She is not always completely with us.
In seasons, Mary* will join our Ugandan church on Sundays with smiles, profuse words and sometimes tears. She sits too near to us on chairs or sometimes sprawls out on the wrap she ceremoniously arranges on the dusty ground beside us. She always wants to hug. Repeatedly. In a sort of hang on and pull you to the ground kind of way.
In worship she vacillates mightily. She either dances exuberant and joyful all around the room or she weeps huddled in her chair mournful and loud.
Many, many times she steps onto the stage to ask for prayers. In the middle of the sermon. Or in the middle of a song. Whenever the mood strikes her. She is definitely not confined by expectations.
Pointing to her heart and head she will testify, “I am not okay. Too much pain.”
“I need Jesus,” she will whisper and sway while we pray on her behalf.
She comes and goes. As a patient at the government hospital’s mental health unit, she has received sparse and sporadic psychiatric care. Yet, somehow, she is making her way through this life. Broken and stumbling and steady on.
There is one Sunday with her that remains my favorite.
My husband and our third born had ridden off on a motorcycle earlier that morning to teach in a nearby village, which left me and the other three kiddos to organize and begin the town church services until Jeff made it to preach.
Most of us were late that morning. As I pulled into our town church land I was relieved to see that the other vehicles hadn’t arrived. I knew I could get organized before the crowd gathered.
I was surprised when Mary met us at the door. Her shoes were lined neatly by the entrance (a common and respectful practice in Uganda) and beside her worn plastic flip flops were the sturdy soled Keens that belonged to someone else.
I quickly took in the assembly space and was surprised to see an American smiling at us from the second row of chairs. The visitor, Kate*, waved at me warmly as Mary hugged me, tugging and pulling me into the tent while her exuberant “Praise God!” shouted repeatedly around us.
I returned Mary’s hugs halfheartedly feeling guilty that we had a visitor (an American) who had arrived to an empty building. And she was now walking barefoot on the concrete ground that had obviously not been swept for weeks. ‘What must she think of us?’ I muttered deep inside.
I smiled at our visitor and told her how welcome she was. I apologized for being late and thanked her for kindly waiting.
She replied, “I stayed because Mary was here and welcomed me with such love. She hasn’t stopped hugging me and made sure I was seated and comfortable. She is a very persuasive church greeter!”
I visited with Kate for a moment until it dawned on me that I was in charge. There were exactly six of us present and I felt a bit of pressure to meet some sort of schedule expectation that an American most surely had.
Taking her seat next to Kate, Mary continued grinning at me her face eagerly blissful.
And I stepped onto the stage.
Jeff was delayed in the village longer than expected that day so I continued with prayer, scripture and teaching to our gathering of only a few.
Later as we were saying our goodbyes, Kate expressed generous appreciation for our worship together while Mary wrapped her arms tightly around my waist smiling at me victorious over our obvious Sunday success.
A Sunday gathering in place because Mary was present and available first.
She was really the one who taught us all.
In Christ the upside-down and backwards can offer the most consistent lead.
The early verses of James chapter 2 repeat this most astounding truth.
We are appraised by a law that GIVES FREEDOM.
Who you see as poor?
Theirs is the kingdom. It belongs to them!
They are chosen and appointed to be rich in faith.
Why do we even honor the other thing? The thing we pretend we have as security but it is in fact fading (James 1:10-11).
The very thing that actually takes from all of us.
Clothes and money are ridiculous guides!
Setting any one person over another makes losers out of all of us.
We all ‘have not’ something and every ‘have not’ is welcomed in Jesus.
Not only that but God is shaping beauty out of the unnoticed and the embarrassing and all the ones who don’t make sense.
What a tremendous relief!
“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…”
In any place we gather--
WE ARE WELCOME TO TAKE THE STAGE!
Each of us swaying to our own particular swirl of madness and confusion we testify:
“I need Jesus…”
“the kingdom is mine…”
James tells us that God’s kingdom is in fact a specified and protected space for inadequate, meager and sparse.
A gloriously broken community made up of such as these.
The courage to be so obviously crazy may actually set us free.
Merciful God, let it be so.
*names changed to honor the precious
Fort Portal, Uganda