That busted pew in the middle of an Arby's

That busted pew in the middle of an Arby's

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the front door of the Catholic church, it was — in theory — a great historic moment. This act of defiance showed that everyone has a voice and anyone could take a stand. It was like the world’s very first religious blog post.

I say, “in theory,” though, because after this one split came countless others, to the point where there are now over 45,000 (!) different denominations and branches of Christianity. What we gained in freedom we lost in unity.

The differences between churches comes down to things like baptism (infant vs. adult), free-will vs. pre-destination, and communion/eucharist. Each group is trying to find the right answer. It’s like trying to fill out the perfect March Madness bracket.

One of these many church splits took place in the early 1800s. There was a man named Barton Stone down in Kentucky and a father-son combo (Thomas and Alexander Campbell) over in Pennsylvania who believed we should go back to the Bible, study the early church, and then imitate these early apostles as closely as possible to restore and unite the church.

What emerged, or re-emerged, from the Stone/Campbell movement was the Church of Christ. And every Sunday morning, I went to one on Wheeler Road in Midland, Michigan.

But when you’re 11/12-years-old, you’re not thinking about church history or which church has it right. In reality, I didn’t pick the Church of Christ. It picked me. And I don’t mean that to sound deep; what I mean is I was eating a brown sugar Pop-Tart and Mom and Dad told me and my brother to hop in the minivan. Time to go to church. 

The Wheeler Road Church of Christ is shaped like a cross. You walk down this long hallway and turn right into the auditorium. There’s a baptismal at the front and a small stage. Really tall ceiling and two rows of pews. Those stiff pews were the ultimate chiropractor. You’d lean back and not only crack your back but it sounded like you were cracking the back of the pew itself.

We didn’t have songs, we had “hymns.” No instruments either. Not even an organ or a piano. We’d stand and there’d be this moment of silence before all the voices came together, A cappella style.

Love one another, for love is of God.
He who loves is born of God;
And knows God.
He who does not love, does not know God,
For God is love, God is love, God is love.

This first “Alto” part was sung by 80 percent of the women. Once they hit “For God is love,” it was time for me and my brother to stand tall, puff out the chest. We joined the bass section like two young warriors heading to battle. I tried to avoid an ill-timed puberty crack.

Love bears all things,
Believes all things,
Love hopes all things,
Endures all things.

Now the tenors joined in. They had the easiest lyrics.

God is love, God is love, God is love.

Finally, the sopranos, which sounded like a group of angels descending on the choir.

Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
For God is love, God is love, God is love.

When all the voices came together, it created this one collective voice but you could still hear a few individuals. Especially the best singers in the house. It’s like basketball, we were all playing together, but Bonnie Sitter was hitting Steph Curry threes.

Singing is church’s version of lay-up lines in basketball. By the time you sit down, you’re warmed up. You’re in church mode. Time to take communion.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.

The silver plates weaved through the aisles. I’d quietly look for the biggest communion cracker.

And likewise, the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

This part was more intimidating. You had to hold the tray, pickup the tiny little cup, drink it — while still holding the tray — place the cup back in the hole. Big time sizzle scenario.

After communion, it was time to stand and greet your neighbor. There’d be a short message for the children and then our preacher, Jim Chilton, delivered the sermon. Prayer requests, announcements, every now and then someone came forward to be baptized.

And then it was time to “beat the Baptists to the buffet.”

We’d hop in the minivan and drive over to Arby’s. My brother poured the Arby’s sauce into paper communion cups. Dad got the roast beef. Mom the chicken bacon swiss. Tom and I’d get the chicken fingers. Curly fries. An order of jalapeño poppers, sometimes a thing of mozzarella sticks. Wash it down with Sprites and Diet Cokes.

We always went to the same busted pew in the middle of the Arby’s. Why? Not really sure. It was always open, because the seat was missing a few springs. Tom and I loved this spot like an old rusty car. We’d sit down and feast together as a family. Then we’d head home for an NFL nap. That was the rhythm of a Sunday.

