I’ve just completed the Florida leg of my book tour. My final stop was at St. Andrew UCC in Sarasota where I preached the Sunday sermon and led a discussion about the issues in Beyond the Comma. I had never been to this church and when I entered the empty sanctuary to scope out the space and make final preparations for my sermon, I discovered that the church wasn’t empty at all. Rather, sitting up straight in the center of each pew was a stuffed Teddy Bear, all different shapes and sizes, a silent welcoming party to all who might enter.
Immediately, I smiled. Were the bears really smiling back at me? I wasn’t sure, but what a wonderfully unique way to greet people entering the sanctuary for the first—or the 100th time. In a congregation known for its commitment to social justice, especially outreach to the LGBTQ community, the Teddy Bears immediately conveyed an extravagant welcome—”no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.”
I was there exactly one year after my parents celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary. My Dad died three months later at age 95. During the time of prayer requests, I asked the congregation for thoughts and prayers for my Mom. It was the first time in seventy-three years that she would be alone on this date, and I asked the congregation to pray for her as she re-shaped the patterns of her life after the devastating “comma moment” of my Dad’s death.
At the end of worship, the pastor, Rev. Paul Werner, and members of the congregation approached my wife Blythe and me and gave us Teddy Bears to take to my Mom. They told us that the bears were more than a symbolic expression of welcome. They were given as gifts to those who came to the church and who were troubled or hurting in some way. There were no strings attached—no accompanying invitation to join the church or make a contribution–just an expression of love and care.
A core tenet in my book calls on the reader attend to the simultaneous intersections of the profoundly personal with the broadly public aspects of one’s life. These weekly posts have focused (as they should) on social and cultural crosscurrents in our day, perhaps to the exclusion of more intimate reflections. It is, perhaps, time to right this balance a bit and I am grateful to the Teddy Bears of St. Andrew for giving me the perfect opportunity to do so. It was a powerfully personal moment in the midst of a hectic public schedule, reminding me of how small, thoughtful gestures can have a profound impact. Thanks, St. Andrew and your Teddy Bears, for restoring my balance in the midst of the hectic and often chaotic times in which I’m living.