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Mark Osler

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Faith in the Back Row

Posted: 02/21/2012 12:22 pm

I am the son of a painter. On summer days, I have often found an excuse to sit near him as he worked. I might pretend to read a book, but I'm really watching him. A better and more compelling story than any book can tell is unfolding in front of me as he paints -- a person emerges over time from the canvas, evolves, becomes whole and real and complex. My dad will step back, squint, turn his head to the side, and change some detail that only he sees as the setting becomes clearer, a context of life.

My favorite paintings he has done are those of people sitting in the back row of church. It can be an odd mix back there -- loitering deacons or nurses mix with the stragglers. Often, they are the people who came late, who aren't quite sure they want to be there or perhaps don't trust a squirming child to behave well for a full hour. There is, sometimes, a look of ambivalence in their eyes, and it is that uncertain truth that my father captures so well -- that moment of honest and troubled humanity. If you ask the people in the back row about their faith, they might answer "it's complicated."

That phrase, "it's complicated," has entered our consciousness through Facebook, where it is one of the ways a user can describe a romantic relationship. Actually, if we are honest, it should be the only way we can describe a relationship. They are all complicated, even the best ones, and the same can be said of our faith -- even at its best, it is complicated, and that is what my father paints.

Of course, I am one of those people in the back row of my own church, with the late arrivers and restless children. My sister Kathy is a back-bencher, too. Like many siblings, we are a lot the same and a lot different. Much of the difference is her being good in ways that I cannot achieve. For example, she is a social worker, and has the patience of a saint as she deals with her mentally ill clients. Her job is this: People who would be institutionalized for crimes or mental illness (the two are tangled up very often) get to live at home rather than prison or an institution, and she is paid by the state to visit them and make sure they are doing OK, do some art therapy with them, and monitor things like money and medication. It allows the clients freedom, and saves a lot of money for the state. I could never do that; I don't have the patience or courage.

Kathy and I are different in our faith, too. She is not as "religious-y" as I am. That doesn't mean that she isn't just as engaged with God: Her life much more closely follows what Christ taught than mine does (whether she thinks of it that way or not).

Not long ago we were skiing, and while riding the lift she told me about a few of her clients. Her stories are deep and rich and full of life; about people who are outcasts and confused, addicted and in trouble, but who have these parts of their lives that make total sense in the midst of it all, this messy (and often tragic) gorgeousness.

Imagining the danger of it, the dislocation from our own safe and settled lives, I asked her, "What do you tell them?"

She turned her head for a minute, looked at the snow covered trees turning red with the dusk, and said, "if they talk about God, then I tell them that God loves them. I tell them that God loves them just as they are."

That is the simple wisdom of the back bench, the answer to the complications, and the challenge to our churches as they search for relevance in a hard, cold world. When a preacher speaks to the "back of the room," that should refer to more than just the volume of the speaker's voice -- it should direct the sermon to those with a doubt, those who are challenged, and the rest of us who sit humble and weary in the back row of God's own house.