Why You’ll Find Community at McDonald’s Instead of at Church

logoBeing a freelance writer, I get to choose where I work. If I’m hungry and haven’t had breakfast (and if I’m not going anywhere where the odor of french fries on my clothes might offend someone), I head to McDonald’s. Love me some yogurt parfait. And an occasional biscuit. Don’t judge.

In my vast knowledge of McDonald’s locations in the Nashville area, I have noticed a couple of things:

First, the McD’s inside Nashville are way more posh than the ones in the outlying areas, specifically the tiny hamlet of Kingston Springs. You won’t find any faux leather seats or flat screen TVs there. Just hard plastic booths.

Second, McD’s is a place to find community. Three groups of community, to be exact. At least in the Springs.

First, the senior men. They talk about men’s issues—the weather, politics, sports, local gossip. No emotional topics please. And no women, thank you. Another group  gathers on the opposite side of the restaurant—the hunter/redneck crowd. Which allows women, by the way. They’re almost always in cammo, always wear a ball cap, and talk about deer, fishing rods, and football. There’s always time to talk about football when you live in SEC territory.

The third group? The employees.

You might be thinking, sure, they take breaks together. Yes, that’s true, but the members of this circle come to hang out…even when they don’t work that day. These people will actually show up  just to be together—when they could be doing a dozen other things away from the smell of coffee grinds mixed with grease.

The group is a ragtag lot. Most are tattooed at least once. Some have body piercings. Most smoke. Their ages range from pimple-faced teens to senior adults who are working there because they need the income. Quite a conglomeration of cultures.

If you listen to their conversations (which I NEVER do), you might think you were in a normal office setting:

“How’s is your mom?”
“How was your doctor’s appointment?”
“My son is driving me nuts!”

Other times, though, you listen to their stories and realize WHY they are a community:

“My child support…”
“I can’t pay my rent until…”
“My partner and I…” (same-sex partner, that is)

They come to experience community. (They certainly don’t gather because they can’t get enough of the food.) They come because, in that space and place, they find acceptance. As is. They find the much-needed feeling of being understood. Of someone caring for them. Supporting them.  They gather because they’ve shared the same experience of being shunned in other places, even (especially?) the church.

Be honest: Would the gay cashier with his striped socks and funky shirts be welcome in your church—even when he starts talking about how to mix hair colors? What about the barely-adult woman who has had three children by three different men? What about the recovering addict who has to sneak out during worship for a cigarette?

What would you do if you found out if a visitor (or a member!) has a criminal record? Cheated on his wife? Had an abortion? Would you treat those people any differently? Would you invite them in to your community of faith?

Better yet, would you invite them eat with your family (or friends) after the worship service?

These people gather because they all have scars—and they all know it. There’s no need for pretense or pretending because everyone in that circle acknowledges that they’ve messed up and have no room to judge. They gather because they’ve found some sense of belonging in spite of poor decisions and sinful pasts.

In short, McDonald’s provides what the Church often does not—a place of flawed yet accepted humanity.

If Jesus were alive today, I’m pretty sure He’d stop by the Kingston Springs McD’s…

…and He might even eat a biscuit.

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Death: Beautiful, Sacred, and Painful As H-E-Double Hockey Sticks

graveyard

 

I watched a family lose a beloved matriarch last week.

She was a family friend, and here in the South, that means she was more family than friend. Which made her family my family, too. Like those relatives you love but get to see only on rare occasions. Like weddings. Or bedside vigils. Or lottery winnings.

As it so happened, I had gone to the hospice where she was living out her last remaining moments. I wanted to check in on her daughter, who is in my ragamuffin support group called a Sunday School class. Her granddaughter is the resident clown/leader-in-disguise in my youth group. And I went because I’ve been there and I get it. I know the sting of death all too well. That’s a blog post for another day. Or maybe a book.

When I got to the hospice, I made the rounds with family members, casually making jokes and trying to break the monotony of watching someone die. That’s another blog post, too. When someone is in hospice, you know the End is near, but only God knows how near the End actually is. With that framework in mind, I’d intended to stay a bit and encourage as I could. Offer my prayers. And my feet. Run to Cracker Barrel. Get tissues. More Diet Coke.

But then, as life often does, life happens. Or in this case dying happens.

Within an hour, I witnessed the Matriarch’s family standing around her bedside, tears of grief mixed with relief and joy as she took her last breaths. The agony of losing a part of yourself. The relief that suffering didn’t win out and her pain was gone. And joy knowing that she was meeting her Savior face-to-face at that very moment.

It was a sacred, holy experience.

And it still hurt like h-e-double hockey sticks. That’s the Southern way to say hell, in case you’re still working out the grammar.

Even in the visitation and funeral, I kept bouncing between the holy and sacred to “this really sucks.”

