Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Church: Visiting a Foreign Land

I think I'm weird. Last week we were on vacation. And on Sunday morning, I do what I always do: I went to church.

I'm a pastor and going to church is something I do every week. So maybe you'd think I would NOT go to church when I'm on vacation. But I did.

We were vacationing out of town. We were visiting a lakeside city, a few feet off of one of the great lakes. The sunrises were beautiful. The waves were awe-inspiring. The whole family fell in love with the location, and we're not what I would describe as "beach people". The time away and the specific place were just perfect for us.

And when Sunday rolled around, I got up and went to church...twice...at two different churches.

The first church started at 8:30 a.m. (I told you I'm weird.) And apparently I've infected the next generation.

One of my teenage daughters had been asking about a particular denomination and what their worship was like. So she got up with me. (The irony is not lost on me. A teenager I have trouble getting up each and every Sunday morning to go to our church is willing, [eager?] to get up and go with me to a strange one on vacation!)

As I walked out of my room that morning, my daughter looks at my jeans and says, "That's what you're wearing?!" I assured her that the dress she chose, and the jeans I was wearing would both be within the continuum of acceptable where we were going. (I was pretty sure I was right. But not 100%.)

And from that moment on, I got a whole new perspective on how scary it can be to go somewhere you're not sure you belong, and a whole new appreciation for how much weekly attenders take for granted, that visitors may find new or strange.

We arrived a few minutes late. The parking lot was packed. And it was raining. Do we wimp out and head home? No. We're going to do this.

We park, dash into the church, trying to avoid the rain drops.

We arrive at the back of the "big room" (we call it a sanctuary in our tradition), and peer through the windows asking ourselves, "Is there any room for us at the back...preferably on an aisle?"

I think there may be room for the 2 of us to squeeze in, next to that family.

So we did. The 10-year-old at the end of the line seemed a little uncomfortable, but he accommodated us.

From there it was a strange combination of standing up and sitting down (we had to watch everyone else to know what to do), finding the right page in the song book, listening as the group recited words we didn't know, and occasionally hitting a few familiar words that we were able to join in on (The Lord's Prayer was comforting).

One particular song started out with a familiar musical phrase that we knew. But just about the time we started to sing along, the melody everyone else was singing changed.

It reminds me of when we're in the family van, singing a song to the radio, and the person up front decides to turn off the volume and catch one or two other family members still singing along at the top of their lungs, without the music.

After we left, my daughter had lots of questions and lots of opinions. The scripture story about Jesus walking on the water was something we could identify with. (I will never forget the combination of hearing the story and looking out the window at Lake Huron.)

We would have left without talking to anyone or anyone talking to us except for the informality of the formal moment in the service when people "passed the peace" (something we don't normally do in our tradition).

We headed back to our home base for the week, picked up the rest of the family, and headed off to church number two for the morning.

It was a denomination different from ours too.

Again the parking lot was packed. But this time we arrived early enough to find a seat comfortably. (Although I must admit I kept asking myself, "Did we take anyone's seat? Does another family normally sit here?")

The most uncomfortable moment came when the person up front asked visitors to stand up and introduce themselves, a daunting task in front of 200 people you don't know. (We had hoped to sneak in, unnoticed, worship, and head out covertly.) As other visitors popped up and down, we sat nervously, hoping they wouldn't point to us and say, "And who are you?!"

They didn't. And we never offered.

Finally the moment passed, we were able to join in worship and go on like we were part of the group.

It was a different ritual or liturgy. No passing the peace or Lord's Prayer. But the songs were familiar. The style of the sermon was comforting to my teenagers. When I asked what they liked about the service "the pastor was funny" seemed to rank high on their list.

I came home to my church with a new appreciation for those of you who don't go to church regularly, but are thinking about it.

So if you don't normally attend church and aren't sure what to expect if you did darken the door, I invite you to visit us. I'm not saying you'll know everything that happens in advance or be familiar with it all ahead of time. But you will find people who are sympathetic to the risk you're taking. I know. I've been there. Twice in one day.

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