December 21, 2012
Many of you who are regular readers will not be shocked by my condemnation of religious groups seeking to impose their will on the world at large. You will find no shortage of anger at those who commit acts of violence or oppression in the name of a holy book or a god. You’ll be familiar with my utter contempt with people who pray for peace and love and then spread hate.
It’d be easy to think I have a dislike for anything religious. You may be shocked to learn, then, that I hold a very high opinion of Pastor Stephen Wallace of the Crossroads Church here in Laredo, Texas.
When I was about nine or so, we started going to Crossroads, and that’s when I became familiar with the concept of a children’s ministry. It’s where I met Pastor Stephen. He was a man with long hair and glasses who played a guitar and sang songs with the children. Imagine, if you will, a California surfer entering middle age, maybe gaining a few pounds, and that’s Pastor Stephen.
He wanted to show children that forgiveness is always possible. Every week was filled with stories from both his life and the Bible. He showed me how playing and laughing have a place even in a church. Puppets, too. He wanted to have fun, and his energy was infectious. When I was twelve and finally too old to stay in the children’s service, I was dismayed. I would be leaving to finally go to the adult service.
I acclimated, though, and still saw Pastor Stephen in the mornings and after the service. New generations of children came and went. His children grew up. I grew up, too.
One day, Pastor Norman told us that Pastor Stephen would be giving the sermon to the adult service.
To say I was intrigued would be an understatement.
And right there, in front of old ladies with nice blouses and pins, with men wearing cowboy boots and suits, in front of a full house of working men and women, Pastor Stephen pulled out the puppets and guitar.
He handled that crowd as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. There was laughter from the congregation, something too rare in a church service. Genuine laughter. Once that was said and done and everyone had a good high from singing, the real message began. Pastor Stephen’s sermon focused on how Christians had become too judgmental and uptight. Right there, those men in cowboy boots suddenly looked uncomfortable. I’m sure many of them hunted and had stared at charging wildlife, but Pastor Stephen actually made them nervous.
“I have a secret to tell you,” he told the hushed room. “I’m sure this will be a surprise to many of you, but having a glass of wine or a beer is not going to send you to hell.”
A nervous chuckle.
“I know, I know,” he continued. “That’s common knowledge. But I’ve heard some of you talk. I’ve seen what you do, and while many of us are perfectly happy to judge others for what we think are sins and immoral behavior, we fail to look at our own attitude.”
I’ve rarely been in a room as quiet or awkward as that.
He continued to chastise everyone who would pass judgment yet knowingly commit the same sins. Enjoying life and having fun, he also made sure to point out, where not against God’s will. Life could be fun. Life was life. If you spent your entire existence looking for the bad things and being on edge because you were afraid God would smite you and bad things would happen, you were missing the point of being alive. It wasn’t about being a saint or a monk. It was about being a good person.
“Chill, so sayeth the Lord,” he concluded.
I have a Bible my parents gave me when I was younger. I wrote that on one of the blank pages near the back. I figured that was a quote worthy of a religion.
Pastor Stephen Wallace passed away this morning after a fight with cancer. He was given at least month, but that time was cut short. I wish his family had at least this one final Christmas to spend with him, but I take comfort in knowing that they knew the time was upon them. They had the chance to say their goodbyes and say the things that needed to be said.
Stephen Wallace was an example of what it meant to not only love life, but your neighbors. He lived as an example and was one of the most approachable, life-loving affirmations of what it means to love what you do.
Goodbye, Pastor Stephen. The pain is gone. You’re at peace.
Rest, good shepherd.