My father-in-law says that a convicted felon and former church member returned from prison last week and attended worship for the first time in a few years. "Lots of people were talking to him," he said, approvingly.
My father-in-law is almost 90, and he chooses his words carefully, thoughtfully. He shook his head a few times, as if to say that what he saw with his own eyes was something that warmed his soul. "You know, it wasn't always that way," he said, once again, approvingly.
The church of the 30s, the church of his childhood, was immensely confident of its own judgments, deeply convicted of the necessity of its own righteousness.
I grew up in a church that had power. So did he. Today's church doesn't, at least not in the old sense. Back then, convicted felons would have been tossed from the community. One of my earliest memories of church life is a pregnant woman standing up front, alone, confessing her sin before all the good people.
All the most notable writers from my folk tradition have written stories that feature the church's judgmental handling of the Seventh Commandment (note the upper case): Frederick Manfred, Peter DeVries, and Stanley Wiersma. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy figures strongly in my own first novel.
"It wasn't always that way," my father-in-law said, approvingly last week, of the way the prodigal son was welcomed home.
Throughout my grandfather's lifetime, he must have preached a thousand sermons. As far as I know, only one survives. I wish that weren't true. I wish I could spend a week, say, looking over old manuscripts; I'd love to know what he thought, how he thought.
He became a pastor just after the turn of the 20th century, and preached frequently, even in his retirement, into the 50s. If I had a file of his sermons, I'd want to know how he conceived of the church, how he saw his duty and calling, what he determined to be God's attitude toward the sin of his people.
I'd want to know what he had to say about grace because I think my father-in-law is right: the church wasn't particularly good, back then, at welcoming its prodigals home. It didn't embrace its convicted felons; it sent them out of the territory. I'm not sure good Christian folks read the parable in exactly the same way. Then, The Prodigal Son may have been about the miscreant kid; today, it's about the old man with open arms.
But it wasn't just my people either. Old Lutherans and Roman Catholics, old Baptists and Mormons all remember a deeply authoritarian church convinced that God's own chosen people were threatened, demonically--which is to say, Satanically--when the church didn't keep its rank-and-file squeaky clean.
I'm no progressivist--I'm not at all convinced that, thank God, we do things right today. But the differences between the church today--of all denominations--and the church of yesteryear is so immense that one might even venture to say we worship different Gods.
Which isn't true. We've changed, as has our conception of Him.
"It wasn't always that way," my father-in-law said, approvingly. He's a whole generation older than I am, but I understand what he meant. Seems to me my father-in-law much prefers a God with open arms.