Feeble Knees

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Postcard

When a new church planted itself halfway between my home and my old church, I began making plans to check it out. I had my reservations about it though. The new church was being entirely too cutesy about its outreach efforts. It employed a slick marketing campaign, mass-mailing hundreds of glossy, hip postcards to all the homes in our city and the surrounding towns. They promised coffee and donuts before and after the service, a service designed with Me in mind. This totally flew in the face of everything I knew church to be.

Sunday after Sunday I was faithfully and dutifully enduring hours of spiritually asphyxiating, legalistic preaching. The three-and-a-half to four hours of Sunday morning service, two-and-a-half hours (or more) Sunday evening service, the weeknight bible studies, and prayer meetings weren't drawing me any closer to the Lord. Where I once felt the spirit of the Lord fill the sanctuary, now I sought it with a growing desperation. Sermons about the evils of movies and dancing, the absolute necessity of the evidence of speaking in other tongues, and the extreme importance of tithing imparted only tiny crumbs about Jesus, and my heart and spirit began to groan under the weightiness of all the law and the prophets.

So I got this postcard from these friendly-sounding people. It had a tropical scene on the front, and some witty quip about paradise on the back. I'd thrown out the first card they sent, because really, it must be one of those seeker-friendly churches we'd been warned about, the ones that didn't really preach against sin. Who did they think they were, luring people with coffee and donuts? No doubt their preaching was just fluff and they were just looking to increase their numbers. It couldn't possibly be a serious, bible-believing, sin-killing, and God-fearing church like mine.

But when the second card arrived a week or two later, I kept it. In truth, I was lonely. Though I was involved in several ministries and knew so many people within my church, I always had this nagging feeling that the minute I ever slipped, I'd be outcast. It would have shamed me to admit it, but I didn't completely trust that my "church" friends really loved or cared about the mess that was me. My life was scrutinized. My church attendance was noted. I was chided for lateness. If I was sick, I made sure to call people before the service so I wouldn't get the phone calls later from suspicious, inquiring minds. My good standing and the good will of others came with strings attached. It was entirely dependent on striving to be an outstanding pillar of the faith, 24/7.

Ok, so this new church might be soft and friendly. Yet I realized I kinda wanted that. I wondered what it would be like to go to a mellow church. Mine was anything but mellow. I began to crave anonymity. If I went to this coffee and donut church, no one would know me. For all they knew, I could even just be some normal person off the street. I wouldn't have to play Sunday School teacher, or choir person, or usher. I could just be me. This was a powerful draw.

I wistfully remembered the first day I went to my church, how my pastor prayed over me for what seemed like an hour, weeping and pouring out his heart over me. How could I ever forget that? Even thinking of going somewhere else felt like utter betrayal. I must be an ingrate.

Apparently my pastors got the postcards too. One Sunday morning I sat mortified as the assistant pastor angrily preached against the postcard-sending church. This feverish diatribe struck me as being ferociously territorial. He was none too happy that all these pretty postcards offering tempting delights were being sent to his flock. To hear him preach, you'd think they'd committed an act of war. I shrank in the pew, remembering the postcard at home on my fridge. I couldn't go there now. Surely it would be sin, especially after hearing pastor preach against it so vociferously.

Not long after, a friend confided that she too had held onto the now anathema tropical postcard. We discussed our pastors' reaction to it. We confessed to each other that we had more than a little curiosity about the new church. After a bit of hemming and hawing, we made secret plans to duck out one Sunday after teaching Sunday School to go check it out.

On the appointed day, we finished up our lessons quickly and waited while the kids filed out towards the sanctuary. We dashed down the back staircase and out the back door to the back parking lot. My heart was racing. It felt like cheating, like adultery. My heart stopped when I remembered I hadn't handed in my tithe. Oh no, what do I do about my weekly tithe? We were going back our church for the evening service. I'll put it in with the evening offering, I reasoned. We raced up the street, our constant chatter fueled partly by exhilaration, partly by dread. We had just snuck out of church. What are we doing?

