Church in the Wilderness
I grew up in church, cut my teeth on baby beds in the church nursery. The creaking of old wooden benches, the comfort of padded pews are as familiar a seating arrangement as the chairs around my mom’s kitchen table.
We were back row people. I'd plop down next to my mom and dad, then my mom here and dad there. Sometimes I'd sit with my grandmother; she was a middle row person. Many of my aunts and uncles and cousins and childhood friends gathered in the same sanctuary.
As a preschooler, I remember muffling the music and the preaching when one ear was pressed into Mom’s lap and the fabric of her dress. Before I’d doze off to sleep, I kept an eye on the two or three wasps that were prone to bob and bounce around the center chandelier. At times, the wasps hovered low and pestered people who sat under the stained-glass windows. I remember how someone would roll up their bulletin and swat with power to kill.
Formative years gave way to the next season and the next. Church remained a fixture. I went down the aisle during my fourth-grade year, and I got baptized with my friend, Nora. Middle and high school were tricky years, because middle and high school are tricky times.
During college, I hopped churches with my friends and their families. Who knows how many congregations I visited during those years.
I married a pastor. More Sundays in church. I savored a seat next to John during our campus ministry years. I'd spend time rocking my babies, mom-swaying in the back, near an exit in case of crying.
John became my pastor when we transitioned from college ministry to the local church, and I made the front row my new seat. Then came the season of trying to occupy a busy little boy with doughnut briberies and drawing paper. I kept my pointer finger pressed into my mouth for shushing, might as well have been glued there. The front row can be tough.
Green hymnals and red hymnals and projections screens, pianos and organs and guitars leading songs of worship and songs of invitation. Bowing, bending from my waist, my head resting on my folded arms over padded altar rails, tears falling to mingle with the tears of countless others I’d never met.
The cities and towns I drive through are crowded with churches. We used to live in the eastern Kentucky portion of Appalachia, and church buildings sat on corners from the entry into town all the way to our driveway, and more if we went around the back way. Purple-roofed church, Methodist church, Baptist church, Christian church, and that one I can see around the corner but can’t recall the name of—these were all within a half-mile of one another. And another Methodist church just a stone’s throw away, plus the churches dotting the roads and byways to communities out and away from town.
Northern Kentucky differed little, maybe just in the miles between this church and that. New ones, church plants, popped up all the time.
Colorado, Denver area, also not that different. If I wanted, I could avoid going to the same church for weeks on end. I haven’t done the math, but it may be possible for me to visit a different church each week for at least two years in and around Denver proper .
We’re not short on churches here in America. We’re not short on choices—denominations, worship styles, times for services, days and nights for gatherings, languages, buildings, rented and shared spaces, conservative, liberal, charismatic, Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, Greek Orthodox, fusions, open and affirming, regular and non-affirming, small, medium, large.
Once I shared with a co-worker that this reality—this abundance of churches—stretched my faith, rattled it a bit. How come so many, I asked. And if so many expressions, how could we know who had any correct, or all the correct, answers? She told me that she thought of it from another angle, quite opposite in ways from my concern: Look how many doors are open for people to meet God, she offered.
I see her point. But I’m still jostled, my mind searching as it does. This, this parsed-off sectional Church, makes me ask more questions than does the existence of other faiths.
The middle, somewhere between my co-worker’s answer and my quandary, is where I find myself standing. Where else would I stand? It is a recurring theme to occupy that tension. While I stand here—between “What in the Sam Hill are we doing with so many kinds of churches?” and “God, I trust you in all the places”—I ache.
My mind and body and soul ache, longing for the real Jesus to transcend it, to break down our tightly bound certainties. I ache for unity, for a better conversation than who’s in and who’s out, for the last finger being pointed that directs a person to this or that side. I’m not hinting at universalism, not yearning for that. Please don’t misunderstand me.
A longing burns within me, a prayer roiling, bubbling up to the surface. Inarticulate groanings, the kind Paul tells me the Spirit uses to intercede when I don’t know what or how to pray. It feels, as best I can tell since the Spirit is doing the intercession, that I’m asking for Jesus to mess us all up in the most undoing and reforming of ways. My heart cries out for the Kingdom of God to be now and real and true and altogether full.
Only in these past two years have I found myself not in a church building or church gathering every single week. Three years ago, I skipped Easter Sunday services and stayed home. I felt like I might go to hell. At least I’d get a raised eyebrow, an audible tsk from some folks.
“The church is a whore, but she’s my mother,” Augustine is supposed to have said. It rises in me, like a haunting, ethereal song. It brings comfort and makes my stomach hurt, all at the same time.
I go to church, but it's not always easy. I'm not in familiar seats. Some Sundays it is a discipline. It makes me lonesome, like pining for a lover I have known and who has known me both naked and unashamed, naked and awash with shame.
Fitting that Lent invites me further into the wilderness, the disorienting unknown, holding this church tangle in my hands as I go. Maybe I’ll lie down in a green pasture for a while, or take a healing bath in the still waters. Maybe I’ll see the smoke rising from a holy fire, from the camp of a fellow pilgrim also navigating untamed land.
The Church and her life blood pulse in my being, and I can’t extract it. That bit where Jesus tells Peter “on this rock I will build my Church”—that Palestinian Jew and that stubborn rock. That’s what has saved me, what saves me over and over, what is unavoidable. The small-c church elements, that’s complicated and incomplete and messy and beautifully human, and used by God somehow and anyway.