Church, Pt. 2: More Vignettes

IMG_3461It’s been three weeks since I’ve been to church. Before that, I went two weeks in a row: one United Methodist, one Quaker. Supposedly, God isn’t keeping track, but I am.

I’m meeting a friend for brunch, so I consider either going to the 9:00 am contemporary service at the Episcopal church downtown or going for a run. Of the two, church seems less work, so I get out the door with five minutes to spare. 90% humidity outside; if it weren’t for that, it would be a lovely day. Instead, everything sticks.

I sit in the back row of the sanctuary and stare at the back of the cute boy in a blue shirt two rows in front of me. He is sitting next to an old man, and I remember it’s Father’s Day. I have chosen the squeaky pew. I wonder if I’ll stay for communion.

This time I figure out the books, and I say things at the right time. The problem is that there’s not enough space for me to think in the service. There’s not enough quiet. There’s never enough quiet.

Yet the sermon is sweet and down-to-earth, filled with jokes about the trinity. The rector has a good-ole-boy Texas accent. I still expect that accent to be coming out of a man in a cowboy hat, not a man in ecclesial robes. He makes me like him because he speaks simply but truly, and there’s nothing fancy. I respect that in a sermon.

We pray for the fathers, but then we also pray for all of the men of the church, even those who aren’t fathers. The cute young man in front of me and the old man stand when instructed, and we women are told to put our hands on the shoulder of a man near us. I don’t want to, because they aren’t the men of my church, but then the rector says he wants every man to have a hand on his shoulder, and I am the only one around these two, so I go over.

As we pray, I pray for these strangers, old and young, and for my brother who is about to become a husband, and my father who is praying over his own congregation in another country. And I pray for all of the men who have shaped my life by their love and wisdom and humor. After “Amen,” both the cute young man and the old man look at me with gratefulness, and I tell them both Happy Father’s Day. I mean it, not knowing what that phrase means to them.

Communion is approaching and the words feel right and good, but when the choir starts to take the wine and bread, kneeling way up there at the front, I can’t do it. I can’t walk up there in my striped dress and uncertainly stand. I might do something wrong, or I might not understand all that it means, to them and to me. My love for the church and my love for Jesus are different and separate and the same. So I leave. Again.

I drive through the humidity, which somehow seems lighter. At home, I put on a Miles Davis record and make some tea. I do not check my phone. I want to keep this feeling: of sanctuary, of sacredness. In 30 minutes, I’m going to brunch with a good friend. We’re going to eat pancakes and drink warm beverages, and Jesus will be there. Communion.


I’ve known and loved a lot of pastors in my life, and Gregg is one of them. Over coffee and tea during my May trip to Oregon, he told me that I didn’t have to find a church. He said the words, “I release you.” I didn’t know I needed to hear this, but I did. It wasn’t instant; the tension in my chest wasn’t magically gone. But the words was balm to an aching and conflicted soul. It can be lonely going to church by yourself, and  it can be lonely not going to church at all. But both can feel like waiting. Waiting for someone who will be there soon.


The next week, I have brunch with a broken friend, and she ends up leaving early. I take my breakfast burrito to go, and eat it, now cold, on my couch, I sit and stew a little, pray a little, worry a little. I text her and worry some more. With nothing left to do, I get out my French homework and turn on the television.

While translating sentences like “The student used his computer, the student used their computer, the student used my computer,” I watch the players run back and forth across the green fields of Brazil. It’s Korea versus Algeria, red versus white.

I’ve never watched soccer before this World Cup, save for a few games four years ago because of my coworkers. But this tournament I find myself drawn into the drama, the passion, the joys and pains—both actual and pretend. The game moves quickly, seemingly sporadically, but my soccer-literate friends say that there’s intention behind movements, behind touches, behind positioning and passing. I don’t see any of that; I just see attractive foreign gentlemen, wiry and strong. And possibility.

I don’t know much about sports, but it seems like baseball is liturgy, and soccer is the Holy Spirit in the Pentecostal church: moving, flowing, unexpected and passionate. Everything changes in an instant. Soccer is moment-filled game. One wrong move, and devastation follows. One right move and teammates and countries celebrate with you, jumping and dancing and cheering.

