Monday, April 30, 2012

Pews, Perplexities, Ponderings and Persistence

 (Recently I have read online discussions concerning church in America: the institution, the gathering, the purpose, the successes, the pains. Why people stay and why people go. Having been a foreign resident in a completely different culture for most of the last two decades, I read the discussions and listen to my family and friends to learn about this season in my culture of origin.
I (and my husband) have been called to serve the Bride of Christ. His Body. His Church. So this conversation is worthy of our attention and time.
Christ’s  Bride has hurt me. She has taught me. She has shunned me. And she has upheld me in an embrace that is delightfully inexplicable. I have watched her do these exact same things to others.
For better or for worse, we are joined. And we are deeply invested.
Like most relationships, confrontation with integrity is needful alongside unconditional love. Combining the two takes courage and sacrifice but can keep the conversation deep and rich.
I do not offer answers to the many questions raised. But I do have some experiences of my own.  The following memory has played in my mind as I’ve pondered the discussion of church.
For what it is worth, I share it now.)

 We needed sleep. Moving from bed to bed each and every night was wearing us all down.

We were also very cold. It was June, but there was snow on the ground and we were ill prepared. We spent Saturday evening scouring sale racks at department stores for jackets and gloves. We counted our remaining dollars outside a Country Buffet restaurant to be sure we had the money to eat.

It was a low point in furlough.

We had chosen a VERY cheap hotel for our Saturday night abode. The complimentary continental breakfast of dry donuts and fruit loops rattled in our tummies as we made our way to church the next day.

The day stretched long before us and I was counting the hours (already) until we could crawl back into our hard uncomfortable beds that night.

We were greeted by a few friendly faces as we entered the building. Smiles and handshakes, here and there. We began the search for classes for our children. They bravely faced the new and unfamiliar scenarios with courage that amazed me. I just wanted to wait it all out in the car.

After class, we collected our children and made our way to the auditorium for worship. Our contact person was busy with the program that morning so we were left to fend for ourselves during the morning service.

We hurriedly slipped into a back pew marked conveniently, “For Visitors.”

We settled into our seat and began to observe around us.

An elderly woman made her way into our pew with no few sidelong glances at our family.

She placed her purse, smiled at passers-by and eventually leaned over to quietly say to me,

“You are in the wrong place, sweetie.”

Feeling the brunt of the corrective, I searched her eyes for a teasing glint.

But, instead, I found admonishment.

“The families with young children sit all along the outside wall. Not here in the middle where the noise disturbs.”

I smiled at her and pointed to the ‘for visitors” sign on the pew.

She looked a bit chagrined at the sign and brushed it off saying, “That was put there years ago. I completely forgot it was there.”

She then began to strain her neck to see if there was a pew big enough for our family in the noisy section.

I made no move to relocate, so with a huff she resigned herself to an interminable hour with our clamoring clan.

Silas offered her cheerios and Isaac showed her his coloring page. Jeff and I shared quiet words over the heads of our children.

Eventually, she leaned over to say:

“Are you from around here?”

I shared our names and current address and she was appropriately responsive.

Missionaries. No wonder we were weird and misplaced.

She began to engage me with her full knowledge of God’s people around us.

“That is Mabel So-and-So*. And that is her son with her. High time he showed up! He doesn’t come here very often.”

“That is Mildred Pumpernickel and she lost all her hair decades ago. She must be one hundred and she has had that wig forever. Wears it every Sunday! I wish she would just go ahead and buy a new one.”

Interspersed in her ramblings were directives for where everyone should sit. Including families with children.

“They should really put some signs up so that people can get to the proper places.”

I smiled and nodded and became increasingly amused.

Ms. Sassafrass was warming to us, despite herself.

Services began and we all went through the customary motions. Old hymns. Old order. Predictable. Stoic. At once, poignantly familiar and completely foreign.

I silently applauded our children’s behavior. Despite their exhaustion, they were behaving beautifully and I was so very relieved. Church moves quickly in the States and when wrestling preschoolers that is very helpful.

As we closed the assembly and gathered belongings to leave, Ms Sassafrass reached over to gently pat my hand.

“You’re a good momma, “ she smiled, “I’m happy you were here today.”

I really can’t remember that woman’s name. But I vividly recall how she made me feel.

Judged, corrected, unwelcome, entertained, endeared, won-over, embraced.

When she first spoke to me, I wanted to leave. I felt, embarrassed.

Was I in the wrong place?

As I quietly maintained my own position despite the uncomfortable awareness that I was outside of Sassy’s status quo, I inevitably forced a further conversation. That improved.

At the very least, it warmed.

As she chattered from her own world, I engaged her into mine. I heard a woman who needed the predictable and felt secure in things being the same.

At it’s baseline, I can not only respect that, I can completely understand NEEDING that.

For whatever reason, she chose to end our interchange with one of the most positive and needful affirmations known to womankind.

“You are a good momma.”

Golden words, indeed.

I learned something that day.

Our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses are often born from the exact same place.

This older woman was not afraid to speak her mind. In one instance I was both blessed and hurt by this quality.

In the end, we parted friends. But it could have gone another way.

What if I had been brand spanking new to any church atmosphere and found myself in conversation with this outspoken woman?

I’m pretty sure I would have left.

Instead I stayed and felt both annoyed and amused.

My amusement was born from years of dealing with sometimes vexing but often times endearing church members who want things done ‘the right way.’

I labeled Ms Sassafrass into that endearing chorus of voices and endured.

That worked this time.

But it doesn’t work every time.

Having been in the church for my entire life, there are other choruses that play in my head. Many of them are painful and soul piercing.

When that chorus plays loudly, I want to quit.

I felt both of those things in this one hour interaction with a complete stranger.

Who was also my sister.

Ms Sassafrass and I managed to maintain an honest conversation. Perhaps that is the point. Allowing folks to say what they think. To sit where they want to sit. To expect what they want to expect. And having the courage, anchored to a Father Who welcomes and accepts, to say, sit and expect  (carefully) myself.

But to never stop doing those things, humbly together.

Maybe Ms Sassafrass had more figured out than I would have at first surmised.

However misguided, she did speak up and from that I learned an awful lot.

I learned some things not to do.

And I learned one thing that I would continue to do.

Keep trying.

*Names changed to protect the precious.