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We’ve been nomads at church.

For the most part we’ve avoided the this-is-our-pew (or in our case, our-set-of-interlocking-church-chairs) and we’ve roamed the building. Sometimes choosing the east corner, sometimes the west, and on occasion, even sitting in the middle. We lean toward the outer flanks though, and of late we’ve been choosing the same row on a fairly regular basis.

It’s the back row on the far side of the building, which might sound like we are there in order to disengage or to secretly be able to Facebook on our iPhones during the sermon or that we are fringe members who need to be brought back into the fold. Or something.

But really, we just kind of like it there.

The boys started it. They sat there with their friends a few times, but the friends moved away or quit coming or sat elsewhere until soon it was just my sons and we sat with them one day.

And we liked it.

It offered a good view of the pulpit and the screen – a better view than on the other side of the building – and it provided easy access with minimal disruption for a boy who seems to need to visit the bathroom at least once during the Sunday morning service. But really, I’m fond of this spot for other reasons.

It just so happens that many of the families with young children sit in the rows ahead of ours, and can I just say church has never been so entertaining. We have a great view of all these sweet things and their many antics, and the wiggling and whispering and colouring and even the fussing, it’s just wonderful. The babies waking and smiling back at us from their perches on their daddies’ shoulders, and the toddlers sharing fishy crackers with us, and the moms’ treks back and forth to the nursery with all that baby luggage in tow.

And we get to see the stuff the moms and dads miss. The little pokes between siblings, and the picking up and eating of food from off the floor, and the nose-picking, and the faces made back at my husband who is making faces at them.

It’s all very sweet.

Then I look across the aisle to my left and there they are. The white-haired faithful, in wheelchairs and bearing walkers or canes, sitting through the standing-up-hymns and occasionally nodding off during the sermon. Most still coupled but some on their own now. It’s obvious that age has made hard work out of the simplest of things and yet they come.

And way across the room in the other corner I see my friend with her family and I smile as we begin a new hymn and she raises her arm – Statue of Liberty like, I think  – and it fits her story. The liberation she has experienced and the freedom in which she chooses to live each day, and I applaud her heaven-raised arms.

It’s a good view from where we sit, this far back corner of the room. We’ll enjoy it for a while but I’m sure we will move on eventually. Our boys will leave or one day someone will sit there first and we’ll try out a new spot with new neighbours and new faces at which to smile and the view will be just fine.

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We used to do church at the pig farm.

Our family, their family, and a bunch of boys between us. A gathering, scripture, sharing ideas, sharing a meal … a morning that sometimes stretched to an evening.

We were pretty young then, with the children small and all, and it was a sweet year-and-a-half of fellowship without much obligation. I suppose sometimes it was hard on us, just being us, but mostly it was restful. A church sabbath, in a way.

I remember moving to the new town, and the number of times I was told this: Now you will have a real church to be a part of. I remember the anxiety of those words. I didn’t really want a real church. I liked the simplicity of the pig farm.

I think of it sometimes, in the middle of a busy Sunday.

I don’t know if our pig farm church would have been a long-term option. Maybe, if we’d stayed, we’d have found a “real” church to be part of, eventually. Sunday School and sermons and ladies class.

But, I know the pig farm was what I needed, when I needed it. And it was very, very real.

Maybe I read too much, or not enough. Or, maybe I think too much. Or, you know, not enough. I’m not sure.

I’m seeing much out there these days about the challenge of church (however you define that) to meet the needs of people, mainly young families. Most of the stuff I’m seeing is talking about church as a local body of believers who gather together for worship on Sunday mornings. Traditional, corporate church, I suppose. Sermons and Sunday School.

And the stuff I’m reading is about how hard it is for families with young children to participate in these settings. Kids fuss, make messes, clap, cry, squeal, misbehave. Parents struggle with the dilemma of keeping them in the assembly or taking them out. Or even, staying home till the kids are older and more cooperative.

Carter sleeping through church at camp

Carter sleeping through church at camp

I get it. I really do. I remember it, clearly.

I remember the time I was asked to bring toy cars instead of toy dinosaurs for my boys to play with, as the dinosaurs bothered an older woman who sat behind us.

I remember the Sundays upon Sundays when my husband was at work and I spent my time wrestling with a toddler and a baby and who knows what the sermon was about.

I remember leaving early, in tears.

I remember bringing hot dogs and potato chips to potluck.

