Monthly Archives: April 2012

Church Hunting (3): The Places We Land

We didn’t so much choose our church as crash into it. We were an airplane with a burning wing, damaged, making an emergency landing at the first wide open place we could see.

Our criteria for a church was simply this: must be close to home and must have small groups, because what had damaged us in the first place was loneliness, and we needed friendship like we needed water.

The irony, of course, is not lost on me: after two years of me railing against those evangelicals over margaritas and tortilla chips, we landed somehow at the most evangelical of community churches: Electric guitars and raised hands. Rick Warren Bible studies and Beth Moore videos. Seven-layer-salads and seven layers of Greeters and Christian catchphrases scattered like confetti.

Our church is big where I crave small, fluorescent where I want candles, loud with popular praise choruses where I want hymns, acoustic guitars, silence.

But sometimes, you just crash, and you don’t get to choose how it happens. Your life is unexpectedly grounded, and you think it’s because you’re hurt or because you’re just tired. But really, it’s because God has something to say to you here, in this place where you never thought you’d end up.

It’s like this: in my angry, cynical days, I called them The Church People. I saw them orbiting around their programs, high above the earthy, dirt-caked issues of us who were struggling. I separated myself from them using this language, feeling righteous in my own white-hot pain.

At one point or another, they had failed to see me, so I chose not to see them either. At least not individually. I grouped them, judged them, moved to the other side of the road.

But then we crashed, and we were among them. Weeks went by. They began to emerge, individuals with their own distinct personalities and ideas and smiles. I began to learn their names.

There was the woman who spent long winter nights in a trailer packed with clothes, handing things to the homeless. There was that other one who hates to speak in front of people but did it every Tuesday night anyway for the faithful women of the Beth Moore Bible study.

There was that group of men that invited my husband into their morning meetings, who weren’t perfect, but who wanted to be better. When he lost his job unexpectedly, they reached into worn, brown wallets and pulled out More Than Enough.

There was that first little pod of couples that became our friends, listened to our stories, brought over pizza, helped us move forward.

I don’t mean to simplify what is complicated. Certainly there is still ache. There is longing for the things that are absent from this church, the things that our souls also need. I am not saying that we will stay here forever or even that we should.

What I am trying to say is that I’ve learned they, too, are part of me. We can leave a church, join another, but they will always be Our People…because they are His People.

We express our faith in different ways. We find meaning and beauty in rituals or in the stripping away of rituals, in anecdotes or in poetry, in loud worship or in silence. Some places feel like home; some places feel less so.

In the end, we belong to each other and we belong to God, and this is what it means to be a family.

It’s all still a little blurry for me. I believe in the mysterious beauty of Capital-“C”-Church. I am still not sure what that looks like shrunk down, jammed into a Sunday morning. I believe there is grace for the wanderer; I believe that sometimes we crash and it is exactly where we should be. I believe that sometimes we need to move on.

For now, we are here.

Now the junior high girl is at the door of the nursery, waiting for my son, Liam, who is her favorite.

When “Worship Service” looks like a Festival

Worship Service: Synonym for church service.

Welcome: We leave for the Festival of Faith and Writing at five in the morning, coffee, coffee, coffee as we slip through pre-rush-hour Chicago and into Michigan farmland and sunrise. We talk the whole way there, even when it’s much too early for that.

The last time I came to this conference was 2006. I was fresh from that year in China, taking my first MFA class, wading back into my own writer’s soul. Since then, I have accumulated: two babies, a deep wrinkle between my eyebrows, a diploma, this blog, stretch marks, and a sheaf of papers that I call a manuscript.

When we pull up to campus, everything looks exactly as I remember it: sun-dappled and lovely, tulips tall in the soil. The girls in the green Festival t-shirts look young to me as they hand me my name tag and the thick conference schedule. Welcome, they say in their sweet, college-girl voices, and it begins.

Call to Worship: It’s okay, here, if your way to God involves a pen, paper, poetry. If someone is sitting in a sunbeam with her notebook, she is left graciously alone.

The language, the poetry, the tables of books, the quiet writers filing off toward various sessions: it’s a holy landscape, God-soaked ground. We leave each other alone to take our shoes off, to kneel, to write.

Greet Your Neighbor: I begin to see them everywhere: my people. The ones who write in this pocket of the internet about their own faith in ways that speak to my soul.

First: Ed and Steph sitting on the edge of the fireplace; then, one by one, the others. Kristin and Suzannah. Dave at the Antler booth, who is tall and excited and looks like Seth Rogan. Micha, who shows up unexpectedly in the women’s bathroom: an awkward place for that first can’t-believe-I-get-to-meet-you hug.

