If clichés are any indication of reality, Americans have exactly two options on Sunday mornings:
1. Stay in bed as long as you want, then put on yoga pants and a hoodie and relax for hours with your cat or dog in a sunny spot, sipping coffee while indulging in The New York Times from cover to cover.
2. Get up early and rush to church (with your coffee in a travel mug), to be surrounded by dozens of people who may or may not have anything in common with you beyond your choice of how to spend Sunday mornings.
For almost my entire adult life, I have willingly gone for that second option. If the first option can be characterized as Blissful Solitude, the one I choose is Awkward Togetherness—at least at the churches I seem to gravitate toward.
There’s no telling what might happen on any given Sunday morning at my church. Drinks are spilled (well, coffee or communion juice), squealing toddlers are chased, and people are generally loud at the wrong moments. It’s like a family reunion with all your crazy relatives. Every Sunday.
I am clearly a glutton for punishment, as I head back to church week after week. But I make that choice because I am also a glutton for unexpected friendships, undeserved grace, and unconventional beauty. These are things I can’t seem to find anywhere else in the world, so each Sunday I return to church for more.
In no other realm of my life could I spend a couple of hours with such a diverse collection of people: a leading advocate for disability rights and a leading scholar of Islam; ex-convicts and an ex-prison guard; an Obstetrics nurse and newborns; homeless people and psychologists; a once-big-time blues drummer with a grey beard down to his belt, his teenage drum student, and a toddler who idolizes them both.
Church is the place I go to be in community—not with the mainstream, middleclass, upstanding Christian crowd, but with the ones Jesus gravitated toward: the misfits, the broken, and all those who don’t always “fit.”
Many Sunday mornings, as any illusion of well-rehearsed order dissolves, I sit in church half-cringing, seeing all the chaos and mishaps through the eyes of some poor visitor who wandered in to see what we’re all about. Being in this place can be so uncomfortable and awkward, especially for those of us adept at feigning full command of ourselves and our surroundings.
But those feelings have a way of projecting back onto me, highlighting my own brokenness and discomfort in this world. Before long—during the very same worship service, even in the next breath!—my cringe transforms into a heart swell of openness and love-beyond-reason. I look around our coffee-stained sanctuary and see the stories we live together.
There is our friend who one day surprised us by returning from a visit home to India with a new bride at his side. Now they have a baby we ooh and ahh over at every opportunity.
Down the row from them is the former blues drummer. For years he spent Sunday mornings sitting behind the drum set with the worship band; now he’s recovering from cancer surgery and too weak to play a whole set. But that doesn’t stop him from pulling a tambourine out of his bag when the spirit moves him, and making music from his seat.
I watch a preschooler run up to her grandparents with smiles and hugs. As an infant, she was raised by her grandparents. Now she and her sister are the adopted children of a young couple in the church (and vessels of joy for everyone who knows them).
On the other side of the sanctuary is the woman who is always busy sewing or crocheting away on a blanket for someone’s baby, and there is the woman who regularly testifies to how Jesus has delivered her from debilitating anxiety. Behind me a hearing aid whines briefly as our “senior member,” at 90, makes an adjustment.
Then a song from the church’s “hippie days” begins, having made its way into a worship set. It is unfamiliar to me, but clearly not to everyone. A man gets off his chair and kneels right there on the carpet, while a few of the “old-timers” begin doing hand motions that seem part-sign language, part-jazz hands. A baby screeches, and we know exactly who it is, without turning our heads. A boy with autism rocks and rocks and rocks in a rocking chair in the back of the sanctuary. That is how he does church.
And I bow my head, overwhelmed by the terrifying-yet-glorious goodness of being awkward together in the presence of God.