Growing up as a poor Baptist child in the 1970′s, I went to church three times… per Sunday.
Every Sunday started with Sunday school classes. Sunday school classes were the most fun part of church because there was generally some coloring and a graham cracker involved. You also got to be with other kids your age and a nice old lady who made sure that “everyone” had his eyes closed during prayer.
Immediately following Sunday school was the church service. The only fun part of church service was the standing up on the pew during the first and the second song so you could help your mom hold the hymnal. Immediately following the second song everyone sat down to sing verses one and four of the third song while the ushers passed out the gold offering plates.
After the plates were collected the sermon began and you were in for a 60-minute test of childhood endurance. Your only hope was that there might be communion tables set out at the front because that meant the preacher was going to have to cut the sermon short by ten minutes.
After church you’d go home, take off your church clothes, and be free for about 4 hours until, just as Battlestar Galactica was starting, you’d have to pile back in the car so you could go to “The Evening Service”.
Now unlike the prefabricated, flannel graph world of Sunday school and the staid, organ driven pomp of the church service, evening service was a completely different animal.
I don’t know who was in charge of planning evening services at our church, but whoever it was, was a marketing mastermind, because ANYTHING could happen during evening service.
Some nights were good:
You might show up and there would be missionaries from Borneo presenting a slide show and saying their names in Bornese! Other times there might be a singing group filled with beautiful girls drumming up business for a Bible college.
Some nights were bad:
Like a whole night of singing hymns. Adults would call out the number of a song in the hymnal and then the whole church would join in. The only fun part was calling out a number between 419 and 500 which were the Christmas carols and patriotic songs (both of which were out-of-place in mid-April.)
Worse yet, there also seemed to be an endless supply of musical families traveling across America in Airstream trailers. Dad on the piano, mom and the girls singing, the oldest brother with a banjo, and the littlest one with a sock puppet.
Evening service was a veritable cornucopia of possibilities, but no possibility was greater than that of the itinerant Gospel “ventrillusionist.” The Gospel ventrillusionist was a man who traveled the country, in the name of Jesus, with a talking puppet and a magic set.
He would generally show up on a Sunday night and then have meetings every evening of the week culminating in a big super spectacular on Friday night! It was this guy’s job to do magic tricks and terrify us with his freaky puppet, and it was our job to memorize Bible verses and bring our friends.
Usually he would give you a Bible bookmark with a spot for your name on it, and then for every Bible verse you memorized or friend you brought you would get a hole punch in the bookmark. At the Friday spectacular all of the kids would turn in their bookmark for various toys and nominal candy prizes.
I got really excited when I looked in the prize box and saw a toy airplane. It was blue plastic with foam wings and a rubber band powered propeller. I knew then that I would do whatever it took to make that airplane mine.
I brought every kid I knew to see this guy. I memorized every verse on the list and for extra credit I drew out the First, Second, and Third Missionary Journeys of the Apostle Paul from the maps in my 1611 KJV Bible.
I got a ton of hole punches.
Friday night came and everyone turned in their bookmark. After the tabulations they started calling names and lining kids up in the order that would be allowed to pick out of the prize box. They called my older brother’s name first and then a couple of his friends. I knew I should be next, but instead they just kept calling out other kids names.
I knew that there had to be a mistake because a couple of kids that I brought got their names called before me, and they didn’t even come that first night!
They never called my name.
After they called the last name, they invited all of the kids who were left to come join the line. As I stood at the back of the line, marveling at the injustice that was about to be done to me, I heard them say that there were a couple of bookmarks that were turned in that had no name on them.
I ran up to the front to tell them that mine was one of the bookmarks without a name, but they said there was no way to tell who’s card was who’s. So I explained to them about the verses and the friends, and the Apostle Paul, but they just sent me to the back of line, where I would probably just get silly putty and no airplane.
There was only one thing left to do and since they had called my bluff I did it.
I started crying and ran away.
I ran all the way to the one place a kid could go to be alone in church, the men’s restroom. I ran into a stall put the lid down, sat down, and pulled my feet up. I cried and cried for what must have been 10 minutes until I heard the bathroom door open and then heard footsteps on the tile floor.
I knew it was my dad. He’d come to tell me to stop crying, and even worse, he was going to make me go back out there, get in line and pick out some lame toy or maybe those disgusting sesame seed candies. I didn’t want to go back out there in front of everyone, all hot and wet from sweat, tears, and snot. I decided at that moment that no one could make me leave that stall, and I might even stay there until everyone else went home.
