I live in a very homogenous suburb of a large Texas city in the US. While the racial make-up of our ward might have some diversity; economically, we are all pretty much the same. We dress the same, our houses are all from the same builders, our kids go to the same schools. I wouldn’t call it boring. We are just all very similar. And, I suppose, in that environment, it is possible to get into a rut.
I go to church to partake of the sacrament. I admit, that sometimes my motivation for the rest is mostly habit. I even find myself thinking about what I’m going to wear that day more than what I’m going to learn.
My motives for going to church on vacation aren’t even that pure. I’m on vacation, after all! I confess that although I usually go to church on vacation, I’m crabby about it. I always repent afterward and admit it was totally worth it, however. It’s a pattern. I’m a slow learner.
This summer, we were in the small town of Panguitch, UT near Bryce Canyon National Park. We walked from our rental house down to the church (you can do that in Utah!). It was Fast and Testimony meeting (and no, I did not fast on vacation –I can only be so righteous).
Testimony meeting is fun. I think it is the best of the Sunday meetings. It’s organic. People aren’t reading a prepared message. They aren’t speaking for 15 minutes (hopefully). They speak from the heart. And this particular meeting in this small town was full of heart.
In setting the stage for this story, let me explain that this ward looked nothing like my home ward. People dressed humbly. There were many men in jeans. It was not a fashion show. The tie of choice was the bolo tie and not because someone was trying to be a hipster. They were down-home kind of people. And it was wonderful!
The testimonies were full of the spirit. Amazing stories of how God had blessed them in the previous weeks. I watched sweet men help little old ladies walk up to the stand. I heard stories of young mothers who were served by their fellow ward sisters.
And then this: At the end of the meeting, a large man with disheveled hair stood. He was wearing jeans and a wrinkled plaid shirt. He walked with a limp up to the stand. “I’ve lost my way,” He began. He then proceeded to tell us through copious tears how he had struggled for the last few years. He hadn’t been to church in a long time. He had taken up cigarettes and drinking. He had been kicked out of his house and recently he’d been sleeping in his vehicle.
“This week, my truck broke down on the mountain. I was so angry, that I just kicked the tire and cursed God. I finally started walking back to town and was met by someone who helped me tow my car. Someone else helped me fix it. I wondered if maybe God hadn’t forgotten about me after all. Then, last night, I slept in the church parking lot. This morning, I was scared to walk in, but a woman saw me and offered to walk with me. And here I am. I just want to fix this. I want to come back. I haven’t been in a church for as long as I can remember. But I just today feel like maybe God still loves me.”
I tried to wipe the tears at first, but by the end of his humble testimony, I let them fall freely down my cheeks. They were too bountiful to contain. When the meeting closed, people filed toward this man. Little children hugged him. Old farmers shook his hand. He couldn’t see them because he was sobbing. But dozens of people lined up to express love.
I turned to my husband, “This is why we go to church. Many people are leaving because of uncomfortable church history or are letting ward members offend them. But this is why we are here. I can never give up the beauty of this. God-loving people who love each other and reach out without judgment.”
I was reminded of the saying that church is not a showcase for saints, but a hospital for sinners.
We are all sinners, and that day, I realized that I had lost my way too. I’m not breaking the Word of Wisdom, but had I really been keeping the Sabbath Day Holy? It’s not about darkening the door with our bodies (however well-dressed they may be). It’s about bringing our broken hearts and contrite spirits to a place where healing can occur. And this sweet, broken, homeless man reminded me and everyone else in that humble church what it is all about.