But in middle school, 7th or 8th grade, I had my own Martin Luther moment. Instead of a list of 95 grievances, mine was much shorter for why I was leaving the Wheeler Road Church of Christ. It looked something like this:

  • There was a big church in town where a lot of my friends went to
  • They had drums, guitars, and a youth group of 200+ people
  • I liked one of the girls in the youth group

I made my case, “So uh, can we go to this church instead?”

Dad joined me (because I didn’t have a driver’s license). This created a schism in our family from 9:30 to noon every Sunday morning. Mom and Tom went to Wheeler Road. Me and Dad went to the big church. Then we’d come back together at Arby’s. In the same busted pew.

The summer before high school, I don’t know what it was, or who was teaching. Not even sure if it was at the big church, at a summer camp, or in a small group. But there was this particular strand of pre-destination that freaked me out. In theory, it should’ve been good news, but my 8th grade self transformed the ideas into a pile of worries and uncertainty. If there’s no free-will, how do I know if I’ve been picked?

I turned God, the Author of Life, into a gym teacher randomly picking kickball teams. Because of this, I became extra cautious about everything — mistakes, sins, and I mean even little things like swearing, a bad thought, I worried that any mistake proved I wasn’t one of the elect. My nightmare boiled down to one central question: How do I know if God even loves me?

This haunted me for months. My thoughts went around in circles and I lost a bunch of weight (and there wasn’t that much weight to lose). I don’t remember many trips to Arby’s the summer before freshman year.

In the fall, I reached out to Jim Chilton at Wheeler Road. Mom or Dad must’ve dropped me off. I took a seat and shared some of the concepts that were freaking me out. What seemed like a 500-pound gorilla to me, Jim swatted away like a mosquito. It was a complete 180 from worry to peace. From uncertainty to faith. I won’t go as far as saying I was like the blind man receiving sight, but I could finally hear the words of Amazing Grace.

I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.” 

After this meeting, I could’ve gone back to the big church but, for me, it was time to come home to the Wheeler Road Church of Christ. Not because they had it 100 percent right and the others had it wrong, but because it felt like home. When my Dad and I returned, it was like walking into a family reunion. Hey, how you doing, Bill! Chris! Handshakes. Pats on the back. Hearing the A cappella singing instead of guitars and drums, again, I don’t think there’s one right answer here, but after spending an entire summer worrying if God loved me, to hear 100 voices affirming together, “God is love. God is love. God is love,” I didn’t need to be anywhere else.

Our family was together again, inside a larger family. Church would end and we’d hop into that ol’ minivan. Head back to the Arby’s.

For a long time afterwards, I blamed the big church, or Jon Calvin, or whoever I heard the scary ideas from, but I slowly realized it was no one’s fault. It was my own set of 8th grade ears. My 8th grade self was worried about high school. Fitting in. Making the basketball team. Student council. Whatever else an 8th grader worries about. And when you take an anxious starting point, then throw in the heavy subjects of heaven and hell, it’s gonna be a bad combo. It’s like starting with acne and adding curly fries. My 8th grade self, who still shows up sometimes here in my 30s, saw his relationship to God as a final exam or a basketball tryout. And with that mindset comes the fear of failing or getting cut.

When my 8th grade self shows up, I don’t need to argue with him or prove him wrong. I just need to take him back to the layup lines.

And just like Barton Stone or the Campbells, when I head back to the source I see Jesus Christ talking about faith and hope and love. His final words weren’t, “Alright guys, don’t forget these specific bulletpoints for the final exam,” or, “You MUST have absolute certainty on free-will vs. pre-destination.” No, he said things like, “Love one another,” or “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I’ll be there.” He was always eating with his followers. Breaking bread. Pouring wine. Bringing the family back together.

“Surely I will be with you always,” he said in his farewell address.

Over here. Over there. In the big church. In the small church. And in that busted pew in the middle of an Arby’s.

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