They look like I imagined them, and also not like I imagined them. Height, for example, cannot be communicated through Twitter avatars, and neither can the beautiful complexity of a face. You can capture many things in a picture, but not recognition. Not love. Slowly online friendships are incarnated: face-to-face, hand-to-hand.

Sermon: The list of speakers is compelling, each session written in a way that makes you feel it might be essential for your soul. You make impossible choices between good and good and great.

They are speaking about a number of things, but at the heart of it, they are all speaking about that deep, mysterious place where faith and writing intersection. They are throwing the whole complex writing process into the stark relief of God’s beauty, and we are bent over our notebooks, scribbling it down as fast as they can say it.

Their voices are distinct and wonderful. The poet farmer with the bestselling book. The old skinny guy with the long, silver ponytail. That social justice spokesman with his homemade clothing and his waist-length dreadlocks. Poets and memoirists and everyone in between, and there is a place at the table for all of us.

And the women! They are beautiful, smart. They say things like, Good News requires a new language. (Ann Voskamp) They say things like, Learn to hear the call of the moment. (Marilyn McEntyre) No one questions their right to speak, to teach men and women together. We are instead at the edge of our seats, waiting, pens poised for what they’ll say next.

Communion: There are tables at restaurants all overGrand Rapids, and we sit around them. Over wine and root chips, I get to know my blogging friends. They ask, “What are you working on?” They ask, “How can we support you?”

I talk with strangers about art and excellence in the loud upstairs of a noisy bar; there’s a quiet morning cup of coffee with a beautiful new friend in a coffee shop. They are my people, my tribe. I speak my heart aloud, and they understand.

We are passing the flatbread pizza from one to another. The fireplace throws warmth and light over us, and outside the rain falls, and I am happy down to the very bottom of my soul.

Response: The man at the literary magazine booth has a poem—a song—both…he can’t decide, but he knows it’s from God. He fingers the glossy covers of the books as he says it.

I am wandering this room also because of my book, my manuscript. I am trying to be brave, handing out business cards, trying to say with confidence the things I don’t truly believe about myself.

We are a thousand different writers. We hear the voice of God and we respond to it on a million pieces of paper. It is its own kind of worship to create your very best thing and then throw it out in faith again and again. It shatters, you remake it. You are rejected, you get up again.

And in all this breaking and breaking and breaking, hopefully you come away with something like beauty, art, offering.

Benediction: We leave the Festival at three in the afternoon so that she can catch her flight. We talk. We are silent. We talk. We are silent. We are processing, full to the brim.

The quiet fields disappear into city, and we merge quietly into life.

Church Hunting (2): My Story

In the second year of our marriage, we lived on the outskirts of Shanghai, in a small, factory town of half-a-million.

On Sundays, we took a rickshaw to the town’s Three Self Church– the one that is owned and monitored by the Chinese government. The only one that we were allowed to attend.

From the balcony, we listened politely to songs we did not understand, and then we sat, and the sermon was all unfamiliar sounds and tones. We were separate from it: the language, the traditions. Our foreignness was barrier that kept us watching from above.

After service, old Chinese church ladies handed us doughy, warm bread, and I think they knew. I think they meant it to feel in our hands like Bread of Life, like communion. I bravely tasted a few bites but couldn’t eat much more than that, and it got thrown away in time.

Eventually, the twelve of us American teachers began to hold our own church services in the upper room of the Chinese church. The president of our school joined us, and if we didn’t sing all the verses in the hymns, he’d shake his head, stand up and give a speech, and then make us do it again.

I spent a lot of time in those days looking out the window. Aching. Longing.

When we came home at the end of that year, I thought that this kind of sadness could be simply shaken off like water. Here there were so many churches. We could choose any one of them and hear our own familiar language brushing against the things of God.

And yet, loneliness creates its own kind of barrier inside of you. In China, I had turned a little colder. I’d curled up tight around my own inexplicable pain and alienation. It would still be over a year before we called it Depression with a capital “D” and began to lean into it.

We, all of us, search, hunt, visit, leave. We make our spreadsheets, and all the while, we carry our own pain, our own expectations. Our deep needs masquerade as shallow things like music preferences and programs and “how things feel” at a particular church.

Some of us even dive headfirst into a church experience, looking for belonging and life.  This is what Andrew and I did…barely at one church a week before volunteering for Jr. High Youth Group and relay races and ice-cream sundaes, assembly-line style.

