We didn’t go to church this weekend.
We told people who asked that it was because Andrew was sleeping off a migraine, which was the partial truth. The whole truth was that we were tired and just plain didn’t feel like it. The truth is that the word “church” has had a sour taste in our mouths lately, the kind we try to brush away with fresh words of “community” and fellowship” and “learning from the scripture,” all the while wondering why we actually haven’t experienced any of these things at the building labeled “church” for quite some time. We wonder why it is that we feel more like outsiders at church on Sunday morning than we when we’re out on Saturday night, why park picnickers two tables over have whole conversations with us but members of the pew behind us have never asked our names.
The truth is that we’re in between moves and in between churches, and so in between trips that we forget it’s Sunday. And we try to reason and assuage the guilt we feel, all the while wondering, why do we even feel guilty about this in the first place?
When did our church, we wonder, become small enough to fit inside four walls?
We didn’t take notes in leather-bound books as we listened to a Sunday sermon, but as we drove to the river my head was teeming with thoughts from a discussion earlier this week. Early in the morning in the middle of the week, five other girls and I drag ourselves out of bed while the sky is still dark, and, dew on our skin and sleep in our eyes, we open the Book of Life together, discussing and learning and praying together. We leave, each carrying burdens of the other and yet somehow feeling lighter, and as the world wakes up I wonder if this is how the early church felt— meeting in secret and brimming over with joy.
We didn’t recite the ancient literatures or sing beautiful hymns this week. Our words, instead, consisted of “I love you’s” and “You make us so proud’s”, an outpouring of love for a brother and sister who graduated on Saturday. We witnessed the tradition of commencement, overheard the ancient literatures of “we’ll be in touch” and “I’ll see you soon”, the prolonged farewells of the graduated. I watched my sister walk across that stage, heart swelling at a woman both beautiful and good, so that if you turned her insides outward she’d be exactly the same, and could there be any greater testament to the gospel than that? I watched Andrew’ s brother, a man so kind and warm he can’t help but exude it, accept his diploma, a reward for his faithful years of hard work.
Later we took pictures and braced our bodies from the wind, celebrating, hearts singing, perhaps, a different kind of hymn. I looked at my parents, Andrew’s parents, the parents of other friends, and thought on the gifts they had given their children.Our parents, who gave us opportunity but also grace, who raised us up on the literature of Chicken Licken and hymns of Jesus Loves Me, who grew us up in the church, yes, but also in the home. It is these people, I thought, watching the happy crowd, who I want worshipping with me when I one day cross the river of Jordan; these people, singing me into eternity and greeting me at the other end. With a church family like that, it’s hard, really, to be anything outside of thankful.
Sunday morning found us not in our best, but in our rags, hiking through a forest in Western Pennsylvania. We carried scripture, not in our hands but in our hearts: over a picnic lunch rich with thick brie and strawberries so ripe the juice trickles down, and we could “taste and see that the Lord is good,” not only in his faithfulness but the depth of his flavors. We watched the muddy river flow, thinking about the “river of the water of life, as clear as crystal” flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb.
We listened to the calls of crickets, of bullfrogs, of swallows and magpies, all able to be only exactly as they were created, all answering the command to “praise the Lord” with their breath.
We observed “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” through too many species of plant and tree to count: wild geraniums, honeysuckle, cherry trees, all with a different print, smell, and texture; so many, in fact, that I had trouble sleeping last night, wondering what kind of God this is, who gives us such diversity in things that at first appear the same.
Growing up, I never understood why people said they felt “alone” in the church. The church, for me, was a watering hole: a place of community, resource, worship, and inter-generational friendship. It’s hard, I think, when you feel at home to imagine that maybe another person doesn’t.
Living in four states in four years, and on the verge of another move, I feel like I finally understand what people mean when they say they feel unwanted at church. I’ve entered too many churches where the doors profess “All Are Welcome” but the hordes of turned backs tell me otherwise. I’ve listened to too many sermons that use scripture selectively, opting for relevancy over truth. I’ve been overdressed, underdressed, and excluded more for it, whether innocently or intentionally I’ll never know. You are my brothers, my sisters! I want to shout, indignant enough to forget that they, too, are human. I am fragile and weary and you are the watering hole, but I’m starting to think you’ve run dry.
The problem with the church, I’d wager, from my own narrow experience of it, is not that it is too big, but too small. We’ve become narrow, small-minded, eager to place God in a box of Sunday mornings on tight schedules of: opening hymn, prayer, sermon, closing hymn, coffee and exit. If we are not finding, seeking, discovering God— all his love and diversity— in our day to day living outside the church, how can we ever hope to be a light to others in it? Maybe the soft chairs and coffee cups are blurring our memories to a time where, we too, were lonely, lost, in need of a friend. Maybe we’ve stopped realizing that there is more to Christian living than sitting through a sermon, more to fellowship than coffee hour. Maybe the spirit of American Individualism has invaded even this place, so that instead of love thy neighbor our mantra is every man for himself.
Andrew and I, in the past two years, have met more people dissatisfied with the church than we ever thought possible. We’ve met people who have felt excluded, abandoned, like they didn’t fit it, uninvited from small groups and refused Communion. This, I think, nothing like the the church I knew in childhood, nothing like the fellowship I’ve found in my family and friends, nothing like God I’ve found in the Bible or nature. They are made to feel guilty for not attending, and ostracized when they do. The church, it would seem, has become a selective club, requiring the right dress and doctrine for admittance. A club from which those too loud, too quiet, too old, or too different are excluded.
I’m not giving up on the church; I know that it is broken, bruised, as in need of redemption as the rest of us. I know it can be powerful, encouraging, a place of hope for many— and we hope and pray for a church to call home. (If any of you are reading this from downtown Pittsburgh and know a place like this, please let us know!) But this weekend, I was also reminded that the real church is much, much more than a building, that God can be found far away from its pews. That church, is, above all, people who love greatly because they’ve been forgiven a debt, who sing songs of gratitude from dawn to dusk: at work, at graduation, among friends, in the woods.
On Sundays, yes, but they also know gratitude on all the days in between. Because they know that the church was never meant for four walls, anyway.