Saving Seats in Church

I grew up in the church I attend, which makes me a bit of a relic.

It’s an evangelical Baptist church and I live in the Bible belt, so it’s possible that I’m also somewhat religiously damaged.

It’s a good church though. We never heard sweaty preachers pounding the pulpit and screaming about the fires of hell. I walked the aisle after our vey intellectual white-haired doctoral degreed-pastor delivered a sermon from the book of Revelation. Maybe it’s all the same because when he took my hand I said, “I think I might be going to hell so here I am.” I was a dramatic adolescent, but it’s still a terrible way to start a faith journey. It’s my conversion story, however, and it probably confirms that I am, indeed, religiously damaged.

But aren’t we all?

My family always sat on the same side of our church sanctuary – about 11 rows back on three end seats. The family that sat in front of us consisted of three generations who took up about eight seats. And if you by accident forgot where your row was and sat in their seats, they asked you to move. I never found this odd, because we all had our places. My parents were fine to deviate a few rows or shift a few seats down when necessary, but it was rarely necessary. Visitors usually didn’t venture that far toward the front. They preferred the balcony where they could scan the crowd and keep a safe distance until they had a lay of the land. I don’t blame them.

One Sunday, a young couple dared to sit in the seats of the family in front of us. I had never seen this couple and they were quite obviously visiting or they would have known better than to sit in those seats. And then, the matriarch of the family came in and walked up the aisle to her row. “Excuse me,” she said leaning over and smiling tightly. Her little black purse was swinging from the crook of her arm. “Those seats are saved.”

In an instant, everything that I thought might be wrong with the church coalesced in those words. I was college-bound in a year and skirting the edges of cynicism. I sat in quiet embarrassment with my head buried in my Sunday school quarterly while the couple apologized, stood up, and scooted to the middle of the aisle. The hymns, sermon, choir songs, and everything else that made up that Sunday morning service was lost to me. I spent the entire hour glaring at the back of the old  lady’s head, wishing I was courageous enough at the end of the service to apologize to the young couple, but I just hurried out of the side of the sanctuary with a loose vow to never return.

But I returned.

And I’m still there.

As far as I know, no one saves seats anymore – or at least they don’t rudely claim them. But we still think there are those who just don’t deserve our seats. I may not be guilty of asking someone to get up and move, but I have jostled my way to the figurative communion table, thinking that I am somehow more deserving of the bread and the wine because I’ve been in the house for so long. But this is not true. I am not any more deserving than him. Or her. You know the one. The person whose sin turns our stomachs. That one individual who we smile at through clenched teeth because their lifestyle choice frightens us. We spend so much of our time protecting God by making sure that his house doesn’t get overrun with the kind of people that offend him. But God most certainly doesn’t need us to walk him across the street like he’s a little old lady.

Confession: This morning I withheld a kind comment that someone desperately needed because they were irritating me. It might seem small, but it’s not. I’m still pretty icky underneath my shiny exterior. My selfishness is not at the bottom of the hierarchy of what grieves God. Yet God welcomed me into His house and gave me the best seat and he still does. I want to do the same thing – to turn everything a little upside down by extending ridiculous grace to those who we label the worst offenders. Is this possible? I think it is. God does it every day. Maybe he’s waiting on some of us to stand up, gather up our baggage, and give our seats to the people we have barred from the house.

Growing Up Born Again

The title of this post is also the name of a book by Patricia Klein.

