Perhaps part of the reason I’m writing this is to give people at my former church a way to remember me apart from “that girl who cried every Sunday for a full month before she and her husband took off for California.” I can’t help it: I have a sensitive heart. On the Enneagram scale, I am smack dab between a 4 (a melancholy artist) and a 9 (a peacemaking people-pleaser). I don’t even know if this is possible (I may just be doing the test wrong), but what it equates to is a perfect storm of tears whenever change occurs. Anyway, I can’t really say that it’s totally my fault, what with all the candles and beautiful Jesus songs and probing questions like “Hey, how are you?” that go on at that church. I mean, I cried a lot during service before finding out that we were moving across the country, so there was not a great deal of hope for me.
It had been five years since my husband and I started attending Redemption Church. That is a long time in a culture of church-changers. It is an especially long time when you consider that it is just a little less than one-sixth of my lifetime– and it included major life milestones, like having babies and publishing books and earning degrees. But, really, it is not that long a time. The time cannot be the reason for all the tears.
Redemption Church is an exceptionally good church, I will tell you. The people there are generous in the best sense of the word. They are life-generous. In an incomplete list, over those five years they have given me: advice, hugs, meals, free drinks at restaurants, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, hand-me-down clothes and toys for my babies, a book-signing party, donuts every Sunday morning, funny stories that will probably go in future essays, gift cards, recipes, book recommendations, the chance to be generous back to them, free babysitting, fresh-from-the-chicken eggs, a part-time job that allows me to work in my pajamas, friendship, space to vent and complain, casseroles, an apron and a giant bowl that Scott now uses for popcorn (just the bowl, not the apron), Christmas cards, songs, sweaty handshakes, hours and hours of home improvement help, real estate guidance and representation, other small people to entertain my small people, free yearly calendars, a beautiful sendoff and an appreciation for Kevin Bacon’s angry dancing in Footloose. They are such givers that I often wondered if I was up to the task of giving back, and when I compile lists like the one above, I am pretty certain that I never have been.
I admit that I have always been a lover of church. This is not the majority opinon, I’d venture, and I know many people who find it difficult or even repulsive to go to church. I know others who hop around so often that they have never felt settled in at a place. Some people never give it a second thought. Still others have been wounded, often and deeply, by people or circumstances surrounding the church. It’s complicated. I get that. But for me, church has been as much a part of my development as report cards at school or brushing my teeth before bed. It hasn’t been a perfect relationship– there have been jackasses; I have been one of them. There have been disagreements and misunderstandings and much misquoting of Scripture, I’m quite sure. The Church, in the capitalized sense of the word, is deserving of much of the criticism that is flung its way from people, both insiders and outsiders, who wish it was doing a better job of being the people of God.
But I have seen church, too, live up beautifully to Jesus’s commission. I have been loved and supported, forgiven and embraced. I have served alongside, laughed alongside, walked alongside, suffered alongside some excellent friends who became family for us. And never is this been more apparent to me than when I leave a church body.
I have a friend who doesn’t go to church or believe in God, but she and I love to talk about spirituality and faith, and we have a healthy amount of respect for one another, so the conversations are always rich. Once, when I really got going about my love for my church, she stopped me, maybe mid-sentence:
“Wait. I have friends who brought me casseroles after I had a baby, and I’m not part of a church. How is it different?”
It was, and is, a good question. I don’t remember answering right away, but if I did, it was surely a bit lame. The real answer then was that I didn’t know. The real answer then was murky.
Luckily, the murkiness bothered me, so the question stayed with me for two or three years, like a barnacle or something, and began to resurface just as we got news that Scott had been offered a pastoring gig a half a continent away. I began to wonder why it was so difficult to say goodbye to a body of worshiping believers. Was it the same experience as saying goodbye to any other circle of friends or neighbors?
I wondered if maybe I was just sad that we’d now be missing out on the annual church BBQ, where a few guys at church brought in their giant smokers and made award-winning Kansas City ribs and pulled pork on the lawn in front of the church. And then other people–ladies–church ladies– brought glass casserole dishes of potatoes and cheese. And then we’d all eat together and the kids would bounce in a bounce house and not bother me as I ate all the ribs. I’d miss out on the good music and easy conversation and friendships that maybe would have naturally established without a church, anyway.
Part of the liturgy in Redemption’s service is to pray: “Lord, bind our hearts together as a church.” Every Sunday we prayed this innocuous, dangerous little prayer. In all the years that I attended, I never quite shook the uncomfortable feeling that started to creep up when that prayer was prayed. I mean, consider the hearts of some of the people I went to church with. My heart being bound to the hearts of all those rich soccer moms and poor homeless drunks and kooky conservatives? Not to mention the math majors? I’m sure they often felt the same way about their hearts being bound to mine, which is complainy and judgey and selfish more aware of grammar than perhaps a heart should be. So this, like asking God for patience or generosity, is a prayer that one maybe wouldn’t pray if one knew just how much work and effort and pain on one’s own part it would take to truly get close to an answer.
