I've been watching people church shop every Sunday for 11 years.
So we'll call this "easily inspired fiction".
the parking signs for visitors
the pollinator-friendly gardens
baskets half filled for the food pantry
the paint chipping on the widow sills
the silk flowers on the bathroom counter.
the space that greets you
while you stomp snow from your feet
or you move your sunglasses from your eyes atop your head.
Do need to navigate hallways and offices
or are you thrust nervously into a narrow narthex?
The hunt is on.
The people notice you
with affection, warmth, and curiosity
or desperation, skepticism, and fatigue
or not at all.
Writing in a dusty guestbook
would be like signing up for spam mail.
The edge of your sticky name tag
begins to curl, appalled by your shirt.
You considered writing,
"Settle down, we're just visiting"
or a pseudonym.
Your children are sized up
the nursery is eagerly suggested
while they cling to your leg.
The pew does its best to corral your family
into meeting the palpable expectations
of this crowd.
They will tolerate wiggles and whispers,
but crayons drop and Cheerios crunch
and echo tragically
while someone half asleep
mumbles obscure scripture passages.
Your first cold glares and nervous smiles
come before the sermon
and now you are sweaty.
You are having trouble recalling why
you dared to come.
There are good reasons to stay away
from the broken and beleaguered church
of your past and their present.
These grow louder in your mind
when you realize you are behind in the bulletin
and your youngest needs a diaper change.
You are still figuring out how the sacrament is served
and if you are welcome
and if your children are welcome
when an usher asks if you are coming up.
He seems more concerned
about the timing of the music
and a break in the line
than helping you find belonging
on the way to the table.
And while you hustle self consciously,
his wife reminds him sweetly
that he would have had all day for
arthritic knees or a buzzing hearing aid.
Startled and swayed, he squats down
to offer each of your children a high five
as they pass by.
One brings a picture up front,
a colorful offering
another skips and waves
until people smile
breaking formation long enough
to answer your question:
They are hurting like you.
You are welcome like them.
We are all breaking and mending.
You leave before coffee,
no welcome card or signature
and just a few bucks in the plate.
This was enough,
perhaps more than you had to give.
But you are not empty.
There was a morsel and a sip
and the promise of people and places,
futile and fertile efforts out there.