I envisioned the Matriarch meeting my father-in-law, who no doubt was planning a practical joke while she was in hospice. I envisioned her meeting my friend, Sara, who passed away all too recently. I thought about my mom, who died from cancer, too. But most of all, I kept wondering what the Matriarch was experiencing. Since none of us knows on this side of heaven what it’s really like on that side of heaven, we are all left wondering. I could only imagine. (Cue Mercy Me song here).

I wondered and I ached. I ached for the family who would no longer see her smiling face or curly hair. For the grandchildren who could only rely on pictures and stories to know her. For my friend who can no longer talk to her mom every day. I ached for myself and my own losses. Her death was a painful reminder of them, too.

Watching someone pass from this life to the next is a sacred, mysterious moment, when deep beauty dances with gut-wrenching, take-your-breath-away sadness. I have felt both in the last week. And I can say with certainty (most days) that when the music stops and the dance is over, even when the grief threatens to suffocate you, life still wins out.

Maybe not right now, but someday.

Until then, I grieve and I hope.

And I eat a lot of chocolate.

When Us Versus Them Became We: My Dinner With a Gay Couple

tug of warI ate dinner with a gay couple recently.

I met them while on a trip to see a friend. She’s gay, too. Don’t judge. I know you’re tempted to.

In all candidness and transparency, I was nervous about meeting them. I created outlandish scenarios in my head of what the interaction would be like, all of which, I must confess, were of the worse-case variety. I live in a Southern, “religious” culture that has demonized people who do not conform to the expectations of acceptable belief and behavior. Labeled them as weird, sinful, abhorrent, liberal, militant, demanding, and destructive to society. I’m afraid to say that over time, this underlying current of prejudice and smugness has permeated my own thinking, like chemical runoff poisoning a stream.

When the couple first arrived, I tried to treat them as I would any heterosexual couple at a dinner with my husband. I asked questions about their careers (one was an teacher, just like my husband). I asked how they met. I asked about their families and their favorite meal at the place we were eating. I asked about their marriage (in California). While my questions were innocuous, my interest was more like investigating a culture I’d never encountered before, like a sociologist who discovers a previously hidden civilization. Nell meets Star Trek meets National Geographic. It was us (me, the conservative Christian [minister]) against them (the liberal gay). I’m not proud of my attitude. Not then, not now. But the lines were drawn by my assumptions and arrogance.

Then it happened. Us against them became we.

The shift was subtle and unexpected. One of my (seemingly) innocuous questions was “What plans do you have for the weekend?” I was not expecting the answer I got. One of the women had lost her brother just a few weeks before, and she and her partner were driving to a special place to spread his ashes.

In that moment, my dinner companions were no longer specimens in a jar to be observed (don’t tell me you don’t do the same thing); they became we—fellow human beings who are more like me than different.

I’ve lost a sibling. And her ashes have been spread in a special place.

I could identify with her grief and her pain. I knew from experience how she was feeling, weeks after the death, when everyone else moves on with their lives and you just can’t seem to move. She wasn’t liberal, demanding, or destructive. She was hurting. And every human being, regardless of your political or religious views, can identify with that. At least I hope so.

Not long after that, I was listening to a sermon from a pastor in Colorado. The minister (or preacher or whatever the label in that denomination) made a statement that rocked my theology: Whenever we create an “us against them” scenario, we typically put ourselves in a superior position and the “them” in an inferior one. We’re wiser and holier. More enlightened and informed. “They” need to learn the truth, and we are just the people to tell them exactly what the truth is. Think through your “us versus them” labels; none of them makes you the one in need of change, right?

Conservative versus liberal.
Sinner versus saint.
Straight versus gay.
Stay at home versus working mom.
Homeschool versus public school.
Immigrant versus citizen.
SEC versus the rest of the world.

Whatever side we choose to identify with becomes the morally (or spiritually) superior role, and we in good conscious must enlighten and educate (judge) the other side.

Except that we as believers are not called to judge. We are called to love.

Remember when the expert in the Law (i.e., superior morally) asked Jesus which commandment trumped everything else? “Love the Lord your God…and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Luke 10:27). Love Him. Love others.

When Jesus commanded the disciples to go into the world, He commanded them to make disciples, not to judge sinners. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say, “Make sure that people who disagree with your politics, theology, or lifestyle know just how much God will judge them for their sin. And it’s best to do that by making them feel like crap.”

I’m not saying that homosexuality is ok. What I am saying is this: There is no “us vs. them” at the foot of the cross. We are all the same. I have no stone to throw. I have no right to play judge and jury when I am one of the guilty. The gospel is for all of us fallen creatures, and I am not in the position to determine whether my brand of sin is morally superior to someone else’s.

I have long wondered what would happen if the Christian community would rise up and love others with the same intensity and ferociousness that we’ve used in judging them. The addict. The man who beats his wife. The homeless. The Wall Street swindler. The slacker who skips Sunday night church to watch the Superbowl.

James said that mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13).

Maybe, hopefully, one day I’ll be able to see it in action. In my own life.