As many of you no doubt have gleaned, I am not a morning person. Coffee does no good; it gives me crushing headaches which, ironically, are only cured by sleep. Consequently, if I make it out of bed at all before ten, I tend to be a sad, sad sight.
So why was I up, and chipper at that, last Sunday morning at seven-thirty?
Why, to walk down the country road that leads from my partner’s parents’ house to a certain church about a mile away. Their earliest service is at eight-fifteen, and goodness knows I wanted to get church in as early in the day as possible, before my partner’s family’s household could whisk me away and treat me to breakfast, which is what they do on Sunday mornings instead of this insanity.
Also worth mentioning is that the church building in question is very ugly, large and brown-gray and thoroughly modern, with all the charm of the big box store. My partner’s family members seldom drive by this building without remarking on what a hulking eyesore it is (and since it’s on their way to town, they drive past it often). They have repeatedly asked me why I would go there and not somewhere else, gently trying to steer me toward the Lutheran and Pentecostal churches that are also in the neighborhood, but not such a visual blight on it.
Why do I insist on going to the ugly church? The practical answer is that I know where it is and not even I could get lost on the way, not even at seven-thirty in the morning. But the real answer is that, honestly, I am not too picky about church gatherings. If there’s a group of people worshiping Jesus, reading the Bible, celebrating communion, and singing as a group (with or without hand-waving), I’m totally there.
I’m pretty much driven to church by hunger, a craving for this particular type of spiritual food, this common table. Not having eaten for a week means I don’t much care if the food isn’t served just the way I like it; I’ll eat it and be thankful.
I loved the church service that morning, despite its many differences from the Catholic worship services I normally attend. The songs were different: “Blessed Assurance” rather than “You Are Mine,” “O Thou Fount of Every Blessing” rather than “Anthem.” There was no altar, and the focal point of the room was not a crucifix, but a Powerpoint display showing song lyrics and Scripture quotes. Probably the biggest difference was that Communion came before the sermon, quietly, served to you in your seat, with the words “in remembrance” projected nice and big on the screen.
At Mass, of course, Communion is the high point of the service because of our belief that, mysteriously, Jesus is really there, a Presence we can eat and drink and metabolize, becoming connected to him and to other members of his Body through the sacrament. Don’t ask me how it works, but I feel it, something happening in me that I don’t feel if I miss Communion for a week. I felt it there in that ugly boxy room. I ate the wafer and drank the grape juice and it fed my soul just the same.
So when people ask me why I’d go to this church, so different from my own, so seemingly unappealing from the outside, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Because that’s where the action is. Because I’m hungry, and as long as I get fed (and inspired to feed others throughout the week), I don’t much care where.
Plus, any followers of Jesus are, in a mystical but still very real way, my family. So asking, “Why would you go to a church that’s so ugly?” is like asking, “Why would you want to hang out with your mother? She wears such unflattering sweatpants.” Not that my mother does; this is entirely hypothetical, but the point is, who cares. Unless you’re a callous preteen, you’re not going to avoid your own mother over sweatpants, horrendously tacky though they may be. You love her, you want to spend time with her, end of story.
Church, when it works, is basically Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes you’re sitting around that big table with people you’d never be friends with otherwise. People who are your political opposites and love to argue about it. People who don’t respect you or get what you’re trying to do with your life. People who just plain drive you nuts. A big mess of broken people, choosing to overlook everyone’s blatant deficiencies, bad taste, bad decisions, ugliness, so they can share a feast that declares they are family.
So thank God I can drag my sorry self to that ugly church at what feels to me like the crack of dawn. Thank God they feed me – and for free. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll be there. Me and the little church and the big Church, we’re all echoes of each other, ugly as sin but brilliant with hope.