My parents moved to our town last summer. They wanted to be closer to my children, so they sold their house in Texas, bought a lovely old home in the nicest part of our seedy old neighborhood, and moved in last August.
My dad decided he wants my kids to see their grandpa attending church every Sunday. He is thinking ahead to the day when they only have memories of him, and he wants them to remember him praying and worshiping. So even though my dad is a retired Baptist minister, he and mom come every week to our congregation of Presbyterians.
It has been hard for my mom, who prefers churches where visitors are made to stand up during the service to get a big sticker so everyone can identify them as such. This makes her feel welcome. It would make me feel hunted, but then my mother and I are very different people. She wants a Sunday school class where everyone talks about their feelings; those classes make me itch. I like being in an introverted church where I can go weeks without anyone hugging me; my mother suspects introversion is a liberal plot to suppress the gospel.
So they come to church with us, but every now and then my mom skips out on "God's frozen people" and attends somewhere else. I remind myself that she misses her friends in Texas, and I try not to take it personally. But it started me thinking about how people choose their congregations, and how I ended up where I am.
When I first met my husband, he attended a small Presbyterian congregation in the neighborhood we lived in at the time. I asked him why he went to that particular church and he said something like, "Because Jesus wants me to love people, so I go where there are people who are hard to love." I blinked at that. Until that moment, I think I had always considered church the place where Christians go to receive comforts and encouragement, rather than the testing ground where they deliberately try to live out the faith. I thought of church as a place to rest, not the place to exercise.
Since then, I have come to see things his way. I have seen a lot of people - maybe most of my Christian friends - cast around for a congregation where they feel at home, a place where the style of worship suits their tastes and the political expressions match their own. They stay until some burr in their experience there gets too uncomfortable, and then they go somewhere else. Sometimes the reasons are significant and understandable; sometimes they seem petty. But the search for a new church usually means a place where most people are the same age or the same social class. Homogeneity, we learned in Church Growth class in seminary, helps congregations grow.
One of my own biblical heroes is Tamar, who remained faithful despite years of mistreatment and betrayal from the house of Judah. She has been an example to me for many years of the scandalous faithfulness that God has for me. If I am to show that kind of faithfulness to others, sometimes it has to be hard.
So I don't want to go to a church where most folks are like me, and everyone "shares the vision." I don't want to go to a church where everyone is friendly, or even friendly in an introvert-acceptable way. I want a church with cranky old folks and lazy young folks. I want to be where there are stuffy curmudgeons who never crack a smile, and fragile weepers who consider my sarcasm a sin. When I sit down next to an eighty-year-old woman who is mad at the children for squirming as all children do (except for hers fifty years ago, supposedly), a woman who resents the shade of lipstick on the preacher's wife (or the preacher), a woman who firmly believes that she has not been listened to properly for the last thirty years and somehow it is your own personal fault and now she will explain why - when I sit next to that woman at fellowship hour and love her, then I know I have been in church.
Church isn't the place you go to find people who are always nice to you. Church is not the place where you fit seamlessly, no scratches or pinches, like slipping into a favorite pair of jeans. It's not even the place where you can depend on everybody believing the things you do. Church is a community of people, brought there in the name of Christ (knowingly or not), each with their own flaws and sins and virtues. Church is the wheat and the weeds sown together, awaiting the harvest.
I show up with grace for the flaws of others, and lean hard on those who have grace for me. I bite my tongue sometimes, I remind myself to speak up others, and even (have mercy upon me, O Lord) accept the occasional hug.
And I hope, in that distant (please God) future when my children have only memories of me, they remember me going to church with kindness for the unkind, patience for the impatient, and love for the unlovely.
And if they don't, may they have the grace to forgive it.