I’m over at Off the Page today with my 8th “Dear Addie” column. Today’s question is one that I have wrestled with throughout the years, a question that formed the undercurrent of some of those lonely, restless years that I spent searching:
Maybe it’s the skeptic in me, but why does community have to be found in churches as we know them? Can’t they, or shouldn’t they, be found in any group of believers? What makes Sunday morning church attendance different? I also wonder if focusing on getting people into churches as we know them really does the message of the Bible justice. Where in the Bible does it say to go to church on Sunday mornings? I know we’re supposed to be disciples of Jesus, we’re supposed to walk humbly, seek justice, and love mercy, but what are the actual directives placed on gatherings of Christians?
I’m over at Off the Pagetoday writing about one simple step we can take in our churches and our lives to foster community.
Here’s how it starts:
The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment. —Shauna Niequist, Bread & Wine
I can sum up most of my faith angst in two sentences: Church was a place where I was seen. And then it became a place where I wasn’t.
The church I grew up in was the church where my parents met, where they fell in love, where they eventually settled in. I went there pretty much every Sunday (and most Wednesday nights) from the time I was born until I graduated high school and left home at eighteen. I knew nearly everyone there, and everyone knew me. When I walked down the halls, I was home.
And then I went off to college. I met The Guy, and we got married, and we tried to find a church of our own. A home base. A community. And we utterly failed.
Every week, we’d get up and go to church. We’d commit to a single place for months—sometimes years—idling in the pews, shaking hands during Welcome time in the service, joining Sunday school classes, volunteering for ministries. And yet still, it felt like we were a little bit invisible, that our very existence was drowned out by the white noise of small talk around us.
What did me in, finally, were all those church foyers. All those empty smiles. It was the same people introducing themselves over and over again because they couldn’t be bothered to remember us. It was the Sundays when we idled near the coffee urns, shifting from one foot to another, hoping someone would stop and talk. It was watching the people turn like the beads of a kaleidoscope into a hundred different circles and configurations, none of which expanded out to include us.
When I eventually went off the deep end of my life, there was no one to catch me. Because no one even realized I was gone. [Continue reading here]
Girl could write a love story, and I was desperate for love.
It wasn’t so much the boy-girl variety that I longed for–I already had that–a dreamy college boy who would eventually become my husband. No, the kind of love that I was swoony for was the perfect church. The Christian friends-turned-makeshift family. The community I’d been wanting so desperately and hadn’t yet found. A group with whom I could sit on the deck and share all of my secrets and receive biblical wisdom and genuine prayer and all kinds of understanding hand hope and love.
And Girl could write that love story better than all her others.
In her eight-book Glenbrooke fictional series, she concocted an entire town in love with God and with one another. At the front of each book, an illustrated map showed just how close everyone was to one another: Brad and Alissa’s house just off of Main Street. Kyle and Jessica up on Madison Hill. Seth and Leah out in the woods, and Shelly and Jonathan at Camp Heatherbrook. Every love story surpassed challenges and ended in another adoring, godly marriage. And then, inevitably, each of the couples became the best of friends, gathering for major holidays, baby-talking sweet things at one another’s children, grilling kebobs in the backyard at Easter.
In Glenbrooke, life-changing spiritual discussions happened randomly on gardenia-lined streets, dogwood blossoms blooming in the spring sunshine. The three-year-olds seemed to be nuzzling and being precious at all times (not kicking and screaming pants-less on the floor because Mom wouldn’t give them cookies for breakfast). The husbands were all bro-mancing over their grills, spurring one another on to love and good deeds, not shifting idly at the edges, checking the game scores on their iPhones, secretly resenting their wives for making them co-mingle.
I own all eight of the Glenbrooke books, worn from the rereading. Let me reiterate: Girl could write a love story, and even going back now, I find myself sucked in to the beautiful world that she created. “Glenbrooke isn’t a real place,” she said in the notes at the end of one book. “But heaven is.” I’ve read in interviews that this town she crafted for her readers was meant to be a reflection of heaven itself, a thread of hope, linking readers’ hearts to eternity.
Which would have been fine if I hadn’t been so damned impressionable, so wildly needy, so desperate for community.
For years and years, my husband and I went from church to church, committing our hearts to these people only to find ourselves lost in the crowds. We searched and we searched, and I never did find that breezy, dogwood-scented thing that I ached for: heaven on earth. True community. Glenbrooke.
It has taken me the better part of a decade to realize that I don’t live in Glenbrooke That in fact, Glenbrooke does not exist, and, moreover, that there is nothing I can do to make it exist. No amount of service or kindness, no intricately planned party, no perfectly arranged small group could ever create even the thinnest reflection of the celestial, azalea-lined world that my favorite Christian romance author created.
These days, I live in Andover, Minnesota.
In Andover, there is no Christian camp or renovated Victorian mansion or charming french bistro with Bible verses hidden on the floor-beams. We are a suburb–with all of the glamor that the American suburbs afford: Target stores and Caribou coffees, a dozen nail salons, several gas stations and a brand new Walmart with floodlights in the parking lot. We are low on azaleas, high on beige houses, and for every love story I know, there is another one filled with loss and misunderstanding, pain and distance.
Andover sits at the northernmost edge of the Minneapolis suburbs, and we’re a good thirty minutes from close friends and forty-five from the nearest family. Our lives, rather than being made up of one lovable cast of constant characters, are revolving doors–different people coming in and out. Neighbors and church friends and Mama friends and work friends and school friends. The suburban world is sprawling bigger and bigger; we are overlapping less and less.
In Andover, sometimes the Christians are pesky and proud, too loud, too sure of their own opinions. Sometimes this Christian girl is the worst of them all, making drama where there is none, taking things personally that should be held in open hands and let go.
Sometimes, even in our beautiful little church in Andover, we don’t get along–and there’s no particular reason behind it, no easily understood sin. Just different personalities, different preferences, different sensibilities. Sometimes, we’re not all Besties, or we’re too busy to be Besties, and the sun sets, and we do our best, and someone still feels entirely alone.
It has taken me the better part of the decade, but I am learning that this is a kind of love story too.
Here between the sidewalks and the strip malls, the beige and the blacktop, there are beautiful things happening. In the little white church at the crossroad, we are not all the best of friends, everyone pursuing a relationship with God in the same delicate, lovely way, everyone gathering for weekly barbecues. Our hearts beat for different things in different ways, and the romance is that we still come together, every week, taking the bread and the cup, choosing this even when it feels awkward and stunted and strange.
In September, there was a funeral at our church for the child of a member, and the Church People drilled holes in orange cones to make centerpieces with black-and-white-checkered flags. One woman rallied her social media connections to get two bona-fide race cars to the church parking lot to do a victory lap behind the hearse. Everyone brought food–plates and plates of it–and they worked in tandem, in perfect harmony in the small kitchen, passing and organizing and finishing the spread.
And though a part of my adolescent, Christian-book loving heart will always love Glenbrooke, this is closer to heaven than any fictional place I’ve ever imagined: the passing of plates, the grasping of hands, helping each other to hold on, hold on, hold on until things are made right. Until everything that separates us dissolves into nothing and all of it blossoms new.