I had two great coffee dates this week: one with an old friend with whom I haven’t chatted in a very long time; the other with a newish friend I see often but with whom I rarely get to have more than a perfunctory “you okay?” kind of chat. I’m grateful I made time for both this week because these encounters reminded me of both the relevance and irrelevance of church in modern life–and the absolute necessity of both.
Yes, let me back up. Both women I met with are dealing with some fairly sizeable issues–not unlike most of us who breathe. One started attending my church when her life was in great disarray. Her story to tell, not mine. Coming to church each week was not easy–especially with our whole-worship style (children stay in the service throughout). Her children were young; they weren’t used to sitting still or talking in quiet voices while others were talking. Still, she kept coming, kept bringing her children. It’s been two years now. The children are much more integrated into the life of the church–and church is much more integrated into their lives. Are they perfect? Nope. Neither am I (and neither, I daresay, are you, dear reader. Just sayin’). But they have found something in church that provides them exactly what it provided us twelve years ago: a place to go, a people to belong to, a something outside our own lives to commit to. Their lives outside of church are still not easy, but church provides them, I hope, some respite from that: a haven, sanctuary.
My other friend does not go to church. Raised Catholic, she and her husband aspired to raise their children in the church. Didn’t work out that way because she realized she was doing it for reasons that didn’t matter anymore to her. I learned recently that she and her family are facing a new challenge and as I drove to meet her for coffee, I wondered how people face such things without church to back them up. I flitted back to the other friend and all that she faced and was so glad that she found us and it worked for her. I wondered how my old friend would be up to the challenge before her without that kind of support. And then I met with her and was reminded that strength of character and a core of love don’t live only within church walls.
Relevant. Irrelevant. Both. And.
We have an opportunity, we Unitarian Universalists, to be relevant, but I think, often, we chase after those who don’t need us to be and leave behind those who do. At least that’s how I have experienced it in my short time as a UU in my one congregation. Why do people cross our doors for the first time and why do some return while others do not? How do we measure our relevance? How do we meet the need to feel loved and to practice loving? Can we embrace the fact that church life is both profoundly important and, at the same time, often unnecessary to some pretty inspiring people?
I’ve pondered my own struggle with church over the years, and I sometimes still wonder why I kept going back when I was sure I should not. But in my coffee dates this week, it came to me, slowly: we keep the doors open, offer the worship services, tell the profound stories, and pour out the coffee in hopes that someone walks in who needs us more than we need them. It happened for me. It has happened for others. It will surely happen again.
Relevance is, I suppose, like beauty: in the eye of the beholder. And the beholden.