I wore jeans on Easter Sunday.

I don’t remember the last time I missed church on Easter—or if there ever even has been a time. The Lord’s triumphant return from the grave, spring’s return to our calendars, and lapsed parishioners’ return to pews amalgamate into an unmissable Super-Bowl-Sunday among the observant. It’s like the newest club that has everything: fashion. Crowded sanctuaries. Clogged parking lots. Boisterous hymns.

And we missed it all. My family—husband, boys aged three years and six months, and I—have unintentionally participated in a sabbatical from church since our youngest was born last fall. We knew we would take a break once Little Brother came along; sleeplessness, C-section recovery, and sleeplessness guarantee such an outcome. But the blessed birth coincided with a dustup at our church home that left the preacher on his own sabbatical and the congregation’s fate unclear, and as the dust settled and resettled and really didn’t settle at all, my husband and I lounged groggily in our family room and agreed that maybe we’d get back to it next week. Every week.

20110926-super-soul-sunday-logoSuch an absence is unnatural to me. I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where Sunday School attendance was marked with gold stars, worship attendance was registered in pew-side notebooks, and perfect attendance was expected and common. Only sickness, family vacations, or early football games were legitimate reasons to miss what were easily the most social (and segregated) hours of the week, and my closet full of well-worn and seasonally-appropriate Sunday shoes thus attested. So sitting at home and catching the first airing of Meet the Press feels like playing hooky to me. And yet, for nearly every Sunday in the past six months, there we have been: at home, as a family, wondering when we’d get back to it.

“It” being church, in the broad sense of the word: a building where prayers are uttered, music is played, and childcare is offered. Our old church was small and had an underdeveloped children’s ministry. When we had one child, this was a nagging issue but one we felt worth waiting out. Surely by the time Baby 2 came along the church body would have found those with gifts in children’s ministry, or at least those guilty enough to cover nursery every few weeks. But once baby brother showed up, we found ourselves needing more resources than our church had available. I mean, we don’t need a rock-climbing wall, but how about a few background checks?

My husband and I finally reached the point where we knew we were procrastinating the church search, though in our defense, extreme introversion is on the menu of disorders in the next DSM. Now that we are making decisions on behalf of not just ourselves but also our impressionable youngsters, though, we routinely (and annoyingly) have to sacrifice our own comfort for their well-being. So we tried out a church recommended and attended by some friends. We made it three weeks in a row before the first cold hit my older son, followed by its appearance with the baby. Since Buckets O’ Snot is not how we prefer our children to be known among a new community, we lapsed back into Sundays at home. Including that most venerable of them all, Easter.

Now I may be able to come up with an argument as to why watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday is just as good as attending a legit worship service, and I bet I could get someone artsy and cool like Sufjan Stevens to agree with me, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus would find my reasoning lackluster—and not because he’s mad I missed his six-packed doppelganger in that righteous white robe during the Easter drama’s closing number. As I’m traveling my own formerly rule-driven, presently grace-soaked journey from Salieri to Mozart, Javert to Valjean, Abrahams to Liddell, I’m concurrently navigating the tension between obeying out of fear and obeying out of grace. The freedom from having to sin versus the freedom from sinning. The being a beloved child and being a forgiven wrongdoer. That time, reflected by its endpoint on Easter Sunday, between his death and his resurrection? That waiting for Jesus to show up? I’m living it now in so many ways, most of in which I’m demanding he show up as specific results: tantrums ending, speech beginning, baby sleeping. Life is hard when you’re parenting young kids, and getting out the door often feels like an insurmountable task.

But I know it’s more than that. It’s about my own fears and expectations, about the discomfort of being vulnerable to a new group of people, of small talk becoming (or not becoming) more, of disappointment. The stakes are higher now that we’re older: I may not be rejected on the basis of my outfit, but I may fail at relationships. I may be hurt. My kid may be hurt. I want to know a place is safe, its people are safe, before I make an investment. I want to be at the easy part already. And that’s just not how this world works—including the churched segment of it.

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Because the church, after all, is—like soylent green—people. And that’s the point of the admonition to be a part of it. These commands we’re given, that I used to read with all the enthusiasm of an instruction manual on Christmas morning, are (so I’m learning) not there for purposes of record-keeping and smiting. They are there to open me up to all the ways he loves me, all the ways he allows me to experience him, all the ways he lets me exchange safety for the realness of relationship. For blessing, not self-justification. The law makes demands I can’t keep. But grace makes promises it won’t break and I can’t earn, not with all the gold stars in the world. Which gives me the freedom to stay at home on Sunday and not go to hell as well as the impetus to show up for community without fear of self-destruction secondary to vulnerability (official diagnosis: hurt and rejection).

My family and I have become members of groups recently to which we never sought membership. I sat and watched my son during his occupational therapy session the other day at the hospital, and another boy, slightly older and there with his dad, began lining up toy animals beside me. He grew frustrated when one fell and ruined his perfect line, and I grinned ruefully. “You remind me of my son,” I told him, and his dad laughed, and I considered this bond we have, we parents recently inducted into the Society of I Didn’t Sign Up for This, and how community is often in the last place we expected. Kind of like grace, how it refuses to be predictable despite the suggestion cards I keep sending. I think about the podcasts I’ve been listening to lately, how I’ve felt a cord of kinship with the mom voicing her struggle with anxiety, or the parent whose kid freaked out over getting dressed and remained naked for weeks. Stories that aren’t exactly like mine, but close enough to leave us standing in the same spot (often a waiting room, or in that chapel that’s located wherever your knees hit the ground). I think about my own history with growing up in the church as a Good Girl and how when it was good it was very good and when it was bad it was horrid. I think about all the people hurt by other people—often, church people—and how I feel more at home now with the outliers, the doubters, the people who line up their toys rather than play appropriately with them.

I think about how Jesus just maybe felt the same way.  And that if anyone knows the cost of showing up, it’s him. He already paid it.

So last week my husband and I loaded the kids into the car and ventured out into that most unpredictable and intimidating of environments: a new church. One that happens to be populated by several Mockingbird writers, for what it’s worth (and it’s worth a lot, IMO). We heard the familiar chords of grace spoken and sung, and we took the bread and the cup. They tasted the way they always have, whenever I’ve accepted them freely instead of trying to attain them myself–they tasted like home.