When residents near Holy Trinity Church were rattled from their sleep Saturday night by the sounds of drums and laughter and fireworks, they didn’t know what was happening. “It was like a full blown Mardi Gras had erupted next door,” one neighbor complained. The church, usually a gentle giant of a structure, dark against the midnight sky, was ablaze with a rainbow of lights and echoed with sounds of whooping and singing. Two police officers were dispatched to the scene.
Witnesses later recounted what they’d seen. Earlier in the evening, the parking lot began to fill with cars and pickups, which soon spilled over onto side streets. Men and women and children piled out of the vehicles, each one carrying plastic bags bulging with hamburger buns and streamers and bottles of every variety. A large van backed up to the fellowship hall and began unloading drums and guitars and sound equipment. The fire pit was soon roaring with flames and the three or four portable grills were fired up for a BBQ. And this was just the beginning.
By the time midnight rolled around, they’d gone whole hog. The center of the fellowship hall had been pushed clear of tables and chairs. As the band played, the dance floor swirled with everyone from white-haired retirees to mini-skirted teens. Children, some in pajamas, one toddler bare-butt naked, squealed and ran about the room with chocolate cake smeared on their faces. A couple of guys had gotten their hands on some fireworks and soon rockets were hissing heavenward to paint the night sky with exploding colors. The corks flew off champagne bottles and brimming glasses were passed around the room.
When the blue and red lights on the patrol cars flashed around the parking lot a little after midnight, no one seemed to notice. Or care. The pastor met the officers at the door and welcomed them in with a smile. After considerable effort, he got the band to stop playing, the dancers to stop dancing, and the general din of laughter and shouting subsided to a whisper. Finally, it was quiet enough for them to hear each other.
“What exactly is going on here, Pastor?” one of the officers asked.
“Follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you.”
He led the two men through the mass of people to the back corner of the hall. There was a makeshift stage on which sat an oversized chair. Confetti was strewn all about and streamers dangled from the ceiling. Sitting as if enthroned was a man in his late 30’s. He had three days worth of stubble on his face and his clothes were badly in need of a wash. But he sported a tinfoil crown, used a few months earlier in the Christmas pageant for one of the three magi; had a turkey leg in one hand and a Guinness in the other; and on his face was a smile that hadn’t faded all night.
“Officers, this man is the reason we’re here. His name’s Landon. He grew up in this congregation. To make a long story short, he went off to college, got in with the wrong crowd, made some bad choices. His life began to unravel. He’ll tell you all the details if you’re really interested. We’d lost track of him for years. Rumors were he was in prison or living on the street. Nobody really knew. But for as long as I can remember, when I’ve stood at the altar on Sunday morning to pray for folks in need, his name has always been among them. Then, lo and behold, he shows up on my doorstep early this morning. Says he’s come home. Says he’s been through hell and back. Says he don’t know if the church would welcome him back or not, but hopes they will. So I started calling folks up. Word spread. And we decided to show Landon what ‘welcome home’ means to us Christians. You see, officers, this son of our congregation was dead, and has come back to life again; he was lost, and has been found. We had no other choice than to throw a party. That’s just what we do. That’s how the church welcomes home a sinner who’s lost his way.”
The officers listened. The older of the two simply asked that the church turn down the volume a bit for the sake of their neighbors, and please lay off the fireworks for the rest of the night. They all agreed. The officers left. And the party for Landon went on and on and on.
I suppose everyone has his dreams. I have mine. And one of them is to read a story like this in the newspaper someday. A story about a church that knows how to welcome home a lost son.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My award-winning book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!