By Mark Atteberry
My wife and I were vacationing in a city that is home to one of our brotherhood’s greatest churches. I won’t mention the church’s name for reasons that will become obvious as you read. Suffice to say, we couldn’t wait to worship there. We’d heard so many good things we just knew we’d have an unforgettable experience.
We did, but not in the way we expected.
WHAT HE SAID
When we arrived at the sprawling campus I parked beside a woman who’d just locked her car and was heading for the nearest entrance. Having no idea where to go, we decided to follow her. Come to find out, she was a first-timer, too. When she arrived at the door, she asked the greeter for directions to the worship center. He smiled and said, “Just hang a right.”
Just hang a right.
Remember those words. We’ll be coming back to them.
Next, the greeter turned his attention to us, offering a warm smile and a firm handshake. When I told him that we, too, were looking for the worship center, he pointed at the woman he’d just greeted and said, “Follow her.”
So we did.
We were about 15 feet behind her when she reached the end of a hallway, opened a door, and walked into another room. The door had just clicked shut when I opened it and followed my wife through.
Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy first steps out of her tornado-blown house into Munchkin Land? Remember how she spun around, staring in all directions at her strange surroundings? Well, that’s pretty much what the three of us did after walking through that door.
Only we weren’t in Munchkin Land, we were in a storage closet. All around us were shelves of office supplies, cleaning supplies, and what looked like old stage props and decorations. If a line of gravelly voiced little Munchkin men had jumped out and started singing “We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild . . . ,” we wouldn’t have been more dumbfounded.
Seldom one to leave an astute observation unspoken, I said, “This doesn’t look like the worship center.” Both women were kind enough not to say, “Really, Einstein? What was your first clue?” Instead, they laughed. Not at me (I hope), but at the absurdity of our situation. We were in a storage closet! Something had obviously gone terribly wrong, but whose fault was it?
We all agreed that the greeter had indeed said, “Just hang a right.”
Not exactly the kind of statement you need a CIA encryption specialist to decipher. Yet, somehow, we were in a storage closet.
Then we saw it: another door on the far side of the room. We looked at each other. Could it be that we were indeed on the right track . . . that we just hadn’t gone far enough? Had the greeter sent us on a secret shortcut? If we opened that door, would we find ourselves in the worship center?
WHAT HE MEANT
I still remember opening the door slowly, like I was half expecting it to be booby-trapped. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones on a quest for the Holy Grail, I peeked into the next room.
And was foiled again.
It was a youth worship room, crawling with kids, all no doubt wondering who those strange people peeking out of the closet were. I was just about to close the door and suggest to the women that we retrace our steps when I heard someone call my name. I looked across the room and saw a guy I knew who was on the church staff. I hadn’t seen this fellow in years, and suddenly I’m stepping out of a storage closet into the middle of his class.
He said, “What were you doing in there?”
A fair question under the circumstances.
When I explained our situation, he laughed and led us back through the closet and down the hall where he pointed out our mistake. We should have come in the door, turned right, and then turned right again down a second hallway. That’s two rights. I desperately wanted to go point this out to the greeter who was still standing at his post, but decided just to let it go.
WHAT WE LEARNED
As my wife and I drove away from that church an hour or so later, we had a good laugh. And we started talking through the lessons we learned that day, most of which had nothing to do with the sermon. They were:
1. Greeters are dangerous people. Don’t let the innocent act fool you.
2. Men are famous for not following directions. Apparently, they’re not too hot at giving them either.
3. A church should keep its closets neat and organized. You never know who might be dropping in.
4. Big, glamorous churches aren’t perfect either.
That last point is the one that made the biggest impression on me. As one who suffers from an inferiority complex, I have gone through those periods of frustration (depression?) where every church in the world seemed to be more effective than the one I was leading and every preacher seemed to be a better leader.
It’s the same feeling I had the time I registered for a benefit golf tournament and got assigned to a foursome with three other players who were all scratch golfers. There I was, a 90’s hacker, playing with three Tiger Woods clones, or so they seemed to me.
But along the way, they all managed to hit a few bad shots. And it’s not that I rejoiced. After all, we were all on the same team! But their errant shots did encourage me in an odd sort of way. They made some of my own shanks and chili dips seem not so bad.
And so when I ended up in a storage closet at one of the best churches in our brotherhood, I was able to say to myself, “OK, we’re not the only church that has embarrassing moments. Even the big boys have them.”
But this closet caper isn’t over just yet.
WHAT I TOLD THEM
A couple of months after our visit to that wonderful church, their senior minister called and asked me to speak to his leadership team at a staff and elders’ retreat. I asked him if he knew my wife and I had worshiped with them a few weeks earlier and he said no. That told me two things: One, the staff member who rescued us from our sojourn in the wilderness apparently hadn’t shared the incident with his boss. And two, the speaking invitation wasn’t an attempt to buy my silence.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did.
During one of the sessions, without mentioning the name of the church, I told the story of how I went to church one day and ended up in a closet. There were snickers and guffaws all around the room. Finally, I said, “I want you to know that the church where my wife and I had this experience was . . . yours.”
I glanced at the senior minister. He appeared to be fighting the effects of some bad Mexican food, even though we hadn’t eaten yet. He asked if I was serious. I told him I was.
At that point, I assured the group that I wasn’t trying to embarrass anybody, that I had a reason for telling the story. And then I told them how that little glitch had helped me . . . how it reminded me that we all struggle to get it right and sometimes fail miserably . . . how all of us, even the best of us, need grace and lots of it.
Thank God, there’s no shortage.
Mark Atteberry has served as senior minister with Poinciana Christian Church, Kissimmee, Florida, since 1989. He has written six books, including Free Refill, The Samson Syndrome, and The 10 Dumbest Things Christians Do. His next book, So Much More Than Sexy! (Standard Publishing), will be published this year.