I remember chasing a defiant two-year-old through the empty pews at the front of the church, in full, humiliating view of the watching worshippers on the back pews.

I remember being asked not to bring Cheerios into the sanctuary, and to take my dirty diapers home with me, and to please come and get my crying child from his toddler class.

I remember sitting in the cry room, zombie-mom, while my toddler systematically emptied the toy box and my baby nursed, and how disconnected I felt from whatever I thought church was supposed to be. I remember getting up, and leaving the mess, and walking out the door of the building, strains of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms growing faint behind me.

It’s a ridiculous time, this time of raising small children. Ridiculous and challenging and exhausting, and church can seem like an insurmountable Sunday morning mountain to climb, week after week.

Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, faces all aglow … not.

So, what is a church to do?

Here’s the thing. Here’s the hard reality. There’s not much a church can do. I mean, there are children’s programs and the cry room and all …

But, just like in the grocery store, or on a plane, or at your house, if your child is upset or loud or fussing, there’s probably little I can do to help you.

I can shoot you sympathetic eyes. I can offer to take your baby. I can smile at you as you take the screaming toddler to the back of the sanctuary, and I can put my hand on your shoulder as I walk by you on my way to the bathroom as you are walking the halls with your kid who can’t sit still.

I just don’t know what else I can do, except to say, I understand. I love you. I love your baby. I love that you are trying. I love that your children are making noise, and mess, and being cute, and talking in the quiet, and shouting Amen at the end of  every prayer.

Bring all the toy dinosaurs you want. And fishy crackers or Cheerios or apple slices. And those toys that ding, they’re okay, too, if that’s what it takes. And if you are in and out of the room a hundred times, it’s fine.

And know that church, like anything, is challenging for all of us. Trying to be family. It’s hard. As a mom of teens, or a single person, or a young adult, or a widow, or the pastor’s wife. There are mountains to climb, whether you are wearing a baby sling on the journey, or riding a skateboard, or using a walker.

I don’t know what to tell you, except to hang in there. Like parenting in general, parenting at church is a day-by-day, messy, mistake-making, grace-requiring, hand-holding journey.

And when we fail you, and we will, know that it’s hard for all of us at times. And we’re all doing the best we can.

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It’s really quite a story. The way He brings all those people out of Egypt and into the wilderness, providing and teaching and shepherding them. Providing leadership and community and even food from heaven. And they cross again, another river to another place, and it is chapter after chapter describing it’s taking. Battle and blood and bounty, till the land is bare and waiting.

Ready for the division, word after weary word, the assigning of property. You get this and you get that and here, I’ll take a little from what I gave you and give it to them, until it’s right. Like my children trying to share a treat evenly among themselves.

I skim though it, all those chapters in Joshua, stopping every now and then to wonder at a sentence or two. The daughters who were also given land, the Levites and how did they feel anyway about not having any land of their own, and Joshua set apart with a city just for him. Till it’s done. The land is divided. The mission has been accomplished. The journey is over.

I keep reading, and I’m shocked by what God does next.

After all this time travelling and all these promises of a homeland and a place to belong and be a community of people, chosen and loved… after making sure the land is free of enemies and then settling everyone into their own spaces… just when you think it’s all perfect…

He sets up places of refuge.

Places of refuge.

Because He knows. He knows that communities, no matter how well-designed, no matter how longed-for, no matter how sanctified, are not always safe. And knowing all that, He planned ahead. He established safe havens. Sanctuaries.

Today we have community like crazy. We have churches and tribes and support groups and online forums.

There is no end to community, easily join-able and un-joinable. Click this and you’re in, click again and, boom, you’re out. Come and go, participate or don’t, friend or unfriend on a whim.

There’s all this community, but where are the places of refuge?

Yes there is Jesus and prayer and Sunday mornings and lots of church-type stuff to turn to. But sometimes, (can I just say this?), I need some Jesus skin I need a face-to-face. I need a hand holding mine.

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Maybe you need that, too.

Today, maybe, we will be for each other a place of refuge. Because sometimes community is a big and crazy place, and people can get hurt there.

He sleeps. Finally. The house stills and we tiptoe around, closing doors softly and whispering our words to each other. I watch the clock, wondering if his body will wake him again, wretched, teary, to reach for the ice cream pail sitting on the floor beside the couch where he rests.

