It did for Sadie (not her real name) on Sunday.
The kids had finished their doughnuts and fellowship time when it happened (which means they had played air hockey and drew with markers and looked at books and begged me at least thirteen times to bend my steadfast rule: Only ONE Doughnut to a Customer Because You’re Peppy Enough, Kiddo.) We had prayed the long list of prayer requests, I had sent them out the door to their Sunday school classes, and I’d just started chatting with a parent about Evolving Faith, the INCREDIBLE retreat I had just returned from the previous night, when one of our teachers appeared at the door with Sadie.
“Can you help us?” Jennifer asked. “Sadie is having a hard time coming into our Sunday school class today.”
I could tell. Rivulets of tears were jig-jagging down Sadie’s seven-year-old face.
“I’m sorry you’re sad, Sadie. Want to go with me to my office so we can talk about it?”
Sadie sniffled and gave me a nod.
Once we sat down together, I asked her, “Did something happen to make it hard to come to Sunday school?”
She sniffled, her chin quivering. She stared at me with big eyes, trying to find the words to say.
“Take your time. Did something happen this morning?”
She shook her head no.
“Did something happen yesterday that made you sad?”
“Would you like to tell me about it?”
She nodded again. After a long pause, she said, “Last night we went to a wedding. We had cake and then…then… Lisa and I were playing tag, and I…I….”
I handed her a tissue and she wiped at her face.
“I got lost.”
“You got lost?”
“I didn’t know where anybody was,” she sobbed. “The people didn’t know me. I was scared and all alone. Nobody found me. Nobody even looked.”
“Oh, Sadie. That is a scary thing. Were you still feeling afraid this morning?”
She nodded. “I didn’t want it to happen again.”
Over the next few minutes I tried to reassure her that her church is a safe place for her. That even though it can be a big place, we keep our eyes on her and make sure she’s safe because she’s a treasure to us and a treasure to God. We love her, no matter what she does or doesn’t do. Just like the Good Shepherd would never quit searching for the lamb that is lost, we would never quit looking for her. She belongs to us and belongs to God, no matter what.
“Do you feel safe enough now to go to Sunday school?” I asked.
“Uh huh,” she nodded, and then frowned at me. “I guess I missed the doughnuts.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. How about a Jolly Rancher from my candy jar?”
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt.”
As I walked Sadie back to Sunday school, I thought about the auditorium full of strangers I’d sat with and sang with and prayed with and listened with at Evolving Faith on Friday and Saturday, self-described doubters, dreamers, and survivors of church. You could call some of us lost. Many had been wounded by evangelical Christianity. Many had found themselves lost in the wilderness, questioning whether it was time to give up on church. Many wanted to hold fast to Jesus- they just weren’t sure about the folks around him. Some had been pushed away from the table. Others found that church wasn’t a safe place for them to be their true selves – to share their true thoughts and doubts and questions. Many were like me, who love Jesus and church, but also feel drawn to the searchers, to those in the wilderness. Who wonder what else the church could be and do.
Nobody found me. Nobody even looked.
Thank you, Evolving Faith, for reminding me that when I sit down at the table with only people like myself, I miss out on the rich feast of wisdom God has to offer. How can I understand the sacred stories of God’s pursuit of displaced people if I never ask displaced people what they hear in the scripture? How can I truly understand Jesus, the man who stood with and identified with people in the margins, without being led by marginalized people? How can I learn how to love God and resist the empire, when I’m all tangled up in the empire-and hold tight to the privileges it gives me?
Nobody found me. Nobody even looked.
God, help me keep my eyes open. Help me look. Help me see who’s missing from my table. Who can show me something about God that I have not seen? Who can share their life with me so that I can see God in it?
Saturday morning was my favorite part of the retreat. All four women were ON FIRE with God and by the time they finished preaching and we stood to sing, my eyes stung with tears and my right hand was sore from trying to get it all down, these life changing words from Kaitlin Curtice, Austin Channing Brown, Sandra Maria Van Opstal and Nish Weiseth. There was so much to learn!
We stood to sing and our voices joined together in beautiful harmony, we women and men, young and old, gay and straight, found and lost, wounded and broken, hopeful and skeptical, searching and had it up to here. Even a service dog in the back had to join in the song!
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!
O searchers, let’s go down,
Let’s go down, come on down
O searchers, let’s go down
Down in the river to pray.
Lord, open our hearts to each other!