Last night, Randee and I attended a ‘reunion’ of sorts. My wife and I returned to Valley Christian Center in Dublin, California for the 5oth anniversary of the church. We served on staff there for more than eleven years of our ministry, and it was so good to be there for the celebration. There were several hundred people there, many of whom had left the area years ago, moving to other places for work or retirement. Now, we were returning to ‘remember.’ We shared a lovely meal, and warm and friendly conversation with old friends. I use the term ‘old’ in a literal sense, really. You see, it’s been more than twenty years since we were a part of that congregation and its ministry. In other words, we’ve been gone twice as long as we were there. Wow! Where did those years go? I don’t mean the eleven years we were there. Where did the ensuing years — the years since we left in 1993 — go? As I renewed my friendship with folks I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years, there was no question that time had marched on for all of us. We all looked ‘older.’
It was obvious that the toll life takes on all of us was at work in the lives of those who came to that gathering last night. Some of us wore hearing aids we didn’t have to wear twenty years ago. Some folks used canes, walkers, and even a couple of wheel chairs were evident. Many of my friends had lost a considerable amount of hair since I saw them last. I didn’t mention that to any of them, though, and they were kind enough not to bring up my balding head, either.
Close friends weren’t the only folks I saw last night. I also saw lots of people I recognized, but didn’t ‘realize,’ (as my dad used to say.) I recognized their face, but no way under heaven could I have ever come up with their names. Their names — if I had ever known them — had long-since been expunged from my long-term memory banks. (I only have so much room in that ‘bank,’ and I have chosen not to clutter it up with names of people I may never see again.)
So many of the conversations I had last night with my old friends began with the same words: “Where are you, now?” The obvious intent of that question was to give the conversation a ‘starting point.’ We were all intent on catching-up with life since last we met, and a good place to start that process is always to declare ‘where we are’ at the present time. And so, over and over again last evening, I told people ‘where I was.’ I told them I lived near Redding, that I was a life coach for doctors, that I loved what I do. And, each time I told my story, I waited to hear the ‘where are you’ of their lives.
One conversation last evening — one of the last conversations I had before my wife and I left the gathering — still sort of ‘haunts’ me. It was a conversation with a guy I’ve known since 1976. A great guy. A really smart guy. He has a Ph.D. I’ll call him Bob, not his real name. Bob, like everyone there last evening, looked older than the last time I saw him. He’d been a regular part of the congregation when I was on the staff. He was still slim and trim and in great physical shape. His smile was the same smile as I remembered. And when he saw me across the room, he approached with such a warm and friendly greeting. I was so glad to see him. We exchanged the ‘where are you now?’ questions and answers, and enjoyed just conversing. He still lived in the area.
And so, I asked him a different question. It was not a question I had asked anyone else, the entire evening. I’m not even sure why I asked it. I hadn’t intended to ask him. It just sort of ‘came out.’ Since he still lived in the area, I asked him, “Where do you go to church, now?”
He looked down at the floor, rather nervously, as he answered. I listened, as my old friend hummed and stammered and flummoxed his way through a sad answer. What he essentially said was that he really wasn’t going to church anywhere. He told me about other churches in the area he had ‘tried,’ that he went to so-and-so-church for a few years, until the pastor left. And then they tried another, and another. I stood listening. I said nothing. I just looked at him, in silence, for a long while. He stopped talking, eventually, while I remained silent. The silence must have been awkward for him, as a nervous smile crossed his lips. And then he said, “Jesus still loves me.”
And I said, “Yes, He does.”
Church is later this morning at Valley Christian, for the culmination of the 50th anniversary celebration weekend. My wife and I will be going. I hope to see my old friend who doesn’t attend anywhere on a regular basis. And I hope to talk more with him about ‘where he is, now?’ I guess, mainly, I want to remind him, and encourage him with this truth: Attending church every week isn’t just about what I “get” out of being there, but also what I “bring to the party.” The story of where I’ve been all week long is important, and when I go to church, I get to hear what’s going on in the lives of others who are fellow-strugglers. The fact that they made it through another week because “Jesus loves them” gives me the courage to buckle-up and give life another swing, too.
If you don’t go to church, find some place to worship, for heaven’s sake, for your sake, or perhaps, for the sake of one like me, who may need to hear the answer to that question: Where are you, now? If you have the courage to ask that question of someone in church on a Sunday morning … you just might be amazed at the answer.