Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Stranger at the Church Door

This time of the year always reminds me of something that happened in the month of December not long after I came to be the pastor of the United Methodist Church in Monroeville, Alabama. I thought this story might touch your heart as it touches mine each time I remember it.

We had finished Wednesday night supper and were starting the monthly Administrative Council meeting when a stranger appeared at the door. Several of us saw her standing there but ignored her hoping she might go away. We were very busy and she obviously did not belong here.

Those not shuffling God's papers were ‘studying their shoelaces', trying to avoid looking at the stranger who was now inside the door. But she won. They always do. We can pretend to be preoccupied with ‘God's business' only so long, and then ‘those eyes' finally stare us down. She had those tired, accusing eyes

It was Pam, our Director of Christian Education, who got up first and walked to the door to see about the strange intruder. She was followed quickly by Peggy, our business manager. Some people just will not let us ignore the needy.

Who was this ragged, weather-beaten woman who had the nerve to interrupt our meeting with her pitiful needs? She had left Kalamazoo, Michigan, five weeks earlier on her bicycle. She was going to Pensacola, Florida. She did not know anybody in Pensacola, but she had heard that it was warm there in the winter. Her bicycle chain had broken about a mile out of town, and she pushed her bicycle to our church. Who was she? She said her name was Joanne, but who was she, really?

At that moment, I really didn't care. She had interupted our sacred bureacratic routine, and I didn't like that at all. Two of the women quickly escorted her to the kitchen, out of sight, where we grudgingly fed her, and we got back to the business at hand. She then asked if she could sleep somewhere in the church. Someone said we had a policy against that. Someone else suggested that the ‘policy' was violated at 11:00 every Sunday morning. That broke the tension and by common consent we agreed to ignore the policy and let her sleep on a couch in one of the Sunday School rooms. But we were ‘put out' that this strange, tired-eyed nomad with a broken bicycle had interrupted our routine. Didn't she know we were busy with God's work?!

The next morning Peggy brought breakfast. We got her bicycle repaired. She refused a ride to Pensacola saying she would prefer to ride her bicycle. It would only take two or three days. She did accept a few dollars for the road, and she was gone as quickly as she came.

Who was she? Just a poor old woman from Kalamazoo? I think she was more than that. After she was gone, it finally dawned on me who she was. I had seen her before. In fact, I have been seeing her, off and on, for over fifty years. Sometimes she is a man, sometimes a woman, but it was that funny look in her eye that gave her away. I know she will be back again. I do not know when or in what form, but she will be back. She always comes back, and I never recognize her until she is gone.

She is an angel. She is God's message to us. She comes every now and then to remind us who and whose we are, and to break up our self-indulgent, narcissistic religious routines.

She will be back. I just hope I recognize her to begin with next time. I never have before.

If you are looking for God during this holy season, watch for the lady with tired eyes on a bicycle peddling toward a warm place for the winter. God shows up in the most unlikely places, and people, and times. God was present that Wednesday night, but we did not know it until she was gone. He may be back today or tomorrow or next year, or who knows - it may be a long dry spell before She shows up again.

Keep looking! That is what we are supposed to do in the Advent season.

--Thomas Lane Butts