Something funny happened when I became a pastor. People started apologizing to me for not going to church. I would run into someone in the post office or grocery store and they would tell me reasons why they don’t go or haven’t gone in a while. As if I’m some sort of record keeper or, worse, gate keeper, whose intention it is to let God know I haven’t seen them sitting in the pews on Sunday and then … I don’t know. I’m not sure why folks seem to be worried about their church attendance records.
When I first arrived at the Pawlet Church some people asked me what I intended to do to get more people to come to church. As if I’m a wrangler, planning to round up all the people too busy or too tired or too alienated to show up on Sunday mornings.
I kind of laughed at all of that. When people apologize to me about not going to church I assure them that God lives everywhere, not just in one building, and that the ways they find to be in relationship with God are just fine. Church offers a community of folks who will show up when the chips are down, and that’s totally awesome, but you most certainly don’t have to go to church to love or speak to or pray to or be in covenant with God. Church is a nice place to find a sense of belonging, and that hour on Sunday morning is a good time to get outside your own sometimes-suffocating narrative for a brief moment, but God knows where to find you. Sitting in an uncomfortable pew isn’t a condition for drawing God’s loving gaze.
After a while people started showing up on Sunday mornings, not because I offered vouchers for a free meal at The Barn or we were making lattes or had a rock band. People started showing up because they were on a path of seeking and they came once or twice and found what they were looking for and then came back again. That’s all.
I totally get the fear and disgust a lot of people associate with the church experience. I’m not the world’s #1 fan of organized religion. In fact, sometimes I think I was drawn to infiltrate churchy life in order to stir things up from within. In order to prove that you can show up at church as your worst tattered self and still be loved and accepted. No one will hit you over the head with a Bible or force you to fall you to your knees to pray, and so far the sanctuary hasn’t burned to the ground, as some predicted it would if they ever stepped foot in that place.
Believe me people, if churches burned when people who have made lousy choices stepped inside them, The Pawlet Community Church would have incinerated that spring day I returned, five years ago. Rapidment!
Somewhere along the long and treacherous path of religious history some clergy decided that in order to have job security they needed to convince people that they held special powers that gave humans an access point, through them, to God. They don’t.
Somewhere along the scary and confusing line of religious history churches managed to convince your average citizen that if they didn’t come to church every Sunday they will burn in hell. Not true either.
I have no more or less power than the next gal when it comes to accessing a benevolent, loving and omnipresent God. I don’t have the answers, the key, greater depth of understanding or the secret passcode to God. Going to church isn’t like joining a sorority or fraternity, where you have to be vetted then chosen then tested then you get a little pin or a secret handshake that alerts your brothers and sisters that you’re in.
Everyone is in when it comes to God. Everyone. Always, Everywhere. Yes, even those awful people at the border who are keeping kids in cages and laughing while they drink from toilets. They might not be as aware of the presence of God, but God isn’t turning away from them just because they’re acting like monsters. In fact, God is probably working overtime on those folks right now and that’s why your prayers for winning the lottery aren’t being answered. Some of us, at certain times in our lives, need more love and attention from a God who doesn’t turn and walk away when the going gets rough.
There were so many moments to treasure from last Sunday morning’s service in Landgrove at the Meeting House. There was Shay and Andrew, Old Sky, playing and singing their hearts out, the sound of all of our voices singing Holy, holy, holy, filling that old and acoustically perfect room. Sublime. There was sweet Jane walking toward me with her huge pitcher of summer flowers, which she placed on the rock out front for all of us to appreciate. There was Andrew standing up during Joys and Concerns to tell us about his dearest friend who died in a river seven years ago. You could see and feel how much he misses that guy and in that moment Andrew gave all of us the opportunity to think about someone we miss with that kind of tenacity.
There was Mark telling us, during my story about Vermont being the 14th state to join the Union 14 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, that … and Vermont has 14 counties! And then when the man who came forward to get the basket for the collection leaned in and whispered to me … I’ve got another 14 for you … the governor races cars and his has a number 14 on the side. Amazing.
Those kinds of things happen in church. Funny things, interesting things. We find, in our stories, in our worries, in our joy, commonality that feeds us and shores us up for another week in a difficult world in our hard lives.
Margaret read a beautiful Native American opening blessing; I closed with a terrific poem by Cynthia Rylant about God climbing Mt. Everest. We sang and laughed. I talked about the treasure we have in Vermont, in both our self-sufficiency and our strength of community, how honored I am to live in a place where people truly care about their neighbors and carry an independent, can-do attitude about most everything. The sun shone bright, the tractors were cutting the hay in the field below, the dead rested in the cemetery across the street, as always the snacks were homemade and delicious and that beautiful soul, Sally Ogden was ever-present and tending to the flock of us who showed up just to be together for a little while on a nice summertime Sunday morning.
There was one thing, one little story, though, that I could easily have missed, that keeps replaying in my mind and stands out as the treasure of the morning.
Church is a word that means something different to everyone, and unfortunately most often it means something yucky, something sad, something scary. If I do anything in my time of congregational ministry, I’m determined to show people that it doesn’t have to be so, that we can come together as the flawed, worried, sad and confused humans we are and love each other and be loved and accepted inside a church. That we can have fun, make mistakes (I almost always do), be treated to beautiful music (Shay and Andrew played an original tune that turned out to fit perfectly with my sermon even though we had not discussed it ahead of time —those kinds of magical things happen all the time), and leave feeling revitalized, not defeated.
It’s my hope to create a version of church that is all that. In other words, I bring my ridiculous self to the situation and I try to show people that all of us are infinitely loved by an infinitely loving God. And that all our ridiculous selves are precisely what and where and who God wants us to be and that by showing up in church maybe what we’re saying is that we’re interested in learning a little more or growing a little more or, at the very least, being a part of something more important than ourselves, alone.
There was a family there last week: Mom, Dad, teenager. I met them briefly. Teenager was neither discernibly male nor female; I didn’t have the chance to speak with this person in order to learn more of their story. I sense that they had been brought to church, perhaps with some resistance. I watched this person leave fairly hastily when the service was over and I was bummed that I missed my opportunity to learn more about them.
The folks were the nephew and family of the woman who puts the whole show together, Sally, and in a moment that might otherwise have floated past me, Sally told me that “(said teenage person) said that that was the best church service they had ever been to.”
So maybe that person, that young person, who might be on a path of seeking, might be in a place of discerning, maybe they came to church yesterday morning and found something that made them think twice about the idea of church. Maybe they found a little slice of joy or peace. Maybe church turned out to be wholly different than they thought it would be. Maybe for once they felt uplifted and not oppressed. I don’t know, but to know that they found something there that touched something inside that allowed them to leave feeling good, well, my work is done. Or, at least, my work is working. Our work is working. What happened in Landgrove on Sunday was a beautiful collaborative effort involving song and stories, meditation and prayer, or as 14th century mystic Richard Rolle named it, “warmth and song and sweetness.” And it touched the heart of that young person, so Amen.
Richard Rohr says that a prophet is one who tries to keep God free for people and people free for God. I’m no prophet, but I plan to keep working on creating that space of freedom and tolerance and joy, a space where we can exhale and feel safe in our own skin and maybe find camaraderie and commonality in our stories and so, for a moment, be at peace in the world. That’s church; that’s a church that makes sense to me.