I think that could be me on the cover – minus the older brother (always wanted one though). We dressed in our finest for Sunday morning and I swear our church had green hymnals. In fact, I’m all over this book and so is my husband. His father was a Baptist minister, mine a Baptist deacon. We grew up in small towns: he was in Tennessee, I was in Oklahoma. We were three states apart, but we had twin experiences as kids who grew up Born Again in the South and almost-South. A few of these shared memories:

  • Sword drill competitions and scripture-memory contests
  • Pack a Pew Revivals
  • Offering envelopes with boxes to check if you: brought your Bible, attended worship, prayed daily, brought a guest
  • Choir musicals (our church youth groups both performed “Cool in the Furnace” – my husband and I can still chant the lyrics together)
  • Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night; Training Union on Sunday night
  • Lottie Moon Christmas Offering
  • Missionaries on furlough speaking on Sunday nights with the carousel slide show presentation
  • Salvation, Rededication, and Commitment to Full-time Christian Service (I did all three of these, my husband two of them)
  • Vacation Bible School complete with salutes to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible.
  • Puppet ministry (never liked this one; I have issues with puppets)
  • Church camp (me: Falls Creek, him: Camp Caswell)

A friend who also grew up Born Again gave me this book several years ago. She read it with great nostalgia and passed it along to me with the comment, “This book will make you laugh, but it will make you feel good about our spiritual heritage.”

Well, sort of. It made me laugh because I think playing rock albums backwards to find subliminal satanic messages is, in retrospect, quite humorous. So is fear of dancing and referring to a single woman as an “unclaimed blessing.” Those of us who grew up with deeply entrenched church traditions seem to spend a fair amount of our lives trying desperately to see God through the fog of routines and rituals. I’ve often wondered what my church attendance feeds more: my soul or the machine of institutionalized religious experience. Can both be fed, or should we choose one over the other? I’ll be honest – I’ve done some stints of faithful service in my church for some very bad reasons: guilt, pride, loyalty, and yes, nostalgia (Women’s Missionary Union craft fairs give me a warm feeling inside).

In my most cynical moments, I’ve wondered if there were good reasons to give up on all the traditions, rituals, and routines. In Philip Yancey’s book, Church: Why Bother, he quotes Winston Churchill as saying that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress: he supported it from the outside. Sometimes, that’s tempting. I agree with Yancey that following Jesus is one thing, but following Christians into a sanctuary is quite another.

Can I say this? My most profound encounters with God have never happened inside a church building. I’m more than willing to take full responsibility for that, but it certainly makes me wonder about all the hard work that seems to go on inside those buildings.

Several months ago, I spent the day helping two homeless friends get the battery changed in the car that held all their worldly possessions. They called me that morning and we hung out together for most of the day, waiting for the battery to be tested at two different places. We talked about everything from their wedding in a local city park to their dreams of reuniting with their children, and God was laced through every conversation. We talked nothing of church. They did not grow up Born Again, and so we had no shared nostalgic memories of Sunday school picnics or fall revivals. They would have never understood flannel boards or sword drills. But they seemed to see God pretty clearly, and God seemed to be present with us in a way that is difficult to explain, so I won’t try.

“I know we should be going to church, but it’s hard,” the wife said. I looked at her husband’s long black hair tied back in a ponytail, their dirty clothes, and the car with the junk piled to the ceiling and I concurred with her inwardly. Yes, it might be a bit hard for them to follow the Christians into the sanctuary. But perhaps if we could unleash ourselves from the rituals and routines every now and then, the church could follow people like John and Lisa into their sanctuary. What if instead of landing in a safe harbor of comfortable pews on Sunday morning, we opted for taking our “service” to one of the many places where desperate people are congregating. What if we sought out these places as sacred spots of worship?

At the Last Supper, the disciples left the upper room, singing hymns. In honor of that scripture, my father-in-law always led his congregation to sing a hymn after observing the Supper: “Blest Be The Tie That Binds.” There is an irony in the title of that hymn. When what binds us together is sharing God’s radical grace and inexplicable love with others, then the church is taking part in restoration and redemption – and that’s a blessing. But when what we share in common rests only on tradition, ritual, and routine, that is a tie that is binding. It lulls us into a place of complacency and comfort, and deafens us to the voices of those who are crying on the other side of the church walls. I agree with Philip Yancey’s conclusion that church is worth the bother. Especially for those of us who grew up Born Again and are still trying to find ways to clear away the fog.