The best way I can describe to you the people we sit beside at church, is that they hand out soft mints once the sermon starts.
This is a post about how 2 rows of Mentos-sharing ladies got 2 anti-social cynics back in church.
You cannot see church baggage. You cannot cater for it, not really. That couple don’t look any different from that happy-clappy couple…. so who would know that they’re ready to bolt for the door? Who can tell, really, which words of which hymn will make her mad? Who would know which buzz-words trigger her church-baggage-land-mines? What seemingly innocuous, inspiring to others even, line from a sermon will send her ranting to her husband the whole car journey home?
I went to our church expecting to hate it. It had been recommended to us a little too enthusiastically. I almost didn’t even try it because I was handed a flyer for its Alpha Course when I was in Tesco. I know this is all kinds of ludicrous. And I know Alpha is particular kinds of good. But there are seasons in faith and I was in my please-don’t-show-your-evangelistic-fervour-when-I’m-grocery-shopping kind of season. I was also, I have come to realise, in my snap-decision season, and it lasted for a really long time. I thought I could make snap-decisions on Who or Where or What was “for me”.
The Church Baggage I carried came in 2 kinds. In one hand was the stuff I missed and yearned for from all that is good about the Christian communities I grew up in. The people that loved me well, the words that were wise, the lives that were true. The slow and steady exposure to beautiful faith… a lot of nostalgia, too. And you can’t see or hear or know any of that stuff from one church service, but I was snapping, it’s not here, move on.
In the other hand was a few decades worth of niggles and wonderings. Some doubts and disillusion. A little bitterness. A lot of cynicism. Weariness and wariness. Low expectations.
So we came to this church expecting to hate it. We came with our hands in our pockets and our eyes lowered. We darted in and out the side door. We attended sporadically. We came reluctantly, every time. It didn’t feel like Home. It didn’t feel like our People . And I felt that. And I pestered my husband about it… my need for Home and my need for my People. And he talked me down, time and again. Where else would we go?
So we kept returning, reluctantly. And every time I went expecting to feel the wrongness of it, the bad fit, every time I went expecting to hate it, and didn’t, it was kind of a miracle. Slowly I started clocking up church visits where I wasn’t ranting the whole way home, wasn’t ranting at all.
But it didn’t feel like Home and it would never feel like Home, would it? And my husband talked me down. And these were not my People, I was sure of it… but then the old ladies wrecked everything.
They noticed us.
They caught our eye, they tapped us on the shoulder, they passed us a Mento, they fussed over our baby, they noticed when we weren’t there. They didn’t corner us or sign us up or suggest we should join something. Thank goodness. But they made it harder and harder to scoot out that side door.
We kind of liked them. But they weren’t my People, you know?
After we had our second baby we weren’t at church for months and I felt more reluctant than ever when I eventually shuffled in one Sunday morning with Imogen in my arms, full of bad attitude. And there they were, waiting for us. Heads turned, necks craned, faces beaming, just waiting to meet her.
You can’t keep your hands in your pockets or your eyes lowered or your distrust intact around these ladies. They hug our necks during the peace and they reach across to hold my baby’s hand during worship. They blow raspberries back at her during prayers and whisper running commentaries on her development. They catch my eye if my toddler’s running a little wild, and mouth widely “she’s fine”. They’re always pleased to see my girls. Today, they noticed I’d had my hair cut.
They say have you been on holiday? And we hmmm and haw to explain our absence. They say see you next week. And we, are starting to say it back.
I have a thing about kindred spirits, about soul mates, about the people with whom we say “me too”. And these people have been faith-saving for me. It is an amazing thing to be kept company by people we know or books that we read. I think part of my story is that I got a bit disillusioned, a bit tired…. felt a bit out of place with church, and faith and maybe God. But I got healed and inspired and hopeful through a few people I know and some books that I read. Kindred Spirits. But then, I started looking for them everywhere. I thought I needed them to be everyone. And I forgot I don’t need everyone to be like me, I forgot I really like people who are different from me. I forgot I need them. In all this striving for anne-lamott-blue-like-jazz-my-friend-rachel kind of friendship I lost the girl who, actually, is really good at being friends with randomers. Or being loved by old ladies.
So I’m shutting up these days about Home and my People. We have a place, in these pews, and it’s doing us some good. I will probably always wish all my favourite people and favourite writers were there too, in 2 rows, passing Mentos, or something stronger… but… I think I’m (re)learning that they aren’t the only ones … aren’t the only ones I need to talk to, sit beside, worship with… aren’t the only ones I should respect… aren’t the only ones I should be looking for, because, as it turns out, they weren’t the only ones looking for me.