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Its illness upon illness this winter, days piling up like the heavy snow drifts outside my door.

Through the window I see the snow blowing white across my yard, another storm. I cough and cough, and I take a vitamin c tablet but I have to admit the cold I’m fighting has taken me over. I cough into my sleeve and not into my hand, the way we are told to do it now. Quietly as I can though, so as not to wake him.

A tall boy wanders in and out of the room, restless. I’ll go out and check on that last pregnant goat, he says. Needing something to do, and I understand the itch he is feeling.

Dad naps, and the other boy retreats to the basement, hiding from the germs.

I sink a little. Tired right out, you know. And yet, even weary weak I know he is there. I feel him, around me. I do. And I know I am not alone. I rest in that. I sink into that.

Sunday eases into evening, and for today church is this room and prayer.

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I sit in a strange pew in a church I don’t visit often, and I listen to the music and the preacher and the prayers. It’s good to be here. To be among people from my ancient history. And when it’s over and the church rises, I’m thrilled to hug and hello so many. Some old friends, some not so old. And to mark the changes – children growing and grown, the young ones who look like their parents used to, the older even more so and many missing.

I am blessed by this community. By being where I know and am known.

This is church on a Sunday morning. Can this be church on Monday, too?

Today I will church a little.

I’ll connect with friends on facebook. I’ll read blogs and write messages and love through words.

I’ll visit with a friend and her children. We’ll walk with goats and hold chickens and drink tea.

I’ll share time with my children. We’ll enjoy the first day of the last week before evil math enters our lives once again.

I’ll love my son’s friend, the one we haven’t seen all summer.

I’ll text or phone or maybe even knock on the door of some of those for whom I care.

I’ll read His words and other words and think about them.

I’ll talk with Him off and on throughout the day, and share some of my thoughts and ask for His help.

I’ll live this day basking in the warmth of yesterday.

There are words all over the place, all over the web, about church. Why I go to church. Why I don’t go to church. How church is failing. What is wrong with church. How church hurt me when I was a kid. Why I love Jesus but hate church. And it goes on. And on.

I go to church. (Yes, I know. The church is the people. So technically, you don’t go to church. But I know that you know what I mean.) Every Sunday I get up and do the church thing with my family. Sometimes the service touches me. Sometimes it doesn’t. But going to church isn’t the sum total of my christianity. It’s just a small piece of it.

A church takes maintenance. There are jobs. People have to clean the building and organize the services and teach the classes and wash the dishes after pot luck. Usually, the jobs are the not-so-fun part of doing church. Because if it was fun, someone would already be doing it without it needing to be labelled a “job” and requiring a sign-up list and all that.

I’ve gone to church all of my life, and I’ve usually had several church jobs on my plate. Over the last few years, though, I’ve given much of that up. I don’t feel the need to do church the same as I have in the past. I don’t feel obligated to volunteer for everything that comes along, or to be on every committee, or to say yes to every request.

Still busy, mind you. Still loving Jesus and doing Jesus and sharing my life and serving others. Just… different, you know?

One of the jobs I’ve had at the church I currently attend is Sunday School Organizer. For going on nine years, various other women and I have managed the Sunday School program. Deciding which kids will be in which classes, ordering material, and finding the teachers. Can I just say that this is not a fun job? This is not a job for which people are standing in line, waiting to volunteer. No one is shouting, pick me, pick me!

Over the past year, I have made some noise about wanting to pass this job on. I’d like it if someone else took over the job, but nobody has volunteered. And when I said to the powers that be that I’d really like to be done with this and that I’d help plan the program for the fall and then, you know, quit, I was asked to please keep doing it a while longer.

What’s a girl to do?

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. These jobs, these things that have been deemed necessary in order to keep the church running, have to be done. And so I will continue with this job for a while longer. I will think of this job the way I think of housework. Not my favourite thing, but it’s not going to kill me.

Sunday school is my church laundry. I’ll keep doing it for a while, joyfully even. Like the washing and folding of my loved ones’ clothing, I’ll order material and ask for teachers and pray over the children and thank those that serve in this ministry. But, just like I refuse to turn dirty inside-out socks back the right way before washing, or to go into the kids’ rooms and pick the dirty stuff up off the floor, I will have some church-laundry-limits. Well, one limitation, actually.

I’ll take my turn teaching a class, but I won’t fill in for all the times I can’t find a teacher.

This is my plan, anyway.