I have mixed feelings about attending unfamiliar churches. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see the worship practices of various faith communities and meaningful to join with them in the majestic, never-ending stream of praise that, if the book of Psalms is to believed, flows from and through all creation. On the other hand, I get frustrated trying to follow an unfamiliar liturgy and feel awkward introducing myself to strangers.
Thus, I had mixed feelings as I headed recently to the “dancing girl church”–so dubbed by my daughter-in-law after a visit there a few years ago during which a prepubescent girl danced in the aisles during congregational singing. My daughter-in-law didn’t find that impromptu liturgical dance particularly edifying, and she and her family never went back there. I recently bought a house in Missouri near where they live, and the dancing girl church is near my new home.
I decided at the last minute to attend church that morning. I almost stayed home since I had come down with a cold the day before and hadn’t yet been able to staunch the flow from my nose. I still spend most of my time several hours away, in Michigan, and I already have a church I like there, so one part of me thought I shouldn’t bother looking into churches in my new locale. Perhaps it was mainly habit that pushed me out the door that morning, or perhaps it was my awareness that I’m likely to feel an inner void during the week if I don’t attend a worship service on Sunday. Anyway, I went.
I arrived only a few minutes before the scheduled start time, but the sanctuary was mostly empty when I shuffled in and found a seat on the aisle near the back. On my way in I had been handed a flyer containing the order of worship, and I perused that as congregants slowly dribbled in, coming to rest in the pews. An older woman, perhaps in her mid-80s, slid into the far end of my pew, sat down a couple feet to my right, and introduced herself.
“Hello, I’m Marilyn,” she said, offering her hand.
“I’m Bob,” I replied. “I’ve got a cold, though, so I won’t shake your hand.”
I didn’t want to expose her to my germs, but having an excuse to not take her hand was also convenient, a way to keep a little distance.
The service eventually started with a greeting by the pastor. The musical ensemble off to his right cantered through several songs while the congregation sang along. I knew about half of the songs; I find comfort in such melodic familiarity in a mostly unfamiliar environment. There was no dancing in the aisles; dancing girl must have either been away or retired from dancing. Between songs the pastor delivered a brief meditation about finding God in the midst of our busy lives. Consulting my bulletin, I saw that we had arrived at the “Quiet Minute,” though I noticed that this so-called minute lasted well over 6o seconds.
Before long, we were at the “Talkative Ten Minutes,” a time in the service when the congregation was invited to “take intentional time to risk saying hello to one another.” As soon as this was announced, Marilyn got my attention. She had something to say to me.
“I’m so sorry about your cold,” she started. “When I have a cold I take this product that really helps. It’s called Cold-Ease. I thought I might have some in my purse, but I looked and I don’t. Could I write the name on your bulletin, though?”
Then she did, misspelling “ease” and drawing a box around the name to emphasize it. I thanked her, more appreciative of her evident concern than for the specific suggestion (I was already on Zicam). I talked to a few other people and even found a room upstairs where I could get a little hot tea to soothe my throat.
There was a sermon, a good if a bit redundant meditation on a passage in Proverbs about the destructive and constructive potential of our words. Then the service was over. Marilyn thanked me for coming and encouraged me to get something for my cold; I again expressed my gratitude to her. She had done what the faithful are supposed to do: she welcomed the stranger, offering what succor she could. I probably will return to the church of the dancing girl when I’m in town. For me, though, it deserves a new name. “Cold-ease church” doesn’t sound quite right, but the name should make some reference to how Marilyn reached out to me. I’ve come up with this: “Church of Shelter from the Cold.” I rather like the sound of that.