"I know you’ve heard the stories
But they all sound too good to be true
You’ve heard about a place called home
But there doesn’t seem to be one for you
So one more night you cry yourself to sleep
And drift off to a distant dream
Where love takes you in
and everything changes
A miracle starts with the beat of a heart
When love takes you home
and says you belong here
The loneliness ends
and a new life begins
When love takes you in..."
- Steven Curtis Chapman
I heard "When Love Takes You In," the other day and found myself thinking about our "home" here in St. Louis. I am not talking about the house we have put our furniture in, the neighborhood that hosts our house, the driveway where we park our car, or the yard our children play in. And it wasn't camp. I was surprised to realize that I was actually thinking about St. Louis. I couldn't imagine that I had genuine feelings of "home," and they weren't settled deep in the heart of Colorado's Arkansas Valley...or, somewhere off the coast of Maine.
But this was a different feeling. It didn't undermine the sense of home I experience with such fullness at camp. In fact, it complimented it. And woven into those feelings of "home" were golden threads of gratitude for an amazing group of people who have taken us in, and made us feel like we belong. People who have, by letting us serve along side them, shown us that our humble gifts have a holy purpose, are received with gratitude, and that we make a difference. I am talking about our church family.
To be honest, I have never known anything quite like it.
I've belonged to a number of wonderful, lovely churches over the years. I've loved serving my community through Christian fellowship. I've enjoyed serving on boards, teaching Sunday School, reading, ushering, representing the congregation on interfaith councils, weeding the flower beds, and painting the nursery. I've loved church work. I still do.
But this is different. And it goes against everything I've always thought about church membership. My model had always been one of standing back to back with others who care about the community at large, and looking outward in service. I've never, ever, thought I wanted, or needed, to be part of a congregation that looked around the room at eachother. For me, church services were for the visitor, testimonies of healing and inspiration shared at mid-week meetings were held for the purpose of introducing newcomers to the power of practical spirituality. We were all there to serve the stranger, the wanderer, the fallen...not eachother.
But that was before I tripped, and fell...and landed hard.
The church I'd been attending at the time was a lovely place with many kind, amazing people. But I felt embarrassed, and in the context of that familiar setting I was very aware that I'd outgrown my paradigm. I was not the same person who'd been so self-certain about what she believed. The church I started attending in my new neighborhood, was cavernous, and although the ushers were warm and polite, I often wept silently through the deeply moving readings, and left with red eyes and a swollen face. I didn't know how to bridge their respectful distance, and since no one approached me, I made no real connections. I knew it was because they were trying to respect my privacy, but I needed something different and I didn't even know what it was. I was starting to feel like a church failure. Shouldn't I be able to feel "at home" anywhere?
At a recent meeting, a friend shared a thought-provoking view of church. She offered that different church congregations are not actually separate church entities, but rather more akin to different committees within a larger spiritual community. And that we are drawn to the committee, and the committee-work, that best fits us...our needs, our gifts, and our desire to serve. But that, in actuality, there is really just one church. In retrospect, I could see that during that time, I just hadn't found my "committee"...yet.
I didn't need politeness, I needed someone to take me by the shoulders, look me in the eyes, pull me in, hug me hard and long....and then hand me an apron and show me the way to the kitchen and a large sink full of dishes needing to be washed, dried and put away. In all of my church wanderings I had felt welcomed and cared for, but not "at home." I was looking for the kind of mothering I had grown up with...from my church. Even though I didn't recognize it at the time.
Then one Sunday in the midst of my church" homelessness." I found myself sitting on a folding chair in the main room of a small urban storefront, and I knew it was over, I was home. Yes, I knew some of the people who were in attendance, and in fact, I a few of them quite well. But that wasn't why I'd come that day. I'd come with an ache for something I couldn't even describe. And right away I felt like Alice coming back through the looking glass...everything made sense again.
Somehow I knew that within the space of this church family, where there weren't any expectations about who I was...or had been, I could find a new way of thinking about church. One that was, for me, felt "practically perfect in every way." In the embrace of this wonderfully colorful, and creative, congregation I, still, feel only a willingness to "receive" visitors and members alike, as fellow searchers, hungry for whatever would feed our "soul"...be it song, sermon, or science. And that Sunday, I immediately felt as if evey heart "had prepared Him room." They were ready to welcome the Christ in anyone who walked through the door. In their company, I felt the space to be new. A fresh, healing breeze blew through their hearts, and it swept me up in its wake, clearing away all the cobwebs that had gathered in the corners of my own sorrow-filled closet, setting me free to breathe, and smile, and serve...again.
Yes, our Society, like so many other churches, is committed to serving the larger community, and I am just so grateful that it is never at the expense of caring for one another...or vice versa. There is a lovely balance between fellowship and community service, and the devotion to maintaining that delicate balance, fills my heart with humble gratitude and joy.
Our little church is a wonderful, funny space filled with guitars and recorders, folksingers, dogs, babies, hot chocolates, couches, folding chairs, and buckets of red and black licorice. We are regularly referred to as the "hippie church" and I feel as giddy and happy as a child everytime I hear it. It is perfect for me. Just like Goldilocks and the "just right" bowl of porridge. I love that I have never once thought about what I am wearing, whether my hair is brushed, or if I even have shoes on when I head off to church. All I can think about is how close to God, my fellow worshippers, our community, and the world, I feel each time I walk through our doors.
I see Susan, Sue, Carey, Suzette, Cynthia, Richard, Ian, Gail, Dee, Charlotte, Kathi, Sara, Sally, Kristin, Phil, Christie, Gale, Jeff, Carol, Elizabeth, Dinah, Emily, Gretchen, Larry, Shari, Ryan, Preston, Ken, Yvonne, Fabienne, Jim, Cooper, David, SueEllen, Penny, Winsome...and the rest of the family, and I know I am "received" unconditionally. With them I know with absolute certainty that my mistakes are not as important as my desire for redemption and grace, I never feel judged or measured, there are no hierarchies or jockeying for position, and our traditions have more to do with cookies than rules.
It is in this home, in this family, in this church that I have learned so much about the meaning of redemption, forgiveness, grace, and sanctuary.
It Is here that I have felt the "power of the Word" moving through the congregation like a warm river dissolving the past...hardness is healed, hearts are softened, lives are transformed, and sorrow is lifted...right before our eyes...with the gentle touch of the Christ. Kindness does that.
I love my church home. I love my church family. I feel so honored and blessed to live, and work, and play, and sing among them.
Thank you for preparing room in your hearts, and receiving us into your fold...I love you all,
Kate Robertson, CS
[photo credit: Ashley Bay 2009]