There were hymns and a reading from the Book of Hebrews, prayers and a children’s message. But despite those familiar elements, it wasn’t church like I’m used to. In fact, there was a time I didn’t consider the church service I experienced a couple Sundays ago church at all.
I’ve been attending the Haukebo Reunion with my husband Brad’s family in Brainerd, Minnesota, for about fifteen years now. The first year, when I overheard one of the Haukebos announce that the church service started at 10 a.m., I assumed we would all pile into our minivans and head to the Lutheran church in town. Imagine my horror when I saw Brad’s aunts, uncles and cousins arranging the mismatched lawn and folding chairs under the striped tent, pulling out Aunt Carolyn’s Bible and placing it on the sun-weathered picnic table.
Church? Right here in the backyard? I thought to myself. You have got to be kidding me.
We sat on lawn chairs, beneath a tent, on a patch of matted grass in a regular old back yard. There were no pews; no stained glass or steeple or vestments. No altar – unless you consider the picnic table near the front of the tent. No organ or choir or minister. Not even a loaf of bread or a cup of wine in sight.
Fifteen years ago I wasn’t a church-goer. I didn’t even believe in God at the time. But I knew enough to know that church held in a backyard just a few feet from Uncle Jim’s garage, with Cousin Tony ministering from the picnic-table pulpit — unordained Cousin Tony for heaven’s sake — was wrong, if not downright blasphemous.
Besides, it was terribly awkward. Newly married into the family, these aunts and uncles and cousins were virtual strangers to me. As I watched Tony set a boom box on the picnic table, I realized with horror that I was going to be forced to mumble my way through the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” and pray the “Our Father” aloud with Brad’s entire extended family.
I considered fleeing to Aunt Carolyn’s bathroom, locking the door behind me and hiding amid the rumpled hand towels. In the end, though, I stayed, slinking into the back of the tent and settling into a folding chair in the very last row – but only because I figured someone would notice if I wasn’t in attendance.
A couple Sundays ago, as I listened to Cousin Steve and his son Emmett strum twin ukuleles near the “altar,” I smiled as I recalled my first Haukebo church service. Fifteen years later, the scene has changed a bit. The boom box is gone, replaced by lyrics emanating from Tony’s iPhone. We are missing more than one beloved family member, their absence palpable as we all gather under the tent.
But much of the traditional backyard church service is still the same. We sat in makeshift rows of folding chairs beneath the tent near Uncle Jim’s garage. We read from Aunt Carolyn’s well-worn Bible. We prayed and sang as the loons chortled from the lake at the bottom of the grassy hill. We gave thanks for family, for sunny weather, for good food. And during the short service I was reminded once again that church doesn’t require a lot of accoutrement. A fancy sanctuary, orderly pews, an elaborate liturgy and holy communion are nice, but they aren’t necessary — because God is present everywhere…even in a backyard tent.
This post ran last weekend in the Lincoln Journal Star.