It’s that split-second moment where two humans lay eyes on each other for the first time. Our mind’s stimuli will race at lightning speed based off mere seconds and snap preconceptions, zeroing in on the essence of someone’s personality by means of eye contact, physical appearance, posture, body movement, or if they have a booger dangling out of their nose. This mental snapshot creates a significant potency that can stay etched into a memory bank forever.
A first impression is one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve grown to anticipate since beginning my spiritual reformation of worshiping in 52 Churches in 52 Weeks. I’m always curious as to what type of reaction I get as a foreign worshiper. Who will greet me? What will they say? How will they perceive me?
Typically, the first impression is a generic “good morning” from one of the greeters or ushers handing out bulletins. Once in awhile, the pastor will scan the congregation, pick me out, and venture over to shake my hand. The best type of reaction is when I settle into a pew and nearby congregants strike-up a friendly conversation with me, showing a genuine interest in why I’m a visiting stranger.
This week on the other hand…
“Good morning, can you do me a favor? The kids will be collecting donations with a cart. Can you give them this?”
I looked to my left where a gentleman with gray hair styled like a lion’s mane had plopped a 12-pack of double-roll toilet paper by my side. My initial thought was “I’m glad it’s not one-ply”. My #2 thought was to reply with an adequate response, but all I could squeeze out was:
This was quite a contrast in first impressions to what I have experienced at other churches. And so the story goes, this is how I made my mark at First United Methodist Church on Sunday, poop puns and all.
Sitting on the pot last week, I found myself contemplating my existence after watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson). The show simplifies science to a fun and educating experience, while at the same time, isn’t afraid to mention the inevitable clash that historically and presently exists between religion and science. I made plans to visit the Christian Science Society at 404 Franklin Street for the 10:00 am service to learn more about how this denomination operated. There was a slight problem when I arrived however:
The church was shutdown.
In response, I saw another church just a hop, jump, skip away (I just walked). After crossing two-way traffic on McIndoe Street, I journeyed inside First United Methodist Church pushing for answers.
November 23, 2014 — 10:00 am Sunday Worship Service: First United Methodist Church of Wausau, Wisconsin
Peering through the glass-stained windows of First United Methodist Church, it was unique this day as not only was I given toilet paper to re-gift, but no pastor was present this day. (As I later learned, Pastor Jerry was making a splash on a mission trip to Singapore).
“My name is Wilb”, said an older fella with a sandpapered voice. He had taken a seat in front of me and shook my hand, which to me held a certain level of respect as it showed that he trusted I had washed my hands with the toilet paper by my side.
“Webb?” I said, as it didn’t come out right the first time in my head. He corrected me, “Wilb, short for Wilbert. I was baptized at First United Methodist Church in 1924. It was a different building back then.” He pointed south in a direction that was blocked by a wall.
I liked Wilb. The man was proud of his church. Matter of fact, the entire congregation was proud of their church. The service began with the Welcome and Greeting. This wasn’t the typical, “make sure to greet those around you” type of forced handshakes that was a formality at the close of service of my former church, whereas everyone then exited the narthex to dust snow off their cars. No, First United was a true church family. Everyone (and I mean everyone) got off of their keysters and floated around to shake each other’s hands to have genuine conversations. Several of the congregants came to visit Wilb, to which he replied, “I lost my wisdom teeth last week, so now I don’t have any more wisdom.”
I figured the greeting would subside after 30 seconds or so, but this actually lasted for a substantial duration. The members were shaking hands, giving each other hugs, some wanted to tickle the toes of newborn baby members. Everyone seemed to know each other’s name. It was like I was living inside a Cheers episode, except Happy Hour beer was replaced for Holy Communion grape juice and Woody Harrelson off-wall jokes were replaced by John Wesley on-wall quotes.
Throughout the service, pre-selected members of the congregation spoke from a lectern beneath a suspended bare cross (as I later researched, a bare cross for United Methodists emphasizes the Resurrection to say Jesus overcame his death and is risen, as opposed to Catholicism who often display a giant crucifix to depict Jesus’ suffering). Each member gave first-hand testimonials about their own lives and related their experiences within First United, something that was called “My Thanksgiving”. One gentleman in a suit-and-jacket completed his speech by saying First United “shows me the way of God”, a magnificently bearded man said that it helped him “be a whole person”, while a high school student who served as the church’s pianist and heartthrob (as evident with the giggling giddy girls seated at the far end of my pew away from me and my toilet paper) thanked the church for providing an outlet for his musical pursuits.
The congregant speeches was a fresh change of pace, and had a much more resonating effect than having a pastor rain down fire and brimstone from atop a pulpit on a weekly basis. The talks were real. Each individual brought forward a well-thought-out speech and comfortably positioned their first-hand accounts to an audience who welcomed the messages.
During one of the “My Thanksgiving” speeches, I took a glimpse at the church directory which was located inside my pew. Paging through, there was a wide range of church activities, completed mission trips, even a full church directory with every family’s photograph. But the thing that stood out the most was a foreword from Pastor Jerry. The beginning started with a question that has bothered me for a long time after witnessing some of the events from my former church that tested the integrity of my faith. I was so intrigued, I jotted it down in a notepad:
What is the Church?
That is a fair question, one that is being asked more and more often and more and more openly in our increasingly secular society. It is a question that everyone who is a part of the church ought to be able to answer. Who are we, anyway?
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is through a book like this — a pictorial directory. What is the church? Just people. Single people, married people, divorced people. Old people, children, teenagers. Young families, multi-generational, empty nesters. New people and people who have been here their whole lives.
Look at us. In appearance and demographic description we are not different from the rest of our community or society or world, except for the one thing that brings us all these disparate people together.
We are people who have encountered God in Christ, who have discovered in that meeting that we are loved, and who are trying to figure out together how best to respond to that love. Look at us.
We are the church.
The revelation of why I was safeguarding toilet paper for the porcelain seas was uncovered during the children’s sermon. I always enjoy children’s sermons since the pastor will often ask the kids a general question, and it turns into a Kids Say the Darndest Things episode (this is probably a bad time to have a Bill Cosby reference). This week, instead of the kids saying something off the wall, it came from the female member named Karen who lead the message.
While explaining how the Gathering of Gifts for Others would work later in the service, in which the junior ushers would push several shopping carts down the aisle to collect canned goods and toiletries for the Wesley Food Pantry, her attempted simple explanation of where it would go didn’t come out the right way:
“Many could say we are a Toilet Paper Church. What do you think that toilet paper will be used for?”
…um. It was at this moment the entire congregation silently answered, “after dropping a deuce”.
The church erupted in hysterics as Karen retraced what she had just said in her head. Instead of feeling embarrassed, she joined in on the joke and laughed it off, giving a curtsy bow to top it off. She reformulated her words to the kids about whom the toilet paper would be going to in the church’s pursuit of helping others.
Out of all the churches I’ve visited, this one felt the most like going home to visit friends and relatives on Thanksgiving. Everyone had a sincere and gracious outlook to “be there” for each other, which was positively reinforced by the My Thanksgiving speeches that was a fresh change-up. Not only that, I came away amused at how this church could poke fun at itself.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed dropping anchor at First United Methodist Church. And I didn’t even need to visit the restroom.