When we talk about church, we usually assume we all mean the same experience, but church looks different to each of us. I don’t just mean the ways different denominations celebrate, and I don’t mean pipe organ versus electric guitar. I mean what we get out of church. You’ve probably had seasons when you show up like a brittle sponge, ready to soak up the goodness of friends, your favorite worship music, and poignant sermons filled with God’s love for you.
You’ve also probably had times when you drag yourself to church, bitter and blind to anything good happening there at all. This is a story about that second kind of season.
It started with our twins’ Baptism, which goes down in our family history as one of our most stressful events. The anxiety was thanks to me acting like a control freak, the unpredictability of two infants, an attention-deprived toddler, and several out-of-town guests, all gathered for one long church service. I started with good intentions, but the Baptism quickly moved from Sunday sacrament to wedding-level planning. What should the twins wear?
Which godparent would hold which baby? Which Bible verses on which banner? And what about the pictures? Should the rest of us be in bright colors or white? What were appropriate favors for a Baptism party? Was it weird or festive for the babies to wear socks with crosses embroidered on them?
The night before, when I realized Sam didn’t have a white swaddling blanket, I just about lost my mind. Everyone would be cringing at his ratty blue blanket, and the pictures would look ridiculous. At nine o’clock that night, I sent my bleary-eyed husband to Target for a Baptism-appropriate blanket.
I ask you, what is a Baptism-appropriate blanket?
Looking back, I can see that this crazy, hyper-controlled event started a season of what church looked like for us. Our kids were very small, and church became a stressful hour of keeping babies and toddlers shushed. On Sunday morning, we packed their industrial-size diaper bags with enough pacifiers and coloring books to keep everyone quiet for the hour. Still, we could never make it through a service without one of the kids crying. More than once, Mike and I stood in the narthex together, me trying to discreetly breastfeed in a church dress while he reprimanded Catie for flying paper airplanes.
I started to dislike Sunday mornings. Church meant having to fix everyone’s hair, wear special clothes, stand and sit, and follow so many rules. At this point in my life, I wasn’t showering regularly, drinking coffee or wine (thanks, breastfeeding), or sleeping through the night. I fantasized about freedom,about locking myself in my closet and reading People while eating handfuls of cookie dough. Church was pretty much the opposite of all that.
One Sunday, the kids were sick and we missed. Sleeping in and not having to wrestle kids into Sunday outfits and car seats was so nice. The next Sunday, another kid had a cough, and we missed again. I felt guilty about not being at church—but not that guilty. We missed the next week too, just because we couldn’t get out the door in time. We were so late we decided to just go out for donuts.
The next week, it was six thousand times harder to get to church. And when we got there, it was a Baptism Sunday for another family, which meant the service would be very, very long.
This family with the baby getting baptized had several other kids, but theirs were teenagers, and this last baby had been a surprise. The baby didn’t have five godparents or seven pews of family members in attendance. Instead, just the immediate family gathered around the font. They were in jeans and tennisshoes. The baby was wearing a (blue!) onesie.
As the pastor poured the water over the infant’s head, the mom started to cry. She watched this holy moment with such transcendence on her face. It’s the look people sometimes get when taking Communion. For the first time since the twins were baptized, I saw that sacrament forwhat it was. Not what the baby was wearing, not if the shoes of the siblings were tied, not whether the mom had lost the baby weight. In that moment,I remembered something bigger was happening at church than what was going on in my tiny pew.
More than that, I felt incredibly aware of that other mom’s spiritual vulnerability.
It was clear by her face, by her priorities, by her tears that her heart was soft, fertile ground for the seed of faith. She was able to see the miracle of God claiming His child.
How different had church been for her these past few months? Had she understood that worship is so much more than what the kids are wearing, more than rules about when to sit and stand, more than a chore? How had God’s Word changed her during these church services—while I was checking my watch, hoping we would make pancakes at McDonalds?
When had I become such a cynic, so controlling and self-absorbed? When had my view of God and church shrunk? I felt like the kid who misses the shooting star because she’s fiddling with her flashlight. God was so much bigger than my limitations. I was tired and stressed out; God wasn’t.
Part of taking a Sabbath is realizing the experience probably will do very little for your pride. For those of us who find our value in checking things off our to-do lists, the act of quiet worship may seem like a waste of time. But God wants us to realize why this is not true. He knows that the other parts of us—the parts that are not pride, conceit, and ego—need worship desperately. This is the reason He tells us to rest and worship.
That tender, vulnerable part of you, the part where the Holy Spirit is working, is so ready to hear the faith-fortifying words in the sermon, to pray and sing praise songs with hundreds of others, and to see God’s holy work. –Excerpted from pp. 55-57, Love Rules by Christina Hergenrader, Concordia Publishing House, 2015
Let’s Spread Some LOVE this Valentines Day! I want to send a woman you love a copy of my newest book, Love Rules.