You don’t know bitterness and cynicism unless you know a Detroit Lions fan. Detroiters are spectacularly loud, sarcastic, and sassy anyway, but talk to them about their football team and you’ll get a pretty clear picture of how brash and honest they really are. The Lions are a notoriously bad team, and we fell in love with them when we lived in Michigan. But everyone knows that you pick a second favorite team if you love the Lions because they just never win. Nevertheless, in this house, we are loyal fans even though they break our hearts year after year.
The most unusual Lions fan I know is Lew. Lew is a burly Detroiter with a scruffy beard, graying hair, and a heart that bleeds Honolulu blue ever devoted to worst football franchise in the country. He’s had season tickets for over twenty years and attends every home game and travels to away games loyally with unyielding hope. The best thing about Lew is his laugh. His low santa-esk bellow will make everyone in the room smirk and then feel bad for the ever-faithful guy who’s laughing while still sporting a personalized Lions jersey. Lew religiously misses Sunday church services during football season. He graciously took my husband to several games and introduced him to the other season ticket holders who sit around him. (Well, the faithful few ticket holders who hadn’t already sold their tickets to the highest bidder for that game.) That crew of fans sharing that section all know each other by name. They all know details about each other’s lives. They ask about family and kids in college. They share stories of some of the best and worst games. They all sit week after week, loss after mind-blowing loss, and cheer on the Lions together; commeradarie in the face of adversity.
The notable thing about Lew isn’t only his loyalty to the Lions or his great relationships with the other fans; it’s his post-game routine of stopping by his favorite bakery and buying sweet potato pies for himself and an extra for a homeless guy on the street. Not any particular homeless person; in Detroit, you are never too far from someone needing help. Lew never seemed to forget the guys laying in the cold, gray streets of the D. You’d only know this about Lew if you had a chance to join him for a game. He’s not the kind of guy who would brag about it because he’s usually talking about plays or throws or coaches. Lew misses some Sundays at the church building, but he never misses a chance to share with someone in need. Or maybe Lew isn’t missing church at all.
My observation of the church over the last forty years is Lew may do more good work on those Sundays at the game than most of us do sitting in our pews. If you are at a church that prioritizes good works for the poor, then you can trust that the money going into the plate serves that purpose. Yet, there is something intrinsically pure about just acting on Christ’s directives yourself and not paying a middle man to do your good works for you. There is something absolutely right and natural about sitting alongside your community, knowing them deeply and personally, cheering on a team together, and actually living out the example of Christ along the way. A lot of “good” church people judged Lew harshly for not showing up on Sundays in the fall and excluded him in some get togethers. But I suggest Lew does more good for the cause and witness of Christ cheering on the Lions and passing out sweet potato pie to the homeless than those of us trapped in our spiritual checklists of programs and preaching each week. Both seats are generally uncomfortable, but one actually serves a purpose for the greater good and the other generally just serves itself.
Every fall my husband finds or creates a fantasy football league. When we moved to Houston, Dave posted on the facebook neighborhood want ads looking for a fantasy league to join. Someone named Ben messaged him and invited him to join a league which meets every Wednesday night in a guy named Chad’s garage. So Dave joined. Chad’s garage has two nasty stained couches, folding sports chairs, a rubber exercise ball, an empty keg utilized as an extra seat, and a flat screen TV always on ESPN. On Dave’s first visit to Chad’s garage, he was greeted with handshakes from around the room, an open chair, and a cold beer. He soon discovered that originally the group was gathered as a men’s bible study but slowly transformed into this ecumenical gathering of men from all life stages. They play fantasy football, talk sports and beer styles, but they also openly talk about life in an authentic and unguarded continuous dialogue. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Chad’s garage was a refuge for my husband over the last four years away from a job where he always felt he was walking on eggshells, was unaccepted and was judged for who he was. Chad’s garage is place where Dave can have deep spiritual conversations with open bibles around other men but without the judgement and pretense of a traditional church gathering and thankfully without the lofty expectations placed upon him for wearing the title of “minister”. He is free to be real there. They all are. I believe it is a holy place.
I have a friend who was just diagnosed with diabetes. She is overweight. She can no longer eat all the things her church brings to the potluck, but she is so paranoid about the judgement of her church family that she has not told them about her current struggle. Imagine if that struggle was of larger moral consequence. I doubt she would still be coming in the doors, and if she was, imagine the burden of that secret. And we are keeping those secrets and scandals and then they are blowing up around us in our churches both from our leadership and in the pews. If only we were comfortable enough to talk about it all openly. Perhaps one time sins wouldn’t lead to lifetimes of consequences and forever mistrusting parishioners.
My heartache for Lew was watching him be excluded by people who never missed a Sunday church service but would also make change in the youth group contribution tray. And I asked myself who the better Christian was in my own ugly judgment. My heartache for my friend is that she believes the relationships at her church building are real but will never truly be sure if they are real as long as she hides her health limitations.
So today I am at a crossroads. I don’t know which church to chose anymore. I want to live alongside people who live their faith out in the open and who refuse to be trapped in these weekly facades of pretense and practice thinking that is what saves them. I am fearful that those people no longer exist within our buildings. I am afraid we have all already left.
Due to sexual abuse of which I’ve witnessed the dark evils that exist within our leaderships that are often swept under the rug, due to the pious judgements of which I confess I’ve been a part and been victim to, due to the rigorous contempt and warfare for any shift away from modernity or tradition (not biblically mandated), due to our emotionalized well-marketed campaigns to sell people on our Sundays and our contribution trays, church, you are missing the mark, ignoring the harvest field, and we are losing the battle. And this is one Christian who is choosing a different path.
The church of modernity has lost its impact whether we want to admit it or not. The “if you build it they will come” mentality does not create honest believers. We attempt to win the masses to Sunday to pay for bloated budgets and billion dollar buildings, but we don’t win them to a Monday through Saturday Savior who shares a table with all the sinners. We have a church full of sinners who hide it on Sundays. If given a choice, I choose the church full of Lews. I choose the church that meets in Chad’s garage. I choose a church where I can tell people that I struggle without worrying that they will smile and then avoid me the next week. I wish those churches were found on every corner.