We’d barely heard the first whisperings of a House Church, and we were In It, bringing casseroles on Sunday nights for potluck. We were helping one member move, helping another run a crepe stand at an art fair, calling them our family.

I hauled my broken self faithfully to ever gathering, just as I had done in high school. I wanted them to say the things that would make me feel whole. I wanted them to see that I was hurting, to sit with me and let me talk through the sadness until I had rendered it powerless.

But they were only people. Church people, with their own issues, hangups, busyness, lives. We look at each other, all of us, and we don’t always see.

And even if they had, even if they’d done it right, I understand now what I didn’t then: a church cannot fix me. That glowy, beautiful idea of “community,” even if it were everything I had imagined it to be, could not have done it. I was broken, shattered, and even if they’d tried, all the king’s horses, all the king’s men, they could not have put me together again.

It is God, only and always. It is Christ, not other Christians, who takes our broken pieces into his own skin and absorbs them so that we can be made whole.

God didn’t give me the church I thought that I needed, but he led me to a wonderful therapist named Sarah and to the medicine I needed to realign the neurotransmitters.

There were people, both Christians and not, who came at the right moment and said the true thing, and I could hear his voice through theirs, kind and quiet. There was a long evening walk with the new dog, and the sky was cold, and he came closer. And all those little pieces added up, one by one, to Enough.

There are so many churches, and we pass through on any given Sunday. We engage, or we don’t. We give it time, or we don’t.

We look for God in all the usual places, when all the time he is at the edge of our peripheral vision, working, loving, whispering. Spinning our pain into gold.

Church Hunting

Church Hunting: The process of visiting a number of churches, looking for the one you will commit to attending (the one you will call your home church). A sort of rite-of-passage for the young evangelical, particularly overwhelming if you’ve attended one church for your whole life.

Note: This is Part 1 of a short series (to be continued on Thursday), so don’t despair if the ending is totally depressing.

You begin with a certain amount of enthusiasm. Curled hair and your special-occasion eyeshadow and hope.

If you’re Type A, like me, you’ve created a spreadsheet. You’ve done research. You’ve clicked into church websites to get a feel for their mission, their programs, their heart. You’ve written down addresses and service times, and you’re walking tall in your trying-hard-to-be-cute heels.

You know how it goes: shake the hands of the greeters, stop by the welcome desk to introduce yourself. Drink the coffee, smile at the children, sing along with the songs projected on the screens. Clap on the beat. Stand. Sit. Stand again.

You know how it goes.

You’re not sure, exactly, what you’re expecting when you walk through those big church doors, but you can feel the absence of it heavy against you. The church bulletin lists half a dozen Ways to Get Involved, and it makes you tired in a way you can’t articulate.

People are friendly, but their questions skim the shallows of your life—job, family, current residence—and then stop. You wonder how long it will take to move from the ankle-deep of acquaintance to that all-the-way-in, sink-or-swim-together kind of relationship that you crave. Friendship and sisterhood and brotherhood and family.

Once at a youth group overnight, you slept on a trampoline in someone’s yard with half a dozen other girls. Your feet formed the center heart, your bodies angling out like tire spokes, evenly spaced. Above you, the stars were close and bright and you laughed until your throat felt hoarse and your nose was cold and you drifted off to sleep.

You still feel that, still feel those times in college when you sat up all night with your friends, high on caffeine, on the sharp bitterness of your first black coffee, on all these new ideas about God. Conversation charged like electricity, and you were a string of Christmas lights, linked together by that high power.

But the church bulletins of a dozen churches accumulate at the bottom of your bag. You stop curling your hair, give up on your pretty heels. It is tedious and long, this search for a group of Christians that will become your Christians. You weren’t expecting that.

There are so many churches. They rise up from so many corners, from strip malls, from great fields that would be empty but for the big new building and its glassy black parking lot. So many churches, but also, never the one you’re looking for. Never the church you have in your head, the one where you fit like a puzzle piece.

And there are those who would say that you are just part of a generation of wanderers. That this is an epidemic, that your discontent is, at its root, selfish. You just want to be catered to, they suggest. You want to be entertained.

But I know. This is not really what you’re asking for – slick programs and fog machines and espresso.

I know that when you say “community,” it’s not a vague concept. It has faces that you can still see and voices that you can almost hear and the distinct smell of old popcorn. You’re not sure, to be honest, what the grown-up version of this is, but you’re pretty sure it’s not the Women’s Breakfast and Coupon-Clipping Seminar in the bulletin.

You tick down the list of churches. Get up Sunday morning after Sunday morning until one week, you turn off the alarm clock. Abandon, for now, the hunt. Sleep in.

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