"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God." - Ephesians 2:19-21
I can't tell you how often people are absent from church for a while, then come back, and when they pass through the receiving line at church say sheepishly, "Sorry I haven't been here - I've been bad." They seem to expect disapproval or punishment.
In 16 years of ministry, I still haven't quite figured out what to say. I usually opt for the non-judgmental, compassionate cadence, "Of course not! We're not about guilt here! We'll be here whenever you need us!" But while this is true, there are a couple of problems with this response.
Maybe they need to be needed, and missed. Maybe they need to know there's something at stake in them not coming. That, if they are formal members, the promises they made to us mattered. And even if they are not formal members, they matter - that we notice when they are gone, and we are diminished by their absence.
Maybe they need to hear that if they do come more often, their life might just get better. I say might - churches are flawed institutions, and mine among them. But if you want to get wet, you have to get into the water. If you want grace, peace, hope, comfort, growth, you have to get into, or near, the people and places that have them.
What I want to say to people when they come before me and hang their heads is, "listen - you get out of it what you put into it." I can't say it, because it doesn't sound very pastoral, but really it's just a logic statement. You can't win if you don't play.
And God, though She rarely tells us this to our faces, needs us in church too. Some of us can only get the grace She wants to give us when we pass through that portal, into a sweet, slightly dusty, hardworking, authentic faith community. It's not that grace is unavailable elsewhere; it's just that - we're tuned to the right frequency when we're there together. Church is the structure in which Jesus is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, where we ourselves can become God's crib.
They say that 80% of life is just showing up, right?
God, help me to overcome anxiety, sleepiness, inertia, guilt, irritation, outsized expectations, the lure of brunch and all kinds of other things that don't necessarily deliver as promised, to be a regular part of a healthy faith community. I'll thank you later.
Molly Baskette is lead pastor of the quirky, loveable and truth-telling First Church Somerville UCC in Somerville, MA. Read their personal testimonies in her latest book, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession.