Sunday morning in Nebraska was a living and breathing confirmation of the wisdom of the Creator God–to set aside a day of rest.
With nothing to do but prepare homemade waffles, walk the dog and dress for church, the citizens of Garsonville breathed a collective sigh of relaxation and relief. For just a little while, life became slower, and the craziness of the 21st century was mollified by simplicity.
That morning, Meningsbee barely got seven steps into the door of the church before Matrisse grabbed his arm and pulled him down to whisper in his ear.
“Kitty is gone.”
He pulled back so he could look into her eyes. She just sadly shook her head.
Realizing he couldn’t stop to converse any more, he made his way toward the sanctuary, where after a few feet he was nudged to the side by Bob Harborhouse, one of the original church members on the pastor’s selection committee. He was also one of the people who left over the fearful prospect of sitting closer to the front of the church. Meningsbee remembered that during his trial sermon, Bob introduced himself as a “groomsman carpenter,” explaining that by day he took care of a stable of horses and at night, he was in the first stages of starting his own furniture company–all original designs.
Bob said to Meningsbee, “I’m back with my family and about ten other people from the old church, but I do want you to know that Sammy Collins has begun his own congregation with about fifteen individuals who are meeting this morning at his house.”
Trying very hard to disguise his disappointment, Meningsbee nodded and headed into the sanctuary. Right before entering the holy of holies, he was once again stopped, this time by Theresa, the volunteer church secretary. She explained that someone had vandalized the women’s bathroom. It appeared that the scoundrel had poured two bags of marshmallows down the toilet.
Having no immediate clever come-back, Meningsbee nodded and told her he would make the announcement.
So as he inched his way up the middle aisle to the front of the church, looking at what was really a pretty good attendance, he wondered what conversation in his first twenty-one steps into the house of God could be addressed.
But before he could get started, Mark Layton, a former member of the church and also a history teacher at the local middle school, stood to his feet, firing a challenge.
“Reverend Meningsbee, I know you think you know what you’re doing, but before you came to our town, we were just a small country church with gentle ways and hopes for better lives for our families. Since you’ve been here, we’ve had division–and now there are three congregations meeting where once there was just a single body of believers. Do you really think that division is the work of God?”
There was some hissing and booing from the other members, who had come to church for a more enlightened experience, but Meningsbee quickly silenced the naysayers.
“Mark,” Meningsbee said, “When I was a young boy, my mother bought a brand new vacuum cleaner. It was quite a contraption. It had all sorts of shiny, silver metal pipes that came with it. They were extensions, so she could do various things to sweep up corners and such. I was only six years old, so I took one of those shiny metal pipes and quickly discovered that it was the perfect size for me to take a ping-pong ball, stick it inside and place my mouth over the end of the tube, and blow out really hard, and pretend I had a dart gun.”
The congregation laughed.
“It was great fun,” Meningsbee continued. “Then one day I picked up one of my ping-pong balls and it felt a little funny in my hand, like it was bigger. You know what I mean? But I tried to put it inside that metal tube anyway. It barely fit. But the worst part of it was, I couldn’t blow it out. Now, I probably should have told my mom or dad that I messed up one of the metal pipes on the new vacuum cleaner, but I was scared. Being a kid, I just hoped it would work out. It didn’t. And later, when my mother tried to sweep the floor, the machine didn’t work because of my little ping-pong ball mistake. They took it to the repair shop and received a gloomy report. Because the metal tube I had put my ping-pong ball in happened to be attached to the engine of the sweeper–and without that tube, well, the whole mechanism was basically useless. But the repair man was able to tell them that there was a ping-pong ball in there that he couldn’t get out unless he cut the tube in half. Well it didn’t take my parents too long to figure out where the ping-pong ball might have found its origins. They took me to the side and asked me why I didn’t tell them that I had made a mistake. I looked at them with tears in my eyes and said, ‘I just wanted everything to be all right, the way it was.’ You see, Mark, it wasn’t all right. It still looked like a vacuum cleaner but it didn’t work. Something was stuffed up inside, blocking the suction. When I arrived at this church, you had all the right equipment, seating, and even pretty good doughnut choices for the after-glow service.”
“But it wasn’t a church. Maybe it was a club. Maybe it was a way to escape and pretend we were better than the world around us. You can make up your mind on that. But the Book of Hebrews tells us that a church is a place where we come to strengthen one another. Not just praise or worship or gather to sing or say all the right words. So here’s my opinion: if we have to disrupt the eighty-eight souls who came to this church to try to reach the thirteen hundred who never have, then so be it. In my mind’s eye, it’s a small price to pay. So Mark, you are welcome to join us in worship this morning, or please–do not feel condemned or criticized if you would like to leave now that your question has been answered.”
There was a moment of silence. The people were absolutely still. At length, a softer, more tender Mark Layton piped up.