It’s the Saturday before Advent begins, and a few of us are at church preparing—setting up the wreath with its purple and pink candles, pulling music from files, and rearranging all of the chairs.
Typically, the Advent wreath is the only visual cue that we’ve entered into a new time, a new space. The chairs haven’t been rearranged in our sanctuary since I started coming to this church a decade ago. Who knows how long they had been that way, divided into three sections, the rows straight and predictable? From an aesthetic standpoint, our church is simple, straightforward, unfussy. The people provide the color and complexity.
Now our goal is to draw all of those complex people in, arranging the chairs in a way that makes us more concentrated, more connected.
It’s been a difficult year in our fellowship, in individual ways that spill over into the community, and also in corporate ways, as we’ve gone through a leadership transition. As the year comes to an end, I feel the need for us to be close, shoulder-to-shoulder, like a large family squeezing in around the dinner table.
I start by removing about 20 chairs from the back rows. Churches will always have back rows, and people will always gravitate toward them, but our new back rows will be closer to the front. Then I divide the remaining 100 chairs into two groups rather than three, curving them in toward one another in an asymmetrical swoop that reminds me of the shape children create when drawing ears on the sides of a circular face.
My helper is Josiah, a teenage boy I’ve been close to since he and my youngest daughter were both in kindergarten. It takes us a while to get the new arrangement right. How close can we gather the chairs in without being too close? We consider wheelchairs and walkers used by members of our community, infant car seats and older babies who often play at their parents’ feet during worship. We congratulate ourselves as the new arrangement masks some coffee stains on the carpet, only to discover that different stains, once hidden, have been revealed.
Finally, we “test drive” various chairs we’ve set up, from each vantage point looking at where the musicians’ microphones and stands are, where the Advent candles will be lit, where song lyrics and Bible passages will be projected. At one point, Josiah and I are sitting on opposite ends of the swoop of chairs. We can see each other without turning our heads. We smile and exchange an air high-five across the empty worship space.
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In America, our love for buffers is clear. Just watch as people choose where to sit in any cafe, movie theater, train or bus. Our tendency is to leave one or two open seats between us and “them.” Are we simply respecting the personal space of others or protecting a selfish need for our own? Or do we go through life with an underlying aversion or suspicion of anyone we don’t know?
I suspect most of us aren’t reasoning out complex justifications for where we sit. These buffers have become largely a matter of habit, both personal and social: This is how we do things. This is what people expect. This is why our ancestors came to America in the first place—for space.
But in church?
Even in churches, we are prone to sidling into a row of chairs, smiling kindly at people sitting in the same row, but leaving a seat or two empty between us. Have our world-weary habits seeped into a place that should by definition be counter-cultural? Have we forgotten what this particular gathering is about?
In this place of worship, after all, we have come together to be together. Yes, we have come to worship God, but we could do that alone—at home or walking city streets or sitting in a park. If we are at church, we are there to be together: To step out of the cold. To gather in a way that creates a margin between the despair we hear on the news and the glimmers of hope we have deep within. To recall moments of balance, of a rightness we’ve caught fleeting glimpses of once or twice in our lives. They are just glimpses, but they’re enough to make us long for more.
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On the first Sunday of Advent, we don’t particularly look like a group of expectant people. We straggle in like usual, looking ragtag and weary, even as we exchange smiles and hugs. Most of us might not even be sure why we’re here, but we are here. There is something in this mysterious mix of ingredients we are wondering about or hoping for.
In the worship space, the newly arranged chairs are generating some hubbub, waking people up as their minds scramble to translate old habits into a new arrangement. I hear extra murmuring and some uneasy jokes, meant to cover the confusion; a blend of nerves and excitement fills the space.
As people find places to sit, I watch them scoot in to make room, looking down the curve of newly formed rows to see who might be nearby. It is a small change in the scope of things, but we are seeing things differently. We are disoriented, which is often necessary if any reorienting is to happen.
This is, after all, Advent.
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The worship space photo in the post is used with permission (and thanks!) to SupernovaPhotography.com.
You don’t know, Kristin, how many times I have wished our pastor would act to “force” our shrinking church congregation to sit in the front half of our church so that we can feel the unity of who we are and why we gather together and enjoy being in that space, engaged with a great variety of people we have become connected to because we worship together. Thank you for thinking through what it means to be “the church” even when we choose where to sit. You have me thinking that there may even be a not-so-subtle message that newcomers get when they walk into our church and people are NOT sitting near others, but rather sitting in separate small groups here and there. Something important about church community is lost in that message. It reminds me that when we were kids or teenagers we would never choose to sit alone. We thrived on being close together. I think you’ve hit on a good idea of rearranging seating for special times in the church, like Christmas or Easter. It would wake us up, and we would more readily understand or cooperate with the reason and not be so insistent on keeping everything habitually status quo.
I love that I sparked some thoughts in you, and that your thoughts are sparking new, continued pondering in me. It’s the best part about blogging—engaging in a conversation. Thank you!
Oh I love this, Kristin. I love the idea of shaking things up, of preparation. It’s what Advent is all about, isn’t it?
Yes! It is what Advent is about. I’ve been thinking about moving the chairs around for months, so it’s interesting that it ended up actually happening for Advent. (I’d like to say it was all pre-planned this way in my mind, but some larger poetic force was definitely at work!)
Beautiful words. How I need to be reoriented, moment by moment! Thank you.
Thank you, Lisa. I’ve been reading, recently, a lot of research on how important it is for people to mix things up—to take different routes to and from work, to do simple tasks with our non-dominant hand, etc. It engages and strengthens the mind in new ways, which is an interesting bit of science to consider in connection to our spiritual lives.