I got a hug from a stranger in a church. It was great.
I spent a weekend in Huntsville, Ont., and on Sunday morning went to worship at St. Andrew’s. I was greeted by two men just as I entered the church; one handed me the bulletin. They were jovial; we made small talk—more than just a “thank you for coming, please have a seat.”
At least a dozen people took my hand during the passing of the peace. And a man hugged me, offering me the peace of Christ. Another gave me a firm handshake and said: “God bless you, brother.”
That was a nice sensation, I must say.
I always get nervous when I go to a church I’ve never been to before. I know I shouldn’t—I’m a confident church-goer in many ways. I know my way around a sanctuary and liturgy. I know how to read a hymnbook and where to find biblical passages, New or Old, before or after the Psalms. I know when to stand or sit, and I know most of the common responses.
Still, going to a new church is a source of small anxiety. I know I’ll feel frustrated, maybe even angry, or at least hurt—burned, I’ll feel burned—if the congregation is anything less than lukewarm. And many are.
I once walked into a church where no one greeted me. I sat in the pew for a few minutes. An older woman turned around, gave me a steely look. That could have been her “resting face” but I was already feeling anxious. I left. I picked up the morning papers and went to a coffee shop. It was great. Ninety minutes of Ella Fitzgerald on the jukebox, some fine pastry, good substantive reviews and articles and a tasty, fancy cup of joe. Time well spent—free of self-loathing because many start by feeling unworthy of being in church.
Every time I share this anxiety with others they always assure me their church is different. I’m guessing it isn’t, I say, mostly to myself, but aloud a few times. I’m guessing the congregation is really a clubhouse, with little time or room for the stranger. That is more the norm than not.
It’s not about hospitality alone, of course. Hospitality is only the exterior face of an inner condition. In our Reformed theology we build outward from Christ inside. Or at least that’s how I understand it. We call it “reformed and always reforming,” which means there’s no down time. We’re always in the process of keeping Christ in all we do.
And that ain’t easy. But it was never meant to be easy. Not if you do it right.
I am a lost soul looking for a home. Anyone who walks into a church is a lost soul looking for a home.
And for one Sunday morning I found a home at St. Andrew’s, Huntsville. There, a whole congregation welcomed me. They were Christ to me. I left there elated. A little less lost than when I had walked in.