when it comes to sprucing up

We are preparing for a literal sprucing up of the narthex in just a few weeks from now, which is an exciting thing for a church body. Or at least it is for me, an HGTV/design blog junkie. I will admit to staring up at the dozens of defunct hooks hanging from the popcorn ceiling, imagining myself rappelling up there to scrape, to spackle, to patch, to surprise everyone with a pristinely smooth ceiling that nobody but me would likely notice the following Sunday. Then I remember how I should be, you know, praying or listening intently to the movements of the sermon.

If nothing else, this sprucing up will help my spiritual life. Sparkly popcorn ceilings can be a stumbling block for me.

Yes, our little place needs some attention. We’ve got half a dozen bulletin boards that need to come down, more exposed wire than could possibly be up to code, dusty shades covering beautiful stained glass, and mauve, mauve, mauve.

All of this has gotten me thinking about the old debate about exactly how beautiful a place of worship should be. There are many traditions that feel that simplicity is the way to go. In these spaces, few, if any, decorations adorn the walls, the pews are unpadded, the walls are white. The people are happy knowing that all of the money they might have spent on decorations has gone to other, more deserving enterprises. They can manage to sit and worship Jesus in their hard pews, and the white walls make no difference either way.

Cathedral builders would take issue with this, I think. Cathedral builders spent time. And money. And time. And money. To make those cathedrals beautiful testaments to the love of God. Or maybe they were just trying to one-up the cathedral down the street. It’s hard to tell on this side of history.

I tend to side with the cathedral builders, but not without some qualms. (Qualms are good and necessary for people, I think. They are there to reassure us that we haven’t accidently turned into Kanye West*.) For as much as I love the creation of a beautiful space, those who err on the side of simplicity warn me that some price tags are too high, sometimes motives need to be questioned, and sometimes my love for things pretty or cutting edge or trendy or current oversteps itself. The voices that remind us about being careful with how we spend money are always relevant, welcome voices, in my opinion. They always have a point. However, I have been a traveler who has found a great deal of solace and peace and wonder in the halls of one cathedral or another. One might be so bold as to type that she has seen snippets of God in these places and, though the work was expensive, the years of return on a place that is hospitable, artistic, carefully chosen and thought out, might be worth the money and the time.

The art itself–the creation of something beautiful just for the sake of it being– is a valuable practice, too. We mimic our own Creator when we take time to make sure that a piece of wood is curved in just the right way, or the paint is the right color, or a certain word works in a sentence, or the expression on the subject is exactly what we wanted to capture. (But you probably knew I felt that way.) Art surprises, encourages, uplifts, challenges, dwells within us like fireflies. If we don’t nurture the artistic in ourselves because it’s not the most practical thing to do, we are discounting a fundamental part of what it means to be human–which is, of course, to be made in God’s image. Because, seriously, no one can argue that this world looks the way it does because of practicality alone. It’s filled with reckless color, glorious abandon and just enough “what was He thinking?!?” to keep it interesting, down to the tiniest details.

Our particular church is nowhere near cathedral status, and I don’t claim to be an artist just because it’s my job to pick a coordinating color palette. No. We, instead, are mostly striving to be welcoming and hospitable, less dusty. We want to bring a little bit of beauty to a place– and I am talking about the physical space, here– that has lovely bones, strong roots, and perhaps something vital to contribute to the community.

Luckily, God, in God’s infinite wisdom and fetching creativity, put on the hearts of the leadership of a larger, nearby church, to help us with all of this. Without them, and the volunteers they are bringing with them, these changes would have been a long and major undertaking. It feels a little like someone should shout, “Bus driver! Move that bus!” after it’s all over, and that is a pretty special feeling indeed.

Surprisingly, I found very little in the way of church makeovers on the Internet. For that reason, I thought I’d share some of our choices in one or two follow-up posts which will come, as is my style, whenever I get around to writing them. Photos will be amateur, but I promise to put as much zing into the text as possible. #whosaysapicturesworthathousandwords

And by the grace of God, one of those posts might even be sparkly-ceilingless. But not yet.

*Sorry, Kanye.

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in praise of the small church

The first thing you realize, probably, when you join a small church is how integral you are. Just super, super important. Pivotal, really. Entire ministries, and probably the pastor’s general feeling of adequacy, rise and fall based on whether or not you show up. This is not something easily understood by mega-chuch-goers. If you don’t show up at a mega-church, nobody notices. Not one single being. Which is, of course, the appeal of mega-churches: you don’t have to be in charge of the choir, count the money, and serve a two-week-a-month shift in the nursery at a mega-church. At a mega-church, you are in and then, after the service, you are out.  Like you’re attending a matinee at the movie theater, you throw your coffee cup in the trash at the door and then make your way to the car, which is parked in the Donald Duck lot, third level.

