For the past several months, I’ve been attending a small Presbyterian church here in Lincoln, and it’s been quite an interesting and positive experience. I wasn’t raised Presbyterian, and by and large, I don’t have too many denominational hangups. However, the church was close to where I live and I knew a couple people who went there. And more importantly, I was looking for a change.
After I’d graduated from college, I kept attending the college group at my previous church — which turned out to be a mistake. There’s nothing worse than walking into a room of 400 people (yes, that’s how big the college group was) and realizing that you’re 7 or 8 years older than 80% of the people there. I felt increasingly irrelevant, unable (and perhaps somewhat unwilling) to connect with anyone without coming across as that guy.
I wandered about the building, unsure of where to go. I didn’t want to go to the Singles group (read: meat market) and I didn’t know which Adult ministry or class to get involved in. I became a wallflower, lost in my own brooding and uncertainty, growing more and more disillusioned — not with Christianity or the Church per se, but more with how I fit into them. Not with how relevant they were to me, but how relevant I could be to them.
I tried one church in southern Lincoln, but it was closer to the charismatic side of the spectrum and the charismatic approach has never held much appeal for me. Also, it was another big church and I was tired of big churches. I needed something small and organic, intimate and human. And so I came to Zion.
I’m not entirely convinced that Providence wasn’t involved in my first visit to Zion. During Communion — which is held every week, a new experience for me who was coming from churches where Communion was a “special event” practiced once every few months — I halfheartedly picked up a chunk of bread from the plate. The pieces of bread hadn’t been fully torn apart, and so I ended up with about 2 or 3 pieces loosely connected and dangling there from my fingers.
I’m no expert in Communion etiquette. Should I keep the pieces? Should I break them apart? Whatever the case, I was holding up the line and needed to choose quickly. I looked up at the elder who had handed me the plate, hoping he might tell me what to do. He saw my predicament, smiled, and simply said “Consider it an extra helping of grace.” His words just floored me, and as I passed the plate down the pew, holding the unwieldy chunk of bread in my palm, they echoed inside my head. “An extra helping of grace.” Although I knew it, his words confirmed it: I was searching for grace.
I have always been searching for grace.
The man probably never thought twice of what he said, and to be honest, I couldn’t point him out to you in the congregation if you asked. But those words are probably what made me come back the next week, and the next, and the next after that, on up until today.
I’ve been thinking about what, exactly, it is that appeals to me about Zion. If I had to put it in a word, I’d probably have to say it’s because Zion is “flawed.” Theologically, it’s as sound as any church I’ve attended so far as I can tell. However, there are almost always bumps and hiccups in the service.
Technical glitches occur, a wireless mic cuts in and out during prayer, the organist and the horn section seem to be playing two different sets of sheet music, the lyric slideshow for the worship team always seems to be off by at least one slide, etc. And if that wasn’t enough, little kids are screaming and crying and laughing and making all sorts of ruckus throughout the service. In the churches that I was accustomed to, these distractions would be anathema, hindrances preventing the rest of the congregation from entering into worship.
In my previous church, I helped out with the technical side of the service, running Powerpoint slideshows during the worship and sermon. Before the service, we’d discuss all of the technical aspects, to make sure everyone was on the same page. And after awhile, it began to resemble a stageshow or a concert, a performance where every event was perfectly mapped out and given it’s own timeslot. (Now, in their defense, they were dealing with a congregation 20 to 30 times larger than that of Zion’s, so planning was only prudent, even if it did make for an experience that could feel manufactured at times.)
At first, when I found myself sitting next to a screaming baby or kid who just couldn’t sit still, or hearing flat trumpet notes, or watching the pastor fumble with a microphone, it was distracting. I found myself wondering how a church could perform with such a lack of professionalism (for lack of a better term).
But over time, I grew accustomed to it, even enjoying it (although a screaming kid is still annoying, even in the best of times). And I realized a few weeks ago that these flaws, which would be seen as a hindrance in bigger, more contemporary churches, were actually making me more mindful, more aware, and more compassionate. Even with the imperfections and screw-ups, or perhaps because of them, there was a very human and organic flow to things, and I was amazed at how well everyone went along with it. Everyone took it in stride with a healthy dose of laughter, and of grace.
It really hit me today, as we sang a hymn that I swear noone in the congregation, save only 2 or 3, had ever sung before. The music had a drunken, lurching swagger to it, as if caught between gears and unable to really get going. During the hymn, I almost laughed out loud several times at the absurdity of it, especially as we sang melodramatic words full of death and solemnity. My friends next to me seemed unsure as they sang — maybe they had turned to the wrong hymn? — while in the pew in front of me, a few seats to the right, a man sang for all he was worth, his uneven voice shaking as he moved his body to and fro.
Watching this, and struck by just how comical it (and, because of my participation, I) was, I thought of these two quotes from Annie Dillard:
…there’s something intrinsically hilarious about [church services]… What’s so funny? The gap between what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do. The relationship between the incongruity of who we are and who we’re trying to move with our prayers.
“In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.”
I could barely stifle my own.
In the ensuing months, I’ve been party to some wonderful things as a result of Zion, events that have done much to keep me from sliding into apathy and apostasy. A Bible study where, after delving into the book of Acts, we go out for pints. A group of people whose faith is matched by their interest in art and culture.
And I might have beheld the single most beautiful sight I saw all year in that sanctuary, as a woman stood in front of the congregation and was accepted into membership. The morning light streamed in through the huge stained glass windows, bathing her and the room in a silvery light, like something out of a Tolkien novel. Like that man’s words, it shook me and I just sat there, dumbfounded and grateful.
I don’t know how long I’ll be in Lincoln and attending Zion, but should I ever leave, I know I’ll always remember the sounds of unruly children, the musical mix-ups, the misbehaving microphones… and the flawed yet oh-so-Divine flow that binds us together for that absurd yet much-welcomed hour or so of communion and fellowship.