I love talking to people who are looking for a church. When they walk through the doors at my lovely place of worship, my instinct is to welcome them home because in my mind, their search should be over. But that’s really too forward for ninety percent of the world and frankly, the Anglican church isn’t for everyone (I don’t mean that, but I have to say it).
I say this because a couple who’d been looking for a church for nearly six months showed up at my small group this week after attending Sunday’s service. Among many things, we discussed how awful it is looking for a church in Boise, Idaho. We aren’t anything like the Bible Belt (Thank God? Yeah, I think I mean that) but we have tons of churches here. In spite of the numerous congregations we have to choose from, the variety is lacking. One can go to four different churches in a month and feel like they’ve been in the same one the entire time. It’s eery- or annoying.
I listened as this couple rattled off the list of congregations they’d visited and decided not to join, knowing their pain. I remembered my own Ecclesiastical Promiscuity after I’d left the church I got saved in for various reasons. I also told them what at one point was one of my favorite stories about that season.
Having worked at my last church, I knew that I couldn’t judge a church on its Sunday services. It’s easy enough to pretend to get that right and get the rest of the week wrong. So, when I thought I’d found a church I could at least tolerate (my hunt for a new community was immensely discouraging) I joined a small group, hoping to understand the people there better.
My first night in attendance was actually the group’s second meeting. “Awesome”, I said to myself, “I don’t have to break into an already tight-knit group.”
Normally, when I tell this story, I elaborate on each of the characters I met at this gathering. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that we had an incredibly unexperienced leader, a twice-widowed woman who may have been investigated for the death of both husbands, a man who may have been a follower of Lord Voldemort and then some less memorable people (that sounds mean, doesn’t it? I am aiming for brevity, though).
The format of each small group was to get together and discuss Sunday’s sermon. Because this gathering was new, the leader felt that it was necessary to include an icebreaker. The purpose of such a thing is to break down any social barriers (age, race, appearance) to make us realize that we have things in common. Things like needing to breathe and use the restroom, among others likely more significant.
A giant bowl of Starbursts called out to us from a coffee table. The person in charge had asked us to refrain from eating any of the sugary goodness until we started her game. At which point, we were instructed to grab a big handful of the candies. Having spent enough time around church people and being significantly leery of them at this point, I grabbed four candies from the glass dish. I can’t really recall what all the colors represented, but each participant had to share something like a desire for each yellow Starburst they’d grabbed. Another color candy was something we love, and so on. I do remember that for each red Starburst a person grabbed, they had to share a fear. I glanced at the four candies in my hand. I only had one red. “Thank you, Jesus.” I thought.
I didn’t mind hearing about everyone’s desires, loves and fears, but as we went around the circle, I realized that these people were divulging significant issues in their lives- things that I’d only share with my closest friends- or a psychologist. My response to that? I was pissed. They were doing it wrong. “This isn’t a healthy way to build community.” I thought, “These people are codependent.”
When it came to me to share my fears, I slammed the solitary cherry candy on the table and exclaimed, “Spiders!” with a defiant look on my face. I didn’t want to play along. Relationships wherein we talk about significant fears take more time than an evening and an icebreaker can offer.
I was assigned snack duty for the next meeting. I showed up with cheese, crackers and humus, knocked on the door, delivered the goods and left. I’d decided that church wasn’t the one for me.
Meanwhile, back at my current small group….
As I shared this story with the people who were trying my own small group for the first time, I realized that my feelings toward the experience had somehow changed. Instead of announcing that they were doing it wrong, I realized that I’d landed in a group of incredibly lonely people who needed to share those things. They needed intimacy so badly that they skipped the American formalities and just opened up to strangers. I panicked in the middle of acting out the slamming down of the red Starburst. My hesitance was obvious.
My relationship to the story had changed.
How could that happen? That story is static- in the past, unchangeable forever. Its permanence cemented by the fact that I haven’t seen most of that group after that visit. Since the discovery of DNA technology, several convicted criminals have been freed from prison. Some, after decades behind bars. Their stories changed because of new evidence. This experience didn’t need that. Nothing would change it, unless the Lord showed me demons interfering with my ability to accept the people at that group as my own. But so far, that hasn’t happened. And I might not care enough to look for that anyway.
The only explanation is that I have changed. By the grace of God, I’m different. I’ve told that story dozens of times, but I’m not sure that I can share it in the same way anymore. My relationship to the awkward small group of more than two years ago has been impacted by who I am now. I’m seeing it in other things, too.
God is (sometimes) making me less cynical and less grumpy. This is incredibly unfortunate because my sense of humor has largely been founded on anger and cynicism. God is killing my sense of humor. I suppose it’s okay, because an eternity with Jesus is better than trying to tell jokes from a lake of fire.
“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” – Rev. 12:11
Jesus’ blood is the best thing ever. Not loving our lives unto death, I’m working on that one. But the word of our testimony? That’s our story. It’s the path written out for us however long ago by God Himself. Our relationship to that can change, too. Isn’t that scary? Perhaps it’s good. Or neutral. It’s so easy, after a nasty ending of a friendship to see all of the good times in the light of bitterness. But frankly, lingering hurt can ruin moments of happiness if we let it. If we allow it to change our relationship to those moments.
Things in the past don’t change, unless new DNA evidence is discovered. We change. New, hopefully more mature filters impact our vision of the past. Sometimes, it’s clearly good. Other times, I bet this is actually painful. But I think it’s something that the Lord does as he matures us. I could be wrong. But I’m just feigning humility by saying that.