I am convinced, however, that a fundamental way that the church sneaks into the folds and fabric of our lives, like a little dog who knows she shouldn’t be on the bed, much less burrowed under the sheets, is because of this very prayer. Most of us don’t hand-pick every member of our churches. I’m sure we’d like to. I’m sure we try. But as in our biological families, we become somehow stuck with people we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. Some of them are easy friends while others… aren’t. And the ones that aren’t usually end up in our small groups. My sister tells me stories about a woman who is in her small group. This woman is a talker, and she has every problem in the book. She is needy, and she decided that my sister is her confidant. She calls Kristina at odd hours, they go on walks together, and my sister listens. She listens to this woman, who also dominates their small group discussions with prayer requests and, let’s face it, complaints, about old lovers and mental struggles and medication questions and spiritual questions and carnal desires and ever-present doubts. Kristina doesn’t fix anything. In fact, this particular person has changed very little in the years that my sister has known her. But perhaps this is the trick to why church is so important. Because it is not about fixing everyone so they can finally be “successful” or “holy” or “inspirational” or “important.” Nope. The trick is to realize that they already are, even when they are mired in addiction or self-congratulations or depression or just general jack-assery. That somehow, God is breaking through right at that very time, in the midst of the all the stuff that makes up being human, regardless of the sliding scale that we have fashioned for ourselves, and is showing God’s self through that particular mess that you call part of your small group or, more articulately, that you call yourself.
But the unity prayer, as drinking-the-Kool-Aid as it may sound at first, is not about the desire to become uniform or robotic. I don’t think. No, at its heart, this prayer asks for grace as we all chase the beautiful model of life that Jesus set for us. For me, I began to understand it as a prayer that each one of us would discover, from our own collection of abilities and tendencies and failures, a way to live faithfully together, a whole body (arms and feet and, as my dad often reminds me, colons) of Christ who have set one Lord above all others, who have made vows to each other to encourage and love and give and forgive and be, together. Even when we don’t like each other. Even when we disagree.
In some ways, I think my friend was right: we all experience the thing that I’m referring to here as “church.” We all are touched by the grace and goodness of God’s children, because, if you ask me, we are all God’s children whether we step foot into a church sanctuary or not. We are all able to reflect, like tiny shards of a broken mirror, the glory and absolute mystery and profound goodness of God, even if we only do it for a moment and only in fragments, even when we don’t realize we’re doing it, even when we aren’t trying, even when we are actively trying not to. We are God’s own.
I will tell you, though, that I never would have gotten to know Jennifer if I didn’t go to church with her. She’s quiet and humble and unassuming and I’m quiet and not good at small talk or, you know, regular talk. I wouldn’t have said more than hello to Gregg, who is different than me in many ways and not someone I would think to engage if I didn’t see him weekly, but who has ideas about art and literature and what it means to be a disciple of Christ that have, consistently, challenged me. I probably would have been intimidated by Ryan, who excels at regular talk and can express his ideas without apologizing for them. I would have totally missed Janelle, who is like me in a lot of ways and so kind that it would be easy to have had a very superficial friendship with her. I would have never known the depths of some of the people who are on stage– Jess or Jessica or Tim. I would have admired their musical talent without knowing the things that make them real. I would have avoided Jackie or Bob, because they are homeless and I wouldn’t want them to think that I knew that they were homeless. And Tom’s good at money, which freaks me out; Kristin will really LISTEN to you, which freaks me out; Chris tells it like it is, which freaks me out; Jim reminds me of my dad too much, which freaks me out; Bill is just, like, a giant. That doesn’t really freak me out, but I feel very small when I talk to him. All of these people, plus dozens of other artists, hippies, conservatives, dreamers, straight-laced youngsters and crazy grannies, super moms and slackers, givers and takers, doers and don’ters, and all of them– all of us– striving toward unity and love and the ability to remember all the ways that following Jesus challenges the foundations of some of the oldest and most treasured -isms that human beings have ever established.
I have recently read many a blog post about why people are leaving church. Why they are sick to death of it. Why they wish it were different. Why they believe that spirituality can be an individual sport. I don’t say this to discredit those writers or their opinions or the space in the journey that they currently find themselves. Instead, I point it out because it makes me realize the high high value of the churches who have made it hard to leave, churches who do church well. There are still some of those.
Bind our hearts together as a church. Oh God, how thankful I am for that prayer. Because I got to see Jesus in people very different from me, got to see the ways in which the gospel mattered, got to eat good barbeque on the lawn, our faces dripping with sauce, our plastic cups spilling over, our napkins diving to clean up each others’ messes.