Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Of Carpet and Character...

The hot-pink exterior is your first clue that Bayou Joe's is something special. My favorite restaurant back in Florida has mismatched furniture and gaping cracks in the floor. Tables are decorated with maps, movie stars, and cartoons of old ladies in bathing suits. Service is slow and incredibly eccentric. Joe's “trash burger” is smothered in chili and gummy worms, each bite making you feel like a daredevil. Napkins are replaced with wash cloths, and after-dinner mints are replaced with bubble gum. Some people call it sketchy. Me? I say it's got character.  

Okay sure, I know "character" is often a craigslist buzzword to sell old stuff to twenty-somethings. A couple years ago, I was trying to convince a friend to try out a coffee shop that I claimed had character. He sighed, frustrated. "See, Stephen, I'm pretty sure when you say something has 'character,' you just mean it's old." Fair point. I'm a sucker for exposed brick.

So why is "character" considered a selling point? Why would someone pay more to take a risk and eat at the local mom-&-pop instead of playing it safe with Applebee's? What is it about the aging, urban bungalow that's more appealing than the brand-new suburban cookie-cutter? Call it "hipster" or nonconformist (you might be right), but I suspect it's more than that. Could it be that we actually feel a connection with places and things that show some wear-and-tear? Do we identify with those unique, one-of-a-kind places--places with stories as complex as our own?

Maybe it's that sense of existing in a place that somehow understands your lack of put-togethered-ness. My friends and I are currently looking for a house to rent here in St. Louis. As we cruise the city's neighborhoods and investigate our options, I find myself drawn to the places that seem to "get" my to which I don't have to explain myself when I walk in the front door. I like a house with history. I want a place that's got a past and plenty of stories to tell. If there's some architectural oddities or broken fixtures or confusing layouts, that's cool. I can relate.

Similar to the hot-pink walls of Bayou Joe's, the first thing that hits you when you walk inside Redeemer Church of Knoxville is the carpet...the in-your-face, algae-green carpet. It's hard to miss. The second thing that hits you is the windows. Most of the translucent panes are also algae-green, but some are colorless. Some are broken, and a few of them have been repaired with duct tape. I remember when I visited Redeemer for the first time back in 2010, I was surprised to find a child's graffiti scrawled on the pew in front of me. "I ♥ church." It hadn't been painted over...and I liked that.

Redeemer's sanctuary certainly had character, and as I came to discover over the next three years, the church itself had plenty of character...not to mention characters. In a recent video for the church's 10th anniversary, one girl described Redeemer as "beautiful chaos." I couldn't think of a more perfect description. 

That green carpet became a reminder to me every time I walked through Redeemer's doors that it was okay to be a little out-of-style. It was okay to have some quirks. You could sit in those pews and not be worried about someone seeing your broken windows...or your patchwork duct-tape attempts to fix yourself. You didn't have to paint over your graffiti.

See, I think we love these old places with character because they remind us of ourselves. They remind us of our own humanity, with all of our quirks, beauties, flaws, and oddities rolled up in one big jumble. Some of us have our own hot pink walls. Some of us have our own dated green carpet. Some of us have mismatched furniture, broken windows, or even a rather peculiar smell. We don't have to dress ourselves up to feel at home in these old places. They get us. None of us was created with a cookie-cutter...why would we want to live somewhere that was?

I love seeing an old, historic building restored to its former glory. If it's done well, the building doesn't lose any of its original character. In fact, the most skilled refurbishments highlight and enhance those features which make a building particularly beautiful or unique. Sure, sometimes it's easier and cheaper to raze an old house to the ground and build a brand-new one, but what do we lose in that process? Do you feel a sinking feeling in your gut whenever that happens? I certainly do. Maybe that's because we know that we're all old buildings with our own unique character and flaws. We all need a lot of work. We all hope someone would take the time to lovingly restore us rather than simply replace us. 

That's exactly what our Redeemer promises to do for those who are in him. He promises to redeem us. He doesn't replace his church with a brand-new, perfect and holy army of robot clones programmed for worship. He restores us to be the beautiful, unique masterpieces that he originally created us to be. He didn't just make that promise to people, but he made that promise to all creation. He made that promise to the earth, to the critters and trees and flowers. One day, God will indeed make all things new, but our newness won't cancel out our character. I will still be me. You will still be you. Bayou Joes's will still be Bayou Joe's (and let's hope the trash burger will still be the trash burger). We'll be restored. We'll be holy. We'll be us.

I know that one day, maybe one day soon, Redeemer Church will probably have to replace its carpet. Honestly, I won't blame them if they choose a less-aggressive color. Still, I will always remember that endearingly obnoxious green carpet with a smile. That green carpet made me feel like I was home, and more importantly, it reminded me I was with people who had just as much "character" as I did.

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