Sunday morning church services always produce the usual eclectic gathering of people. It was a moment in time for me, a realisation of a greater reality whereby I glimpsed something of God, something of heaven in the strangeness of “God’s people.”
First there is Catholic lady who always comes to our local Baptist church. Always first in, always waiting to be let in, always swiftly consuming another cigarette. Sometimes, if she has taken her medication, you will get a “Hello” or a “Morning” and rarely anything more than that. But, if she has forgotten her medication, she is very agitated, hair slicked back, greasy, face full of menacing scowl, and no words other than what she mutters to herself. Yet, she’s still there, outside, waiting to come in, always first, and always first to leave the service, during the service, mostly during my sermons(!). Once I looked at her during the reading of Scripture, she hissed and growled at me and crossed herself three times. That was weird. I carried on reading. She left.
After one particular service at a church in South Wales, I was talking to a couple who had been known to me for two years but only attended church services four times (OK, about four times, I don’t exactly keep a register!). I’d been to their home on several occasions, to break bread and pray with them, to hear the story of their lives. Their kids have been taken into care, they’ve attempted suicide, it is a desperate desperate situation. But they were there, worshipping with us, loving God in all their pain and grief.
Whilst walking with them to get a coffee, I saw another regular. This gentle giant is always late for services, and when he turns up, he just walks right down the middle of the seating and sits somewhere near the front, fiddles with his Bible and looks around at people. On this occasion when I saw him, his Bible was on the floor by the fire escape door and he was doing what looked like a rain dance around it as he tried to make a roll-up. Tobacco drifted to the floor as he danced and I smiled. It was this moment that I started to get it.
Within ten seconds, even before I had my coffee, another man (I think they all live in the same care-home), another “regular” sprang from behind a door to lament with his usual mischievous sadness that he had already had his allotted two biscuits. I asked him if he wanted another one, to which he told me he wasn’t allowed anymore because “they told me I’d had enough.” “Do you want another one” I asked, to which he replied, with eyes now full of teary excitement, “Yeah I do, but it’s very naughty!”
“Come on,” I said. They don’t call me the “Naughty Minister” for nothing, I thought as I walked with him to the heart of the coffee room and a table full of people and biscuits. “Help yourself” I said. He sat down as excited as a boy at Christmas. They don’t really call me the naughty minister, but I do like to think I can stretch the two-biscuit rule to three or, as was the case, eight, plus an unknown quantity in his coat pocket.
I grabbed a coffee and went off to pray with a couple who had lost everything except God. They loved God, and here they were. God sent them to me on this day, a day that reminded me it was all about Him. These people, these strange, uncouth, demanding, barmy, hurting people – they were the People of God, and I glimpsed God’s love for each and every one of them:
Biscuits and Bibles.
Smoking and sermons.
Pain and prayer.
God was there in it all.