Algeria wins, 4-2. As I watch, I half-heartedly finish my French homework, and spontaneously go to the cupboard for brownie mix. I pray as I stir, and the note I’ll leave with the brownies outside my friend’s door remarks on the necessity of chocolate at times like this. I don’t know why I do this. Maybe it’s the soccer, maybe it’s the Holy Spirit.

Later, while I’m at a friend’s home with a few others, the power will go out in the last few minutes of the US versus Portugal game. The projector now useless, we’ll all crowd around a smartphone and watch the US lose a lead in stoppage time. Others will be looking out the window at the rain splatters that reach under the porch roof to hit the house; the rain will run down in the hill in tidal waves. The power won’t come back on until the following morning.


Jay is one of those friends who I keep expecting to lose track of, but I’m grateful he keeps showing up. College friends, we both entered graduate school at the same time—he in Pennsylvania—and we just happened to both be visiting Oregon in May. Over lunch at Red Hills Market, we talked about transitions and community (and churches), and he told me how he’s been learning to let himself off the hook, to not be so hard on himself when these things aren’t all figured out. We talked about books and teaching and humidity and Oregon’s beauty, but what I really wanted to ask him was how to do that. I didn’t, but I remember it, and I’m trying too.


 

The next week, I have plans for Sunday that include sleeping and homework and maybe a church service, but instead I find myself driving back from Austin, after rescuing a friend. Her tire blew right as she was leaving Waco for the Austin airport to go on an overseas vacation, so I got a panicked text that caused me to drop everything, put on pants, and jump in the car. She makes her flight, and I drive back alone through the Texas countryside.

The radio is on. I lost all of my presets when I got a new battery, so I fluctuate between two or three stations as I drive. They come in and out as I near towns; there is heavy static and sometimes the local Christian radio station breaks through. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to Christian music, and yet I still know most of the songs. The early 2000s must have been a great time for Christian music.

A song comes on that I’ve sung in churches a lot recently, a newer song I know that people love. “Oceans” is a decent worship song, I suppose, but I’ve never really liked it. It’s all of the mixed journey/ocean metaphors. How does one’s feet wander deep into oceans? Doesn’t it get too deep to stand pretty quickly? Then your feet are no longer wandering. They’re probably kicking so that you don’t drown.

This is what my mind is doing while I’m supposed to be singing. I’m always stumbling over the words, finding them frustratingly cliché and inadequate. Worship choruses frequently make me wonder about the state of Christian music, of worship music, of why we sing at all, of why we even try to express the inexpressible.

“Oceans” is followed by the song “Diving In” by Steven Curtis Chapman, and my furrowed brow, still pondering the metaphors, loosens. I grin because this song reminds me of my childhood, when I believed things deeper and wandered closer to home. I loved that song: I thought it was hard rock, praising Jesus, and it felt quasi-rebellious. Now I’m a cynic who judges lyrics and avoids going to church services. Who can still sing every word of that song.

The radio fuzzes again, briefly picking up my normal top hits radio station. The first thing I hear amidst the static is one line of the bridge to a popular secular song: “All this time I was finding myself, and I didn’t know I was lost.” I smile again, a relaxed smile. This lyric rings true to me this morning. The worship songs didn’t, not today, and that’s okay. So I keep pace with Texas Sunday morning traffic, while singing a top 40 song as to the Lord.


A friend and I were talking the other day, and he suddenly said to me, “I just learned about the Quakers’ Underground Railroad.” I’m about to say that I knew Quakers were big into abolition, but he continues. “Quakers are helping gay people escape from Uganda.” He is a gay man trying to figure out faith and God and himself in those things, and I’m a quasi-Quaker, former-Baptist, current-church-hopper who doesn’t know where she fits either. He says to me, “Your people are helping my people.” And I can’t help but feel that is the best definition of church I’ve heard in a while.


The next week, I am driving again, but this time through the Alberta countryside, flat and green and rural like the Midwestern plains of my childhood—just a little further north. It’s the morning after my brother’s wedding, and my sister and I are speeding down the straight highways with the other Canadian heathens, listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Thanks to a $5 sale at Walmart when we stopped to get bobby pins and hairspray and caffeinated beverages for tired parents of the groom, this CD has been playing nonstop. Thriller was the soundtrack to the wedding extravaganza, we decided, though no one else was on board.