You’ve probably felt that bad before, bad enough that you just wanted to hide out in the middle of nowhere and hope that nobody would ever bother you.
In Biblical times, people often lived in kingdoms. There were clearly established laws of succession, which ensured a smooth transition within the government. When a King died, his son would become king.
Sometimes a kingdom would be conquered by a competing nation, or a king would be murdered in a military coup. When this happened, the new ruler would make certain to kill every member of the previous king’s family. He did this to ensure that no one with a rightful claim to the throne could lead an uprising against him.
A man named Saul had been Israel’s first king, but he was killed during war with the Philistines. In Second Samuel chapter nine, a man named David became the King of Israel. If you know the story of David, you’ll remember that David came to power in Israel after a long civil war with the surviving members of the Saul’s family.
Sitting on his throne one day David asked the members of his court if there happened to be anyone left of Saul’s bloodline. A servant named Ziba, who had served in the palace under King Saul, told David that there was still a grandson of Saul named Mephibosheth. He went on to say that this man was crippled in both legs because when he was a child, a servant dropped him.
Ziba told David that this man lived in a place called Lo-Debar. Lo-Debar is a name that means “no pasture, or barren”. It was a long way from Jerusalem, out on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
Mephibosheth was born in a palace, the grandson of a king, but his life just wasn’t working out. His family was dead, the kingdom was lost, and fleeing the destruction he was injured. Now, years later, he’s merely an invalid; living out his days hiding in the middle of nowhere.
David commanded that Mephibosheth be brought to Jerusalem to meet with him.
Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be Mephibosheth when the chariots and soldiers arrived in Lo-Debar? Mephibosheth knew what was supposed to happen to him, but where could he go, what could he do?
The Bible tells us that King David was a man after God’s own heart, and I can’t think of a better story to illustrate this point that the story we find in 2nd Samuel chapter 9:6.
When Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, he bowed down to pay him honor.
David said, “Mephibosheth!” “Your servant,” he replied.
“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.
I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”
II Sam. 9:6-7
David reached into someone’s life and lifted him up to a place that they could not get on his own.
Mephibosheth was pathetic. He was groveling at the feet of a king who could destroy him, but instead of destruction, Mephibosheth received restoration.
David gave Mephibosheth independence. As a land owner Mephibosheth would have command over food and water. He had a place to live and have a family. No longer would he depend on the kindness of others, now he could employ many workers and command servants.
David then extended the offer of dining at the king’s table to Mephibosheth. The people who sat at the table of the king were either his family members, or strategic people who kept the king in power.
Mephibosheth, descendant of the enemy was asked to join the greatest people in the land for the greatest meal in the land, every night. David wasn’t just inviting a nobody to hang out with the somebodies, he was declaring him a somebody.
When we, as Christians, become people who elevate others with our actions and words, we earn the opportunity to tell the story of what Jesus has done in our lives, and doesn’t the story of Mephibosheth sound a lot like our story?
We were nobodies, with nothing to offer God. We were trapped in a desperate life trapped by sin. God showed up and instead of burying us, he elevated us for the sake of someone else that he loved. He gave us a life we didn’t deserve; he put us in a place we don’t deserve to be.
David was a man after God’s own heart because he loved the things that God loved, He did the things that God did.
We have that same call on our life, to be people after God’s own heart. In the words of the prophet Micah, “To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.”
David lived those words.
He didn’t have to do it.
He would have been considered merciful to let Mephibosheth live out his miserable life of seclusion in the middle of nowhere.
I still remember how hot it was in that stall. I knew I had to be quiet if I wanted my dad to leave, but I was pretty sure that my sniffling had already given me away. I heard the footsteps walk right up to stall I was in. When I looked down, I didn’t see my dad’s Florsheim shoes. There were sneakers.
White Spalding sneakers.
They were my brother’s sneakers. My brother’s hand came under the door, and it was holding a blue airplane with foam wings. He had selected it with the first choice of the Sunday evening service nominal toy prize draft. His hand rotated under the door to show me the underside of the plane. Written on the wing, in Papermate blue permanent ink, was my name.
My brother had come to Lo-Debar to find me.
As I sat on that toilet seat, all sweaty in my green Toughskins with the brown patches on the knees, he couldn’t see or touch me,
but he was lifting me up.