I go to a church these days where the parking lot is free of oil slicks and leaky radiator puddles. It’s fairly pristine, like the cars and the SUV’s that fill it on Sunday mornings. The families are very pretty as they walk together and enter the front doors, and I watch them with a chip on my shoulder, because even though my family is pretty, they’re not as pretty as, say, that one.
And the one over there.
Inside, we sit, and white elbows come close to touching each other in the pews, but not quite, so as to avoid the invasion of personal space. And we move to the middle to let in late comers, and we greet them at the appropriate time, when told to do so, forcing some social interaction that is awkward and not at all what I signed up for. Someone tells me to turn to the person next to me, you know, to tell him that I’m glad he’s here.But I’m not, so I don’t say it. I never say what I’m told to say. I do mumble a hello, and flash my best fake smile, but the person is always looking past me, to the next person, you know, the one that he or she will shake hands with after me, so I think it’s just a waste of germ exchange.
Some more white elbows attached to white bodies and white faces are on stage and they smile and clap, trying to get me to clap; and others too, maybe to rouse all of us out of our slumber. They encourage me to worship, and I’m in the sea of beauty and fashion, and I’m sad, though I can’t explain why.
Yeah, I probably can.
This church is very nice, and safe, and I sound resentful, but I’m not. I’m just observant. The teaching pastor is very knowledgeable and he’s taught me quite a few new and interesting things about this and that. All in all, he must be doing something right because this church is blessed on every corner. And their corners are perfect in fact, and tidy, really, and they’re much like many others around the country; some of great influence, some just of local sway, with pastors of national renown or their own city prominence, filling pulpits to reach the many, or just a few; and what does it matter, because I’m here too: a sheep to its shearer is dumb, or maybe I’ve trudged my way here, reluctantly, this Sunday and the next, so my kids can be with their friends from school.
But I still feel dumb.
It’s a long story, but you should know that we live in a suburb. Our kids go to a school in said suburb, and now we attend a church in the very same, uh, suburb.
So church will be comfortable and predictable for this season, with those perfect corners and neat edges and hopefully what I don’t teach at home about Jesus will still seep into my children’s subconscious as they go to Sunday school and youth group; as a part of a gang or clique, as they go on trips and attend ice cream socials and snow retreats with other white kids who text each other and pull out their iPods and gadgets and gizmos.
But, then, I don’t know, because the Jesus I know and love had an insane and unexplainable love and an inclination to touch the kind of people who wouldn’t be here: drunks, prostitutes, gamblers and lepers, the poorest kind of people, white sure, but with different colored skin too. The ones who don’t frequent suburbs, and if they do, we sometimes call the cops on them.
The Jesus I know longed to be about healing, and so he just did it. He spent time with the sick, because they needed the healing. He spent most of his time outside, always on the move, looking for them; maybe in parking lots with more oil slicks and radiator puddles.
Maybe they won’t learn about Jesus at all here, and I’m just drowning out the noise of it all. I could just be buying some time until it’s over and they’re indoctrinated into a rhythm of church as an institution, as if that’s what they should get, because we all need it; it’s where we learn the discipline of verse memorization and the order of the books of the Bible; the virtue of hand holding and the vices of petting. It’s where we meet the dork of a youth group leader, fresh from college, who loves to play dodgeball and call the boys “dude” and “champ” and tousle hair; the girls fall in love with him and his young wife rolls her eyes.
I'm learning as I go, but from what I can tell, church must be viewed as a lifelong rhythm, not just a building with seats to occupy. Certainly worship and wise teaching and leadership are crucial elements for our nourishment, but those who want the adventure must realize that it doesn’t make sense to just stay inside.
Maybe this church or any, really.
If a church or a pastor or a priest has taught us anything, it should be that this Jesus we serve and follow – he's out there, on the edge, practicing love and sacrifice for no other reason than because it’s right and is being received by the unlovely, the unsuspecting, the unwelcome, the underdog. This is a new life with a new purpose and yes, it’s often outside in the elements where it's rough and it’s dirty.
And it’s really not safe at all.