Now, the wedding is over, and it’s just us in the car. We sing along with “PYT” and “Billie Jean,” and try to keep our parents’ SUV, carrying our grandparents, within sight. The day is sunny, and we saw our brother get married, and we are going home. But first, donuts.

Last night was wine-soaked and love-filled, and we danced the YMCA. My 6-year old cousin break-danced, surrounded by 25-year-old white men who joyfully egged him on. My brother also danced with abandon, and his new wife glowed with joy and strength and love. I was a stranger at this wedding, a stranger in a bridesmaid dress, but the couple was surrounded by those who support and pray for them on a daily basis. I didn’t reach for the bouquet; this is not my time.

This morning, the decorations came down and the happy couple is on their way to Florida. Those of us left behind are stopping for fried pastries to combat the wedding hangover that has nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with people and parties and change.

As I drive, my sister talks about her relationship with her boyfriend and how she’s dealing with issues of faith, and I try to figure out when my siblings became wise and spiritual human beings. They’ve always been this way, but now they’re taller and they pass for grown-ups, just like me. I wonder when we’ll figure all of this out, but until then I’ll just do the Thriller car dance, one hand on the driving wheel and look forward to donuts, just a few more miles down the road.


The hardest thing about not attending one church regularly is that very kind Texan people, who are concerned about your spiritual life, ask which church you attend. When I tell these kind strangers I don’t really have one, I am tempted to justify myself, to tell them how hard I’ve tried, and to make them understand how much I long to find a place where I fit. And then I remember what Gregg said to me, and how he released me, and how it’s okay. I’ll looking for the perfect place but I won’t find it. Because it doesn’t exist. We’re all just making do until the next stop.


 

The next week, I sit in the parking lot, and take in a deep breath. Barely any cars are here, which means it’s summer and I’m at the large loud college-kid church. Attendance dips in the summer everywhere, I remember this from my former life as a pastor’s kid, but it’s especially evident here at college-kid church central. It’s my first time back since spring semester ended.

I sneak in, avoiding speaking to anyone, though it’s easy because I know so few. I find a spot near a pole. I sit, wearing the half-smile I wear when I feel conspicuously single. I wonder how it is that anyone meets anyone these days, when you’re so surrounded by people and yet so alone. Not lonely, always, but alone.

The music is not loud today: two men wearing baseball caps with two acoustic guitars. My grandmother would be horrified about the caps, and I’m a little bit too. This makes me feel old. They sing “Oceans,” which makes me smile because I can’t escape it. It’s everywhere. One of the worship leaders keeps calling us all “friends,” which makes me think of the Quakers I miss.

Then a hymn begins: “Because He Lives.” I cry a little (I am my mother’s daughter), and I do so because this place does not feel like home, any sort of spiritual home, but this song does. These people are strangers, but the song is like an old friend. I’d rather be watching soccer—I will be in a matter of hours, the World Cup final—but the song reminds me that I’m okay, despite the concerns, the classes, the self-doubt and self-pity and self-hatred. I’m okay even though I have so little figured out and the world is destroying itself and it’s a million degrees outside. I can face tomorrow.

As I leave, I high-five the one pastor I know, and he calls me by name. I remember that it’s nice to be known. So I drive to the zoo, the first time in weeks. It’s already blazing hot, and the sweat starts dripping down my legs as I walk between the exhibits, now as familiar to me as my own home. It’s quiet today: plenty of people, but the animals are sluggish. It’s hot and it’s summer and it’s Sunday, even for the rhinos. It’s the same old zoo.

I sit for a moment in the butterfly garden, taking out my book to read a few pages. There are no butterflies here, not even any flowers these days, but it’s shady and there are benches. I can hear the children crying and laughing, cajoling their parents to hurry, to see the jaguars, to see the snakes around the next corner. Maybe this is it for me, the butterfly garden at the zoo, and maybe there’s something else.

Either way, I know I’ll be all right.

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5 thoughts on “Church, Pt. 2: More Vignettes

  1. I have been where you are or maybe somewhere different. I remember being separated, then divorced and working my way back into a fellowship. I do need a church where I am known and have a place. I just thanked the leadership where we are now for not being critical when I did not carry though with a ministry I asked them permission to do. I love that they never challenged me. The Lord sets the lonely in families. The church has been my family for a long time.

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