“When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions.” Psalm 65
Not long ago, we rotated the interior design of the church. Today, the windows which were once on the sides of our sanctuary are up front. We turned it sideways.
Our church, like many others, I’d guess, is home to a flock of pigeons that, during the service, flutter in and out of the gables on the roof. No matter how moving the sermon, the pigeons are impossible not to notice, their silhouettes dancing against the stained glass, especially in bright winter sunlight.
Yesterday, the preacher made reference to them because, like the rest of us, he’s found it hard not to shape them into a metaphor. The doves he said, rather gingerly, seemed like the Holy Spirit. He shrugged as if to say we needn’t get too exorcised about the accuracy of this spiritual vision, but it had seemed to him—when he watched—that the Holy Spirit couldn’t get inside the church. I’d never thought of that.
He was preaching on that extraordinary story about the extraordinary limits to which the friends of a paralyzed man go to get their friend into Jesus’ presence, cutting a hole in the roof.
They did so, the preacher said, because the place was jammed with Pharisees and other men of stature and power. There were, he claimed, too many righteous inside, so many that others—less influential and, well, churchly—simply couldn’t get in, like those fluttering doves outside, unable to enter the sanctuary.
Maybe. I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly convinced. Lots of Sundays I’m not all that thrilled to go to church, and I felt double-whammied by the analogy. Maybe I should just stay home and keep a chair open for the Holy Spirit. Either that or break the windows.
Besides, if those church pigeons are some kind of symbol, I like 'em there, a reminder that somehow the Holy Spirit hasn't left for the cities like so many others.
It’s interesting that David is editorializing here in Psalm 65, not simply uttering a personal confession. It’s us he’s talking about, not me. And he sounds rather like our preacher, methinks, who makes a case worth chewing on, as he likes to say. After all, even a quick read of the gospels makes it clear that Christ’s most robust enemies were the church insiders, those most confident of their righteousness.
That’s scary because I’m one of those. I go all the time. Years ago, my old non-church attending friends were flabbergasted at the gadzillion hours I gave to church and its sundry affairs. I’m an insider. These very words are an insider’s craft, aren’t they?
Maybe it would be easier if I was an adulterer, a drunk, an abuser, a thief, a con, a rogue cattleman who’d been kiting payments on stock and feed and what not else. Maybe it would be easier if my criminal record were as long as my arm.
The sins that are most difficult, for me at least, are those I’m only partially conscious of, the ones I need to be defined for me, the ones that keep the pigeons out.
But what keeps me going back to the church that’s turned sideways is the gratitude I know, just as David did—the gratitude that grows from the conviction, not only of the certainty of my sin, but also the certainty of grace, of forgiveness.
That I don’t have a Bathsheeba or Uriah in my personal history doesn’t mean I’m any less unclean, any less in need of a Savior, any less joyous for the blessed assurance of grace. “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free”—Ethel Waters.
Maybe I should say, “His eye is on the pigeons”; and because I know he watches them, as Ms. Waters would say, “I know he’s watching me.”