Good Life

Clergy Column

“We’ll leave a light on for you.”

Tom Bodett ends his radio spots for Motel 6 with that phrase. It always stuck with me, for personal reasons.

I’m not much of one for mission statements and that sort of thing, but I think this sentence is a pretty good way to say what churches and houses of worship are often about, or should be about.

I read an article recently by T. M. Luhrmann titled “Belief, the least part of faith” that also stuck with me. He writes about how he once helped lead a worship service at a university. Afterward, during lunch, many of the attenders, most of whom were not religious, kept asking questions on the same theme: Why do people who go to church believe in God? How can they be so confident?

Those are excellent philosophical questions, but for people who go to church, they are not the most important questions. Life and death and the struggles in between are much more important, and belief in God is far from the first question that needs to be answered.

To paraphrase Luhrmann, you don’t go to church because you believe in God, you believe in God because you go to church.

As one devout woman Luhrmann quoted put it: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

Now I’m not saying Christians and other religious people don’t believe. We’re just not as confident and sure all the time as the non-religious think we are, or think we have to be. We are much more like how Luhrmann describes: “Given the uncertainty as to whether there is a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is yes.”

“We’ll leave a light on for you.”

Many years ago (before the Motel 6 ads) when I wasn’t quite a teenager, I was awakened in the middle of the night at summer camp by pounding on the door of our cabin.

Another camper, a good friend of mine, had been told a few minutes beforehand that his uncle — who he was very close to — had been found dead from suicide. My friend had run off into the woods and no one could find him.

I remember sitting in the back of a car, still mostly asleep, as we drove around looking for my friend. I felt the tag of my shirt under my chin and realized in my sleepy rush I had put my shirt on inside out and backward.

I was appalled that these adults thought I would know how to help my friend when I couldn’t even get my shirt on right.

Eventually, we found my friend and some words were said, but mainly we just walked. Walked for hours and hours until almost dawn in the darkness.

It was still very dark in the woods when my friend returned to his cabin to try and get some sleep, and I returned to mine. But in a fit of divine inspiration, I grabbed his arm and told him I’d leave the porch light on for him. I told him I might be asleep, but the light would be on, and that I wanted him to come and knock and wake me if he wanted some more company.

I don’t think people believe in God 100 percent and then decide to go to church. People go to a house of worship to reach for joy, to reach for light in the darkness, to reach for a belief (as Luhrmann puts it) that “God is good, that the world is good, that things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now.”

And at churches or houses of worship, “We’ll leave a light on for you.”

We might be asleep, but come and knock if you want some company.