They’re too busy, they’re financially engaged, they have responsibilities… Anyway, they turn Him down.

At this point, God says something very interesting. He tells His servants to go out and invite as many people as possible–good or bad–so His house will be full.

Do you realize that every Sunday morning we insult the Heavenly Father by scattering all over this building in little pockets of family, social cliques and pews of tradition, flaunting the obvious emptiness of our sanctuary, never realizing that God wants His house to be full?

We don’t take back seats anywhere else. We don’t go to a concert of our favorite musical artist and sit in the nosebleed section. We don’t go to a restaurant and look for the worst table in the establishment.

But we come to church and think it’s our right and privilege to avoid contact with the altar of repentance, and stay closer to the back door of evacuation.

Not anymore.

If God wants His house full–and He does–since we don’t have enough people to fill it up, we’re going to begin to fill this church from the front to the back. That will give us a sense of being full because we’re all sitting close together, facing the front, unaware of the vacant seats behind us.

This is our first step.

This is our attempt to make this a Jesus Church instead of a church that’s suited to our picky, personal preferences.

So I thank you for being involved in this beautiful experiment. I thank you for your cooperation…”

All at once the pastor was interrupted by a middle-aged man on the third row.

“You do realize, three families left this morning, and there may be more who won’t come back next week?”

The pastor paused, and then spoke in a gentle, metered tone.

“I do. I also understand that the way we’re doing church is driving more people away than bringing them in. I believe those three families will return when they see that what’s happening here is meeting the needs of human beings.”

The questioner shook his head and sat down in disgust.

Meningsbee said a prayer and started to walk away, then stopped in his tracks, turned and spoke to the back of the room.

“Deacon Smitters, we will look forward to you joining us front and center next week. Good day to all of you and God bless.”

The Garsonville Church sat quietly for a moment, as if trying to wake up from a really bad dream.

Undoubtedly the week ahead was going to be filled with vigorous discussion and angry dissension.

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Stepping Away… October 19, 2013

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church popscicleElder Ralph was working on a crossword puzzle he had hidden in his Bible.

Deacon Dan was dozing on the third row.

Martha, the church piano player, was thumbing through a Life magazine.

The teenagers sitting around me were passing notes, giggling and trying to time their levity with the jokes infrequently being offered from the pulpit, as Pastor Norm continued to preach on a subject matter which no one seemed to care about.

Suddenly in the midst of this ongoing Sunday night antipathy, it struck me. It was so phony, so contrived and so meaningless to my sixteen-year-old mind.

I quietly rose to my feet, moved past a few of my friends and headed toward the back of the church. Everyone thought I was going to the bathroom. Some people probably thought I was headed to the fellowship hall to see if there were any treats to eat after the service. But actually, I passed on both of those opportunities, headed out the door and walked home. Even though I still believed in God, I had lost confidence in the system that was arranged to represent Him.

For three months, I stepped away.

  • I didn’t go to church.
  • I didn’t stay in contact with the people.
  • I also didn’t go out, get drunk, smoke grass and curse the heavens because of my disillusioned condition.

Various emissaries from the conclave of the righteous were sent to me during the ninety days to tell me how I was missed or what I was missing or how it was absolutely necessary for me to be there–otherwise I would fall into iniquity.

I joyously ignored them.Up the Down Staircase

Instead I took my stepping away hiatus to accept a role in a play at the high school, as Joe Ferrone in Up the Down Staircase. I also worked on my piano playing, which had become as rusty as my Grandpa Ford’s barn door latches, and I practiced singing. (I had convinced myself I was a bass, but actually had enough range to be a tenor. Why not both?)

During my stepping away period I discovered I could do things–yet realized they were more fun when I was tapping the mind and spirit of God to achieve them.

Eventually one of my friends from the youth group came to see me and said, “Jonathan, you may not need us, but we need you.”

Those were the magic words.

It wasn’t an issue of ego–it was the fact that I could no longer attend church because I was afraid not to. I couldn’t go to church because it “made me a better person.” And I didn’t want to go to church to fake it, in order to get heavenly tickets.

I took my newfound drama talent, my expanded singing and my better piano playing back to the “house of people”–to simply enjoy my heavenly Father.

I stopped looking around the room to see what Elder Ralph, Deacon Dan, pianist Martha and all the other kids were doing.

When I disagreed, I chose to simply live differently. And if it got boring, I challenged the ideas.

That three months of stepping away sowed the seed of the man I have become. It was a season of time when I realized that I don’t need to be in church to find God.

But the church needs me ,,, to make sure we don’t lose Him.

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