The coffee church people were delightful. True to their word, there was plenty of coffee and an almost gluttonous array of donuts. They met in a local elementary school, using the dark and unappealing auditorium as a sanctuary. We looked around excitedly and filled out visitor cards as young-ish men and women took to the stage and led a simple, honest and down-to-earth worship service. There was no wailing, no hollering, no "dancing in the spirit", or any other stage-show tactics designed to appeal to our emotions. It was pure, refreshing. Very refreshing.

The pastor couldn't have been much older than I, a point that I found both comforting and disconcerting - kind of like the first time you go to a doctor and realize he's younger than you are. His preaching was simple and unadorned. He didn't clutch a pulpit and yell "Hallelujah" over and over. He didn't stride up and down the stage, waving his hands and hollering scripture. He didn't even appear to break a sweat. In a quiet, kind and Mr. Roberts-esque voice he delivered the message of the gospel, then proceeded to share how it applies to our lives today. His message did not drone on and on for an hour or more. He said what he intended to say in the space of about twenty minutes. I found myself simultaneously welcoming and condemning his brevity. You call that a sermon?

Yet there was something about the gentleness of his spirit, and of those around him that made me crack. The quietness and intimacy of that dim oasis comforted me. I felt safe from scrutiny and judgment. No one else may have known why I was there. But God did. Out of my timidity and shyness my heart fumbled for God's, and found Him right there, waiting.

After communion and the requisite coffee and donuts we chatted with a very sweet-natured greeter who seemed genuinely happy and interested in us. When we confessed that we were playing hooky from our regular church, I expected her smile and mask of gentility to slip. Her eyes showed concern, but she continued to speak kindly with us. She told us she was so happy we came to worship with them and wished us well. What, no lecture on the evils of church-hopping? Don't these people recognize a sinner when they see one?

In the car, our thoughts were all akimbo, flailing to grasp a single declarative sentence to voice our impressions. My friend began apologetically, saying "Well that was better than I thought it would be, but it doesn't seem like the place for my family right now..." Sensing she was afraid of delving too deeply into the relative merits of the new church versus our own church, I kept most of my thoughts to myself.

It was early yet, very early. We laughed about this, saying that we hardly felt like we'd been to church. There was still time to sneak back into our old church for the remainder of the sermon and the altar call. Instead, we decided to make our rebellion complete and go out for an early lunch.

Stopped at a red light, we noticed another car pull up alongside us. With a shock, we recognized the faces of two respected elders from our church, a woman and her husband. They knew us and recognized us instantly. The gentleman was very sick, and as his illness progressed his ability to sit in the three-to-four hour morning service was increasingly diminished. Unlike us, no one would question their early departure.

She rolled down her window.

"Well where are you going? Church isn't over yet!"
"It is were WE went!" we confessed, red-faced."

The lady and her husband smiled, giving us a very parental What in God's green earth have you been up to now? type of look. Before she could interrogate further, the light turned green. We smiled meekly, waved, and sped off.

That evening we returned dutifully to our old church. I anxiously fielded a couple of questions about my whereabouts that morning. Naturally I had to tell the truth. I lowered my eyes and quickly, quietly said I'd been at another church, then tried to change the subject as quickly as possible, fearing further questions and the recriminations I was sure my honest answers would bring. I was mixed with guilt and fear as I remembered my little coffee-church fling. My mind still flirted with the thought of leaving, of escaping. Pastor often railed from the pulpit, wailing of the dangers of "itching ears" and seeking people to preach "smooth things" to us. And here was I, seriously considering exchanging my mortal soul for light preaching and baked goods. Esau, the original Old Testament "Let's Make a Deal" guy himself probably wouldn't make such a trade. What was I thinking?

Whenever the subject of our little episode came up, my friend and I joked about it nervously, then changed the subject. She redoubled her efforts in several ministries as if doing penance for her brief indiscretion. Clearly what we needed to do was to stick things out, you know, pray and persevere. At least we'd know we weren't being led down the garden path, she reasoned.

I don't recall what I ever did with the postcard, whether I hung on to it a little longer or tossed it in the trash. I stayed put. Month after month of Sundays I pretended to ignore the little hand-placed sandwich-board signs pointing up the road to the coffee church. Quiet despair fell steadily like snow, piling up and burying me in its chill.

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