Sunday, April 20, 2008

Let the record reflect

Tonight at the very end of church, Mark Labberton followed up a sermon on unity in Christ by asking the congregation to hold hands with their neighbors. Oh, we were so close, I thought. Next to me, Christine looked out of the choir loft at her friend Brooke, a visitor, and mouthed, "Sorry!" We grabbed hands and prayed, and afterwards, we confirmed: the Universal Law of Church Visitors had struck again.

You do know the Universal Law, right? I have yet to find it in the Bible (probably buried somewhere in the Minor Prophets, or maybe Leviticus, sandwiched into the kooky wandering-in-the desert laws), but I swear it's there somewhere, and someday I'm going to find it. The Universal Law of Church Visitors states that in the presence of a non-regular attender, church will get weird. The pastor will spontaneously preach on homosexuality or tithing, or will be absent entirely. He or she will be replaced by a drama troupe, missionaries either to or from Africa specializing in sign-language ministries, liturgical dancers in leotards, and/or a church business meeting. It will be Youth Sunday, and (I'm sorry to say) none of the musicians will actually know how to play their instruments. All of the music will be in Portuguese and accompanied only by an accordion and a rhythm gourd. There will be random hand-holding, possibly while singing or chanting. On Christine's first Sunday at First Pres, a man in the front row occasionally took a bite from a bouquet of daisies he held behind his back. Bringing a friend to church is a risky venture.

Maybe the Universal Law should be the least of our worries. Maybe it's some kind of secret vetting process: virgin birth and empty tombs don't go over so well with those who can't hack Sandi Patti and baton-twirling during the offertory. And, to be fair, maybe it's just getting them ready for life in a church community, letting them know that sometimes, church is full of things that are weird or unintentionally funny, because people are weird and unintentionally funny. Church is a place of earnestness, and sometimes earnestness is uncool. Probably best to get it all out in the open. Maybe God's just trying to keep things on the up and up, which is why things always get just a little unusual when you're wishing for the usuality you love so much.

And, frankly, it's probably more an issue of social oversensitivity than anything else. Church gets mocked enough as it is; we can't always help the assumption that newcomers are horrified when things deviate from the schedule. We seem to apologize a lot, even for things that don't bother us. Maybe we should stop that, and trust people's resilience in the face of things that make us cringe, or even the power of God to work through/despite our strangest efforts. I know that. I should try to keep that in mind. And if only the Song of Solomon laser show would tone things down just a little, we might be able to relax.

13 comments:

Glenna C said...

Beware the man who eats his daisies, that's my motto. ;)

I forwarded a link to this post to my friend P who is currently embarking on the recently-divinity-schooled world of becoming a minister. Hee. c

Xerxes said...

I know what you mean; the best story I have heard is from a Pastor. Just for “kicks” one Sunday the congregation decided to sing Gregorian Chants. That of course was the Sunday some neighbors of the church who the Pastor had been witnessing to decided to attend for the first time!

Liz said...

Glenna, I didn't happen to see the daisy-eater, but Christine swears he was there, and I'm so sad I missed it. Comedy theater, I'm telling you. :)

Liz said...

Xerxes, see? It never fails. Doesn't matter what church you go to or when you go. The weirdness just spills out.

Mark said...

Hi Liz. Sorry that Sunday night's hand-holding hit the cringe-button enough for you to blog about it. As I indicated by the story I told before asking people to hold hands, I hate the cringe factor too. Last Sunday night, I was hoping the cringe effect might lead some to realize that our cringing is perhaps some measure of how much more deferential we are to social pressure than to the call of the Kingdom. It's all those little inner, cringe alarms that contribute I think to our sense of how willing we are to take much more needed and important risks in actually loving one another. This, I think, is what you are also saying towards the end of your blog entry. In any case, the daisy-eater is mild compared to some of the things people have done at First Pres! Let's just say, I have frequent opportunities to learn to live beyond the cringe-factor, even if I am only making slow progress at times. Say hi sometime...I promise NOT to ask you to hold hands! :)

Xerxes said...

Mark / Liz I sent Mike Woodruff at CC Lake Forest a link to this and he is able to relate to the cringe factor. I grew up in a Presbyterian church and now attend an Evangelical Free chruch, every time we hold hands to pray all I can think of is, "There is someone TOUCHING me!" The cringe factor runs deep and is very hard to remove from your life.

Liz said...

Hi Mark,

Heh, I'd wondered whether this might eventually circle back to you (though that wasn't the motivation behind it!). Thanks for reading!

To be clear, I don't actually have a problem with hand-holding in church or with most of what else goes on at First Pres--I think we have a remarkably low cringe quotient, especially for a big church. I'm just always amazed at how bringing a visitor (to ANY church) always seems to coincide with things that aren't normal for that particular church, or that you just didn't see coming. But you're right--I think the key here is to think less about what the visitor is thinking (though, on the other hand, thinking like a visitor can make us more sensitive to the experience of newcomers) and entertain the possibility that maybe what we're doing in the service isn't quite the point.

Anyway, bring on the hand-holding! (But no singing to your neighbor, please...)

Anonymous said...

Xerxes-- Is this the same Mike Woodruff that was on Intervarsity staff at UCSB in 1968-70? Liz's mom

Mark said...

Yes, I see just what you mean, Liz. It is so true about the coincidental cringe moments that I too have both experienced and probably caused. I do have some fairly good nightmare stories of this.

Maybe, if we connect after the 505 sometime, I could tell you one of my favorites! So now I promise BOTH no hand-holding (at least for a while) and to never ask you, or any one else, to sing a song to the stranger standing next to you in worship! Honest.....

Liz said...

Mark, will do.

Xerxes, just to verify, that really is my mom, and not a crazy person who wants to stalk Mike Woodruff. (I don't think.)

Xerxes said...

Liz's Mom,

No I don't believe it is. Mike would have been about 8 then!

Ben said...

I call it "Liz's Law", and it's true internationally, even. I've brought people to church in far-flung places like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and even then the service manages to be off-kilter. There should be some kind of warning on the church calendar about services like this. I'm thinking that a system of "visitor blackout dates" would help all of us to plan.

Liz said...

Hmm. I don't remember anything weird going down when we went to church in Ankara, but maybe I just didn't know the difference.