This is the first in a new blog series that is simply entitled "Essays". These will be more creative pieces, with dashes of storytelling and reflection and occasionally a pinch of humor. They won't follow any particular formula, and will more often than not simply be my way of processing life. Enjoy!
I grew up on the velvet cushioned seats of comfortable churches.
It wasn’t a deliberate move on my parent’s part to keep us in comfortable, easy places...it was simply a matter of routine and familiarity. Like so many American families, Church was a thing we did instead of the way we lived. It was a comfortable box to check, right next to “five bedroom home”, “American flag on the front porch”, and “Conservative political viewpoints”.
But here’s the thing about comfortable Christianity: it doesn’t move you closer to the Gospel. There’s no need for the Gospel if life is easy and snug and tidy. The Cross can stay hung up on that stained glass window, thank you very much.
I grew up on Sleek, Produced performances of praise.
The check-a-box church culture creates an accommodating environment for manufactured worship music. It’s not deliberate or diabolical...it’s simply the way it’s been done. Worship is an art show instead of an atonement, a performance instead of an offering. It’s to warm up the crowd and give us fuzzy feelings.
But here’s the thing about concert Christianity: it doesn't move you closer to the Gospel. There's no need for the Gospel in the middle of a performance, because we've made ourselves the center of attention. The Cross needn't impose on our place in the spotlight, thank you very much.
I grew up on Artificial grape juice and wafers.
Communion felt more perfunctory than anything else, simply another step in the church routine. Sing, sit, sermon, supper of the Lord, sing, stand, shake hands. I’m ashamed of the casual way I approached Communion - seeing it as a perfunctory ritual rather than prayerful remembrance - glossing over what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 11 concerning those who partake in an unworthy manner. I let the stale wafer and syrupy sweet grape juice pass my lips and rush straight past my heart.
But here’s the thing about contrived Christianity: it doesn’t move you closer to the Gospel. There’s no need for the Gospel if we aren’t honest about our busted up bleeding hearts. Jesus’ broken body and His poured out blood can stay in that glib pre-Communion speech, thank you very much.
Then we tried a new church.
I won't sit here and pretend that any church is perfect, or that we're somehow "better" because we left a mega-church in favor of a pint-sized flock. I'm simply going to tell you what happened when we walked away from what a comfortable, cookie-cutter country club of a church and folded ourselves into a humble, ragtag group of believers.
Disclaimer: there's this temptation in Christian circles to think that smaller is better, that the barer the bones means the better the believers. This isn't true.
What is true is this: the Gospel is for all people in all places.
But, back to the new church.
It's small. It meets in another church's building on Sunday nights. It's mostly college students and young couples. There are two pastors on staff and exactly zero moving fancy LED spotlights. The first Sunday we were there, the sermon was "Sex, Marriage, and the Gospel." I've had three separate conversations with the lead pastor about how to make iced coffee for the summer services.
What caught me off guard, though, was this: they use real wine at communion.
The first time we had communion there, I took my torn piece of bread and dipped it in the blood red wine, cupping my hand under the soaked bit of loaf as I made my way back to my threadbare seat. I remember studying the crimson stained bit of bread, the meaning of communion becoming more real than a teensy wafer and shot glass of grape juice had ever represented.
This is My Body, broken for you. This is My Blood, poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20)
The bread and wine tasted bitter and strong on my tongue, a shock after years of Welch's and freeze dried flour. And suddenly, the Gospel made a little bit more sense. The Cross became a little bit more real.
The Cross was a bitter thing for Jesus to bear.
A bitter, horrible, unimaginably painful thing.
And yet. It's the sweetest gift that could ever possibly be given.
Every bitter thing is sweet.