Cheryl F.

“Reserved Seating”
Testimony by Cheryl F.

I wasn’t brought up in church.  I knew about God, I even prayed to Him on occasion and often I tried bartering with Him, because in all honesty, I didn’t know any better.  After my Mom died, I found myself drawn to church; if only for the purpose of getting to see my Mom again.  I didn’t know a whole lot about God, but I was fairly certain that if I wanted to see my Mom again that I had to get to heaven and if I wanted to get into heaven then I had to go to church.  You would think that a woman just shy of being 45 would know better, but I didn’t know better because I hadn’t been taught.  Both of my parents were believers in God, but we just didn’t attend church.  I quickly learned that going to church had nothing to do with getting into heaven and it certainly had nothing to do with making my life better, which I thought would happen by default. So when my Mom died in November 2008, within a few months of her death I found myself faithfully attending church. But as I sat there in the church pews, I wanted to feel something, anything other than what I was feeling, which was bored.  I wasn’t always bored; I also felt judgmental, as if the sermon had nothing to do with me, but everything to do with other people around me, especially my husband, and those not around me, such as estranged family members.

In all of my righteousness, it wasn’t long before my husband and I joined the church that we attended faithfully every Sunday and that we tithed our ten percent to.  Of course that ten percent wasn’t always ten percent (we went on vacations and did other things with “our” money and we knew that God would understand). We had no clue that “our” money and everything we had was actually on loan from God.   And attending church every Sunday really wasn’t every Sunday because church interfered with our nephew’s ballgames. It was our theory (at least my theory) that God would understand. After all, he wanted me to love my family and loving my family (especially my nephew), meant never missing one of his ball games.  It’s funny (rather quite ironic) how Satan starts messing with your perfect plan to be a good little Christian and how God allows him to because God wants us to give Him (God), our top priority. Not second, not third, but top.  My priorities were as follows . . . my family, my selfishness, my need to be right and so forth and somewhere near the bottom was God.  Of course, I didn’t see things so clearly then, as I see them now.  I was going to church most of the time and tithing almost ten percent.

Just four years after my Mom’s death and three plus years of attending “our” church regularly (kind of, if you don’t count those days we attended ballgames instead); my husband and I went through a horrible, painful, terrible (and any other word that can be used to describe the nightmare that our marriage went through) experience.  I found myself angry at first and then more frightened than any human can possibly be.  Not the kind of fright that happens when you watch a scary movie, but instead, the kind of fright that comes from the realization that my world was falling apart and I could do nothing and I mean absolutely nothing about it.  Kind of the same thing I felt when my Mom died; although I knew I could see my Mom again if I just got into heaven and I could just get into heaven if I went to church, right?  But now my life, my world, was falling apart and going to church wouldn’t do anything for me because I was going to church and what happened still happened.  The panic I felt in the realization that there was absolutely nothing I could do to change my circumstances nearly sent me into daily bouts of losing my breath and wanting to die and asking myself, “is this really happening?”  And I did ask that question and no matter how many times I asked it, the same answer kept smacking me boldly into reality.  “YES, THIS IS HAPPENING!”

Shame and humiliation kept me from continuing to go to the church that I was a member of.  I felt that too many people (particularly one woman) were trying to be nosy and asking too many questions and so I assumed that my entire church family was gossiping about me.  I felt certain that they didn’t intend on praying for me, but rather only wanted to know the details of what was happening in my life.  Even now as I write this, I know there are those who will read this and want to know what happened that was so terrible.  Does it matter?  My journey to find God and to know Him personally has taught me many things, but one thing has become abundantly clear, that God knows the details of our lives and people who want to know why we need prayer really don’t intend to pray for us.  At least that has been my experience for I have learned that a true prayer warrior doesn’t need to know why you need prayer, but simply that you need prayer.  My old church (the one that my husband and I became members of) always listed the reasons for prayer on the church bulletin.  So and so is going to have surgery and needs prayer or so and so has cancer and needs prayer, and some prayer requests were listed as personal.  I admit, that as I read through the bulletin, I felt like I was going through a gossip tabloid as I went straight to the prayer needs first, curious about why people needed prayer and wondering what was so personal about someone’s prayer needs that they couldn’t share it with their church family.  I actually felt insulted by their need, or lack thereof, to share with me their prayer needs.   After all, how was I supposed to pray for them if I didn’t know what I was praying for?

It was refreshing to see that at CUMC only names are listed on the bulletin and not the circumstances for prayer being needed.  I must confess; even now when I put someone’s name on the prayer list, I mark that I do not want their names listed on the bulletin.  Why?  Because I still believe that just as I had done in my old church, that some people look at the bulletin as one would a gossip magazine—curious as to why those listed need prayer.   As I have said, I have learned so much on my journey to God. I have learned that people who don’t believe can hinder your prayers.  I only want true believers praying for me and I know from my own experience that not everyone in church is a true believer.  So many people attend church for so many reasons.  Some grew up in church and therefore being in church is as natural to them as breathing.  Others attend church out of obligation to a loved one and some (like the old me) may attend church with the misconception that they will get a sure pass into heaven.  It took the worst experience of my life to realize my true need for church, the reason I ended up at Christ United Methodist Church in Cambridge, the reason I traveled over thirty minutes to attend a church where I knew no one.  I wanted to get close to God.  To find a pastor who believed in God and His miracles and didn’t fall victim to fads, but preached with a purpose—to help lost souls like me find God.  I wanted to be where no one knew me or my circumstances; a place where I could start over and in my new beginning. I found myself at the altar in tears, asking for prayer, and many times I felt God with me because for the first time in my life, I found myself anonymous to everyone but God.  And I found myself blessed with a pastor who believed in God’s word and promises who wasn’t afraid to tell me of God’s miracles and giving me the faith to believe that all things, not just some things, but ALL things were possible with God.

