When I was in college, there were a steady six months I didn't go to the church I loved.
The ministers hadn't ceased inspiring me, the community was still warm and compassionate, and I had access to the means to get there. There was nothing wrong with the church. Although I frequently came late after hitting the snooze button one too many times, it wasn't even the snooze button that kept me from coming or the late night sorority gatherings. It was something more...
Somehow in my college budget and with tuition adjustments that semester, I couldn't pay my pledge. Sure I could drop a few dollars in the bucket, but if I wanted to pay rent, tuition, bills and buy food, then my pledge would have to be reduced.
In my 1,000 member Unitarian Universalist congregation, I felt like everyone knew that I wasn't paying my pledge. This was, of course, ridiculous in hindsight. But I felt guilty even walking through the doors without a monthly check.
Why? This place and people had taught me kindness and compassion. They had never lobbied for guilt and fear to guide me. But somewhere long ago, in places I could now identify, I had learned the force of shame. And all these years later, even in a new place of wonder, love and compassion, I was still driven by those old feelings.
It finally took a friend of mine sharing that I was in fact a lot more fun to be around when I went to church that sent me back. I walked through the doors a little worried that somehow still I'd be in trouble. Those old memories of having to stand up in class in my religious school for the whole first period if you didn't go to church came back to me.
I placed one foot over the threshold.
Instead, one of the ministers came forward and gave me a hug. "It's so good to see you! How have you been? Come on in!"
I could have cried but the shock that sent me to my seat where I received more warm handshakes and smiles kept me from tears and in amazement.
The power of shame and guilt can be astounding, even years later in a new place that doesn't profess these from pulpit to pew. This time of year, when so much stress mounts for many, expectations are high, and finances pinched, I hope wherever you may be, whoever you may be, you know that those reasons "more than the snooze button" needn't keep you from church.
When we give, it isn't out of guilt. And when we can't give financially, we affirm that stewardship is more than money--sometimes it's simply presence.
It is when you are at your most imperfect or challenged, that you are also often at your most human and beautiful. In these times, though we may wish to hide beneath blanket because we don't look like what we look like, or have enough money, or seem to be able to get our act together to be presentable, in these times we need each other the most. Sometimes, our presence is the gift we give in this season.
May you know a church that welcomes you home again and again.