I'm the kind of person who skips to the conversation when reading a book.
I searched for a church I could walk to while staying in downtown Atlanta and came up with Atlanta First United Methodist Church.
Perfect. Less than a mile from my hotel.
As I walked up the steps, the greeters were waiting out front. A gentlemen in a tan suit took my hand to welcome me. “Are you new to the area?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’m just visiting.”
“Where are you from?” he asked, smiling.
“Upstate New York,” I answered.
His brow furrowed slightly. He lifted my hand and bent forward to give it a kiss.
“Oh, Lord,” he prayed, “please forgive her. She cain’t help bein’ a Yankee.”
I laughed, took the bulletin he offered me, and headed in to find a seat.
“This is the day that the Lord hath made,” began the Pastor, and the congregation erupted in loud clapping as he finished the sentence. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Personally, I am not a fan of applause in church. But this was applause for God and for the day He had made. I loved it.
The focus of that worship service was twofold: a graduation celebration for their “day school” — which must be the southern term for preschool — and a farewell to their pastor, Charles Gardner. It did not seem the ideal service for a visitor.
Honestly though,I’ve been pondering parts of that service now for over a week so I guess it was relevant.
For one, as I walked to church that morning, I passed a little park where homeless people were sleeping on benches. Sights like that remind me that I’m in a city.
Pastor Gardner in his final sermon thanked many people in his congregation that he had worked alongside for the past six years. One was a man who watched over the church and knew the name of every drug addict, prostitute, and homeless person within a certain radius of the church. I’m sure he knew those people I passed in the park.
I’m reading Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. The authors say,
Slow Church is a journey in the direction of ethics, of preferring quality over quantity, of seeking the well-being of our congregations as well as our neighborhood. … Alex Roxburgh writes that the way to know God is to “[enter] into the ordinary, everyday life of the neighborhoods and communities where we live.”
This man described by Pastor Gardner was a beautiful example of what it means to enter the life of a neighborhood.
The other thought I’ve been pondering is a story Pastor Gardner told in closing. Dolly Parton visited the church — I think for a movie that was being filmed — and posed for a picture with the pastor. She pulled him right to her for the shot, saying, “You’ve got to get in close if this is going to work.”
I’ve been rolling those words around in my head. How true that is for the church! In our hustle-bustle-21st-century life, how often do we take the opportunity to really pull in close?
The service closed with applause — again for the Lord.
It truly was the day the Lord had made.
I’m thankful that I could rejoice with the people of First Atlanta United Methodist Church.