There were many times that Satan tried to keep me from attending church, but the more time I spent with God, the more I felt his presence. The more I felt his presence, the more I wanted to please Him, and the more I wanted to please Him, the more I wanted to be in His house, surrounded by other Christians.  It was trying, but I found myself going around in a wonderful circle. And then one very difficult day for me, one that followed a very gloomy and painful night before, I found myself not wanting to go to church. Not wanting to be surrounded by anyone.  A morning when God spoke to my heart saying, “you need to show me that I am first, that I am top priority, that respecting me in my house is far more important than your pain or your hurt.”  God wanted me to show Him that I had no idols before Him and that included the idol that my self-pity and sadness had become. So I reluctantly drove to church just knowing that I was going to be late. As I walked into the crowded church, I felt my heart beating loudly in my ears as I looked for a place to sit, and then I spied it: an empty pew, and I quickly made my way nervously to sit in that empty pew. As I sat, I was certain that I felt eyes upon me as I tried to be unnoticed in that vacant pew that was strewn with bulletins.  I felt my face growing warm and then hot as I realized that the pew was reserved and that those several bulletins spread across the length of it meant that I was sitting in someone’s seat.  I felt frozen where I sat, not knowing what to do, not wanting to be noticed, feeling like an unwanted guest. Just as I started to stand, a man approached me attempting to say that the seats were reserved, but in seeing me standing he stopped mid-sentence and laughed nervously as I got to my feet to look for a seat elsewhere certain that everyone was looking at me, mocking my ignorance on reserved seating.  In that moment of feeling rejected from what I had started to feel was my church, I felt Satan telling me to flee because I wasn’t wanted there, but just as quickly, I felt God quiet my panic and my need to run by gently saying, “you are here for me, not him, not anyone else but me. This is my house, there is no reserved seating and you are welcomed.”  I felt embarrassed as I went to another seat, sitting next to a woman that I didn’t know, but smiled at nervously.  She smiled back and then I found myself in the middle of her conversation with the woman on the opposite side of me.  Had I taken someone else’s seat?  I felt even more unwanted and dejected as the two of them, on either side of me carried on a conversation, talking over me as if I were invisible.  I felt tears forming in my eyes; I wanted to run, I wanted to cry, but I needed God and he told me that I needed to stay and to put Him first and so I sat obedient to God’s voice in my heart. And then something amazing happened.  One of the women patted me on the leg and said in the sweetest, kindest voice, “I am so sorry, we’re talking over you as if you aren’t even here.”  Her kindness was God and I was glad that I had stayed.  That happened over three years ago and I have found myself sitting most often in the third pew, center left with my husband, Jay, until recently when God moved me to venture out of my comfort zone and worship with others who sat in the middle, in the back and various other places in the pews. Anywhere but where I normally sat because God informed me that I can never get anywhere by standing (or rather sitting) still.

I have learned from our various seat choices in church that for the most part, we Christians are creatures of habit.  My husband and I have been excitedly welcomed by those that we have found ourselves sitting next to.  We have been asked to return to visit them as we ventured out the following Sunday for new seating.  We have felt the glances of those who seemed to be fearful of us taking their seat.  We have had those introducing themselves to us and welcoming us to their church, not realizing we’d been going to CUMC for years and we have even found ourselves faced with “reserved seating” as we glanced at articles of clothing placed across church pews.

After several weeks of finding ourselves in many different seats, I find myself drawn to the front of the church, not only because of my short stature, which makes it hard to see over those in front of me, but because I have come so far from that frightened woman who was alone and seeking God in a church where I knew no one.  I have found a home on that third pew, left center, but I have found that if someone is sitting there and I have to venture elsewhere, it is because God wants me to step out of my comfort zone and not claim a seat that is not mine to claim. So if someone would like to wander down to the third row left center and sit there, please feel free to do so because although my husband and I are often drawn to that pew, it is not our pew. It is God’s house and in God’s house there is no reserved seating.   There is plenty of room for everyone, even the worst of sinners.  And take some advice from a sinner like me that if you see someone wander into church who looks alone and frightened and they make their way to your seat that you’ve reserved with a church bulletin or an article of clothing, welcome them with a handshake or a hug.  Don’t feel territorial and upset by someone taking your seat, but instead venture out to unknown territory and sit in a different pew and get to know the people you’ve been attending church with for years and didn’t even know it because you were too busy sitting still.  There are a lot of amazing people in God’s church and you won’t get to know them if you don’t take yourself out of your comfort zone. But if you do, you will find yourself closer to God than you could ever have imagined because when you put Him first and welcome all of His children into His house, giving up your seat to do so, you will be blessed. Truly blessed.