Although I’ve only been at my current tiny church for a couple months, I already feel it. In fact, as early as Scott’s interview, before I was officially attending and living in the state, I was asked: 1. Whether or not I could sing, 2. Whether or not I could play the piano,  and 3. How I would feel about re-vamping the children’s ministry? I was ready for these questions, in some respect. I’ve done the small church thing before. I’ve felt the overwhelmedness that comes from attempting to run a church with fewer able-bodied people than a little league line-up.

Now, only four or so months in, I am already on the other side of the conversation; I’m already the one looking around wondering who might be available to bake communion bread next week, and whether or not I could get them on a semi-permanent rotation.

But it’s not only about the tasks. Whether we want it to be true or not, success sometimes feels tied to the number of bodies that are occupying seats on Sunday morning, and this is especially apparent on Sundays when people are out of town. All it takes is one or two families to go on vacation and it feels like the whole thing is a sinking ship. Likewise, visitors become something of a hot commodity. Have you ever heard someone complain that “Not a single person at that church even said hello to me”? At Santa Monica Nazarene, the opposite is true. You may be driven away by our desperation, but not by our aloofness. In fact, you will probably leave with the phone numbers of people who have volunteered to water your plants if you ever go on vacation, a few hard candies, and maybe a lipstick stain from somebody’s grandmother on your cheek.  A few weeks ago, we had a new couple from around the neighborhood show up, and I had to almost physically restrain myself from hugging them too tightly and begging them to never, not ever, leave me, in the vein of the overzealous redhead Elmyra Duff from Tiny Toons Adventures, who loved fluffy animals so much she veritably choked them to death with affection each episode. So that is a little bit of what I feel for Fred and Valerie.

While all of this might be interpreted as a warning to avoid churches like mine at all cost, it’s far from it.

I first realized this a few years ago when I attended one of the most memorable church services I’d ever been part of. One I shared with only twenty-three others.

The church was my father-in-law Rick’s. It has been around for millions of years, and, if you added up the years of the thirty or so regular attendees, it would probably be in the millions, too. (My father-in-law often joked that he and his wife were the “youngsters” in attendance.) The building itself was beautiful if a little aged—wooden pews, a stained glass of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an old piano, dark wood beams flanking the ceiling.

After the singing, which was just Rick and a pianist, and neither could quite agree on a tempo, came the Scripture reading. It was from Romans—the passage that includes the “more than conquerors” verse. An older gentleman read for us, and he began with a shaky voice and the disclaimer that he hoped he would be able to get through it, as he seemed on the verge of tears. He almost didn’t. He had to pause a few times to collect himself, run his handkerchief gruffly across his nose, clear his throat. “The Word of the Lord,” he said after what seemed like ages. I don’t know whether he was embarrassed by this show of emotion, the stuttering and the pausing and the obvious nose running, because everyone in that arched sanctuary knew what was on his mind.

You see, their pastor, my father-in-law, had just been diagnosed with cancer– and this, the second round. That Romans passage speaks differently to you when you’re faced with circumstances like those. The twenty-four of us “suffered with,” so to speak, in the moments in which the Word of the Lord was read in our hearing.

Rick asked me later that evening if I thought that a church like his was still relevant in today’s world. They were just a bunch of old folks, only a handful of them at that, and, in the interest of full disclosure, that church body is no longer in existence anymore– swallowed up and taken on by a bigger church.

But I suppose that this is my answer.  

This week, I was back with the kids– we’ve got everyone, from our tiniest two-year-old to our most mature teenagers– in one room. I had prepared a craft I was excited about: they were glitter bottles that swirled and twisted and glittered and then, after a few minutes, settled. These bottles are used often as “time out” bottles for kids– watching the falling glitter is calming and peaceful and something to take one’s mind off of all of the feelings he or she might be feeling. I thought we could all use a little of that. Plus, the story that week was on Jesus’s parable of the leaven, which basically says: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. So, yeast or glitter, we were getting mixed up and overwhelmed by that little image. 

I continue to be a terrible planner who is only motivated by the thought of impending doom, so, while I had put together the lesson and the craft only the night before, I was obsessed with making it just right, so much so that I was fifteen minutes late to church because I couldn’t find a store that sold clear glue. (What is the deal with Elmer? Is he trying to take over the world?) Anyway, after the hassle of two days’ worth of searching for stupid clear glue (five stores, to be precise), my kids were the only ones to show up to Sunday School. My kids and three teenagers who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else than listening to the kids’ sermon that Sunday morning. 

Total flop. #fail. #whybother. But you know what? The six of us, plus my mom, who had driven a few hours to help– and who had braved Walmart in search of the blasted clear glue– made glittery bottles together. Some of the teenagers might have even laughed. And maybe that made all of it worth it. Maybe that will be a Sunday morning I will remember for the rest of my life.