A few Sundays ago, I was still wearing my grey South Dakota football t-shirt and my plaid pajama pants at 11:00am, like I am sometimes. I padded out into the kitchen from the bedroom where I had been reading William Faulkner. I had gone to Walmart the day before—yes on a Saturday, brave—and bought a scouring pad. I’d never bought a scouring pad before, never needed one, but I had burned blackness onto the bottom of my favorite red saucepan while making Easy No-Bake Cookies. I didn’t know what to do, so I bought a scouring pad. On the package, it said it might scratch the pan, but I had to try. And so I turned on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” and in my pajamas, I carefully started to work on the pan, scraping away little by little the black crust. It took a long time, but I could see the water in the bottom of the pan darken. I didn’t get very far before I got tired and I started scratching the surface off the bottom of the pan. I didn’t know what to do, but I kept scratching, Dylan’s early folk music playing in the background as I worked diligently, maybe as to the Lord even.
Recently, I saw a former professor play some banjo tunes for the community, happily packed together and stifling in a small former-house-turned-coffee-establishment in a familiar town in Oregon. Afterwards, I watched him coil cords and take down mic stands in his deliberate way, as we talked about Faulkner and O’Conner, the classes he’ll teach, the classes I’ll take. I said I hadn’t found a church yet—no Quakers in Waco, quite a few Baptists—and Bill said, “Maybe now’s the time for you to be Catholic for a while.” I smiled, and he smiled, but we stopped talking for a moment to recognize that we were both serious: he in his suggestion, me in my consideration.
A few Sundays ago, I went to a cool church filled with cool college students wearing cool college church clothes. There was a DJ before the service, providing the pre-church warm-up music. A real DJ, with a crate under his turntable and the headphones, and everything. He was scratching or whatever it was DJs do. I almost laughed out loud when I saw him, because at my old church there used to be a brass band that played before the service, or sometimes handbells. But now, I was at a church with a DJ. A slide flashed behind the DJ that said, “It might get loud. Earplugs available at the welcome center.” Are you still worshipping if you can’t hear the songs through the earplugs? What if the melody is so indeterminable that you just stand there, while the rock band plays away, with no thought for you following along? What are the rules to this? After the rock band finished, there was blessed silence, purposeful silence, just like I was used to and remember and crave. It ended far before I was ready to move on.
I talked to a pastor who I love in Oregon in a downtown coffee shop after Christmas. In his gentle way, Gregg asked me hard questions and I communicated my experiences and my hopes and my fears. We were sitting near the window, where we could see the streets of the town I know so well. He leaned over the table and said to me, “The work that was begun in you at Newberg Friends did not stay here when you left. You took it with you. You still have it.” I knew what work he was talking about: the work of finding a place as a woman in the church, the work of finding a voice as a quiet soul with something to say, the work of hearing God speaking to the larger church in ways profound and unsettling.
A few Sundays ago, I thought I knew what the problem was. I was used to a church without liturgy, ritual, or sacraments. I needed something wholly different. So I thought: the Episcopalians. They have all of those things. Then I could make a new me in this new place, finding the same God in a different way. I went to the service, and I couldn’t find the right book. I sat when I should have been standing, sat when I should have kneeled. I didn’t know the tunes or the words. The church was lovely and the sermon was inspiring, but I felt restless. I didn’t even know the language. The congregation seemed to know, love, support each other, but the whole experience was foreign to me. I was looking for the sense of calm I got whenever I went to the abbey in Oregon or participated in open worship at the Friends church, the peace of tradition and repetition; instead, I felt trapped. Their communion was going to require me to walk all the way up to the front of the church, in front of everyone, to take a sacrament I loved but did not know. So I left before my pew was excused. When a friend asked me about it later, my face dimmed. I excused myself from the seat at the coffee shop to walk outside, around the block, and cry.
A few weeks ago, a friend, one outside of all of my contexts, asked me the question I pondered but never aloud. She was visiting with her kids, as they competed for university scholarships, and so we stole some time to sit in the college kid coffee shop near campus. Stacy asked, “What would you lose by not choosing a church?” My mind raced as I went through all of the right answers before picking one, any one: Lack of connection with the larger social community. Lack of connection with a variety of ages and stages of life. Lack of connection with the divine. But I wasn’t sure how true any of the answers were.
A few Sundays ago, I tossed my Bible in the trunk of my car. I hid a thermos of tea in my purse, and walked with purpose to the front gates, where I flashed my card, just received in the mail, and went through the membership gate. Inside, children were already screaming with joy and frustration, and I walked past them, to the left, the opposite way the families were walking. I knew where I was going. Through the trees and down the stairs, I put my purse and books down on the stained table and walked to the wooden railing. From there I could look out at Lemur Island, ringed with black foreboding vultures and home to two little red lemurs, who were bounding up and down their island. They were leaping like they had someplace to go, but they didn’t. Their island is small. I sat down at the table, and I could see their reflection in the water as they continued to bounce back and forth. To my left, through the trees, rose the lion’s roar; he becomes quite verbal around feeding time. To my right, the singing gibbons’ cascading upper registers pierced through to the park outside the gates. A cacophony. A few minutes later, I walked around the path, past the tigers, with whom I stopped to lock eyes, yellow eyes in fiery fur. Past the elephant, placidly shoving grass into her mouth with her extra limb. Past the rhinos, who looked oddly docile when sprawled on the ground, and past the giraffe, whose knobbly gracefulness captured the attention of kids and parents, two stories above the ground. I settled again on the Plains of Africa, then in the Domestic to Texas neighborhood, then near the aquarium. I read a chapter or two in every place, the psychological complexity of Henry James undercut by the squawking of parrots. As it got warmer, it also got windy, and the children grew hungry and the parents grew tired. But as I left through the front gates, I smiled at a little blonde girl, wearing striped leggings and just enough plastic necklaces, who was being promised a toy if she made it through the whole zoo without wetting her pants. I wanted her to know I was cheering for her.