Monday, June 6, 2011

Prodigal Sons Part 2

I pulled into the parking lot of Grace Baptist and it seemed every bit as nice as it had on my drive past earlier. There were a handful of church busses and vans which to me spoke to a community outreach on the part of the church. Seemed healthy. The real first test, though, would come once I stepped through the doors and saw how welcoming this place would be.

Part of the reason I look for a church to be welcoming of new faces is that my dad always used to say that I should be wary of any church that was not. If you went to a church for the first time and no one said hello to you, it was maybe not the place you needed to be, he said. Even at really big churches, members know who they have and haven't seen before. I was no sooner through the front door of Grace Baptist, though, when a lady caught sight of me and walked up to shake my hand. She welcomed me in and asked if I already knew people in the church. I told her, no, but that I'd driven past earlier and thought I'd try it out. She then led me back to introduce me to the pastor and nearly anyone else who we passed on the way to and from. Everyone seemed very nice and equally welcoming.

The funny thing was, I felt I had to resist the urge to tell everyone about the events of my morning that led me to be there. What if I sold them on my road to Damascus tale, only to find out I’d walked into a snake handling church full of folks who were pissed off that the rapture had gone south last weekend? Fortunately, this did not seem to be the case

As I entered the sanctuary everyone seemed happy to be there. And there were a lot of them. The lady who had greeted me earlier apologized that attendance was so light that day because a lot of people were away for Memorial Day. Looking around, though, I thought there had to be at least 300 people there. This was a light day?

Not three steps into the sanctuary, I spotted the lady and her son who’d asked directions earlier. This was the closest I came to telling of telling anyone my story from that morning, but as they had been as big a part of it as I had been, I felt a little better. I reintroduced myself to them. "Oh, you were the man walking your dogs," she said, a little surprised. I must look much different when I'm wearing a sport coat and not pajama shorts. I then said something about how I thought it was too big a coincidence they’d asked about the church I’d driven past, so I was just following the signs. They smiled at this and seemed to take it well enough, but I couldn’t help feeling odd about it--almost like I'd just said, "I follered yew ta church tudaaay, cause it was our destineeeee!" To counteract this feeling, I smiled and nodded farewell and quickly booked it for a pew well away from them and then made it a point to never look at them again.

Sitting there before the service, having seemingly been brought to the church by a sign from God, I was prepared to receive some sort of important message. I expected it would be blazingly obvious, like the beam of heavenly light that hit Jake in The Blues Brothers, just before he went flipping down the aisle of James Brown’s church. I was prepared for my experience to push all the right church buttons in me: the choir would sound amazing, the preaching would be inspiring, someone would give me five dollars and I would know I'd found a new church home. That didn’t really happen so much, though. In fact, I'm not sure if that's ever happened for me.

Our previous church home, back when we lived in Tri-Metro, was at a church we had initially dismissed as a bit too white-bread. The service there was fine enough the first couple of times we went, but it was a different experience from our church back in Charlotte, where we usually left feeling equal parts uplifted and convicted of our failings. Just when we were about to dismiss the church, though, we visited a couple of the churches I mentioned in the previous installment, with the ribbon worship and the group hugs and the seemingly ever-present danger of encountering a serpent. Suddenly white-bread didn't sound so bad. We dashed back there and, within a few weeks, saw that it was far from the church we first assumed it to be. We came to love that church and developed bonds to many of the people there that still hold up today. It was where I not only came out of my shell a bit, but started singing in the choir and eventually sang solos in church and acted in and directed plays there. We really came to love it.

Once we moved to Borderland, we tried a couple of churches, but wound up joining one that had come recommended to us by folks in Tri-Metro. And I'm going to place the blame for our failure to make that new church our "church home" squarely on our own shoulders. In the year and a half we attended there, we never really gave it a fair shake. We didn't attend Sunday school, no matter how many people invited us to their classes, we didn't join the choir, we only went to a handful of outside church activities, we almost went out of our way not to make new friends. I think it was sort of like we were afraid the place wouldn't live up to our old church, so we just refused to let it try. We showed up on Sunday, said howdy to folks around us, mostly enjoyed the services and then made for the parking lot.

When it comes down to it, and despite occasional appearances to the contrary, we're both fairly shy people and it's hard to get us out of our shell. Even back in Tri-Metro, it took a good couple of years for us to find our footing and a lot of that had to do with being drafted into directing church plays, or acting, or joining the choir, etc. Relationship building is tough work and requires work that we just did not put into our first church in Borderland. And, at least for me, half the reason we stopped going was because after so many weeks it just felt embarrassing to go back and admit you'd been skipping church. Neither of us ever wanted to become the kind of people who only attend church at Christmas and Easter, so we became the kind of people who just didn't go at all.


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