Church is a place for the vulnerable, not just those who have it all together
This is the aftermath of the disaster that spread throughout the service.
My 2-year-old son was talking loudly about “playing soccer ball outside” throughout the prayers. My 5-year-old daughter, overtired and bored, took several illicit trips to the bathroom and water fountain, with each return making her presence known by stomping loudly back through the sanctuary.
On the final trip, I ushered her out, where she sat on a chair, hands covering ears, screaming, while my son pulled all the books off the shelf behind him.
We know a lot of people who take off a year or more from church after their babies are born. I know why.
At times I am barely able to pull myself out of the hole of sleep deprivation, let alone gather up my two children along with a corn casserole for the after-church potluck.
I often hear from people who leave during the Young Child Years that the church projects the sense that you have to have it all together to show up at the door.
We wear our Sunday best. We pray for those “in our community,” embarrassed by the abuse, addiction and mental illness that haunt those beside us in the pew. We click our tongues and reminisce about the days when children sat placidly in the service, hands folded neatly in their laps.
If you are in the whirlwind of caring for children, the disabled or an aging relative, this simply does not feel like a place for you.
As it turns out, this is not a new story for Christianity. On this particular Sunday, after my husband finally settled down our children in the nursery, after I squeezed past the back row of the church for the fifth time, I listened to the last bit of the sermon.
My friend Isaac was preaching from 1 Corinthians, where Paul is speaking to a people captivated by the beauty of the spoken word. Paul accuses the Corinthians of being led astray by a culture intoxicated by artful lyricism even when the poetry lacked substance.
He is writing at a time when the Corinthians were under the influence of a preacher named Apollos, someone who possessed all the talents of a rhetorician—the silver tongue, the turn of phrase.
But Apollos’ eloquence betrayed a basic tenant of the gospel. God is not present in profound speeches that entertain and enlighten but in stumbling, clumsy bodies that follow after the broken body of Jesus.
This is the foolish gospel Paul preached to the Corinthians when he was with them. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one poured out for us on the cross, what Isaac called “the language of the broken body.”
Paul asks us to release ourselves into the vulnerability of being broken before one another, to be foolish and weak instead of simply talking about how we are foolish and weak. The former is rhetoric, good speech. The latter is one’s life and body being formed into something new.
When we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that church is a place for people who have it worked out—for toddlers who don’t fuss and for pain we can neatly contain—we have lost hold of the gospel.
This is our family’s experience Sunday after Sunday. In this season of life, when my husband and I spend more time in the nursery with our anxious 2-year-old than in the sanctuary, we remind ourselves that this is also where church is happening.
We know of others who experience this: the grad student whose mother is dying of cancer, the father whose difficult marriage is headed toward a separation, the woman facing crippling depression.
Here we sit in the vulnerability of our own exhaustion, at the end of our tempers, ready to call it a day.
Every Sunday our lives confess to those in our church, We need you. We need Jesus.
We can’t do this on our own.
We have good preaching here, a full roster of excellent women and men who proclaim the Word of God.
Because of these many gifts I have to remind myself that I’m not here to be entertained.
We show up, week after week, because getting here 10 minutes late with our stain-ridden, shoeless children is how we meet the person of Jesus. It may also be how we can help others to see him, too.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is licensed for ministry in Virginia Mennonite Conference and a member of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. She is pastor to children, older adults, and homebound members at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.