During Advent, I resolved to go to church every Sunday. I felt strange that I was in a phase of life that I had to resolve this, but I did. And so every Sunday of December I went to a different church. One held friends and Advent wreaths, another liturgy and a communion I didn’t stay for, another a windowless room and loud music. The last was my father’s church, a big Baptist church that welcomes Calgarians of all backgrounds to worship together. And they do: Filipinos, Africans, Koreans, Chinese, many recent immigrants who are looking for a home, both physical and spiritual, in the cold North.
I sat next to my mother, the same spot I used to sit in the church in Minnesota, in South Dakota, in Washington, and now in Alberta. I know she loves to sit next to me during church, and while my siblings often sit with friends when they return home for Christmas, I sit with her, because we need each other, her and I. We shed our winter coats, our scarves and gloves, stashing them under the pew in front of us. We seek the warmth of church, of Christmas, of hope in the midst of the cold.
My dad sneaks in next to me, during the worship songs. He’s about to do his work, his busiest day always the day of rest. He generally sits in the front row, for easy access to the podium, but when the kids are home, he likes to sit with the family just for a song or two. I wonder, not for the first time, what it would have been like to be in a “normal” family, where the preacher wasn’t Dad and Dad wasn’t the preacher. That moment passes as I hear my dad sing, and I realize it doesn’t matter. He’s doing what he was always meant to do.
I look up at the Christmas decorations, giant stars hanging from the ceiling. In a few days, we’ll be back for Christmas Eve, then for the Sunday service post-Christmas. For the woman who grew up in the church, this is normal; for the woman who hasn’t a church home, this feels like a lot. But I know Dad will be up front most of those times, and I’ll hear his pastor voice proclaim the good news: Jesus is born, and we are here, and we should rejoice. In a time when little else feels solid and true, I’ll hear his voice and believe it.
I read a book before going home for Christmas that rattled me because it was about a young man who found himself going to two different churches, the two churches that I had been rotating between. He pinpointed some of the same concerns that I had with one, and also pinpointed some of the beauty I had seen in the other. The latter was an Episcopal church that I had felt drawn to even while struggling to reconcile it with the Quaker faith testimony that I identified with. How could I do both, the open worship and the traditional liturgy? I panicked and emailed a friend who had been Episcopal in a former life but now does not attend church. I knew he had attended a Quaker church in a former life too. I asked him why he had stopped going. His email back was was honest: he had worshiped with the Episcopalians because the church was close to his home, he liked the people, and the service times worked with his schedule. In my heightened emotional state, I felt that he was being blasé about this spiritual crisis that I was having, but now, thinking back, I realize he was telling me what he always tells me: to relax. To live. To let the combination of my daily life and my eternal soul and my battered heart tell me what I needed. It was okay to go to a church because the times worked well. It was okay to go to a church because the sanctuary was beautiful. It was okay to find a home you weren’t expecting among people you’d never thought would welcome you.
After the New Year, I couldn’t wait to go to my Oregon church on a rainy Sunday morning. It had been nearly eight months since I saw my Quaker friends in that wooden sanctuary with the small stained glass windows. As I entered, I greeted the usher, whose name I never remember. He doesn’t remember my name either, but he remembers my face, and so we just mutually recognize each other and smile. I find a seat in the pew in front of my friend Nancy, and we talk about the changes at my former place of employment, where she still works. And then the service started.
The usher whose name I can’t remember came up to me during the greet-your-neighbor time. Would I help with the offering, he asked. I hesitated a moment, pondering whether or not to tell him that I’ve been gone from this church for a year and a half. But before I knew it, I said I would be happy to help.
While we sang 90s choruses and old hymns, I wondered why I said yes, why I couldn’t let myself just sit and visit. And the answer came simply: I considered this my home church, the place I most belonged on a Sunday morning. I wanted to serve by taking up the offering because this place had given me so much comfort and challenge, had given me my voice and a community. So of course I would help.
This is what I longed for in Texas, this is what I craved and what made me cry and what I begged for in the brief silence of every church service I had attended in the last year and a half. I begged for another place like this.
So when the time came, I stood up with the wicker basket and moved to the front of the sanctuary. I passed the basket, and endured the smiles and the whispers of “you come back, we put you to work!” I was grateful for the gentle teasing, because it meant that people knew I had been here, that I had left, and that I was missed.
The man preaching that morning, not the usual lead pastor, said he remembered walking into this old sanctuary for the first time, looking up at the front, and feeling like he was home. And I looked at the framing behind him, the lack of a cross where a cross could be, the stained glass with a dove and an anchor, two symbols I often pondered during the open worships when I could not focus.
During open worship, I sat in the silence and felt my body relax, and focus, sharply, intently. I was grateful for the open worship, to hear the community I missed so much share what darkness the Inner Light had illuminated. And I was grateful to heard a member of the community speak words during the sermon that illuminated the Quaker peace testimony in a world so dark and violent, a testimony that is foolish in its hope and its practice. At the end of the service, my fellow Friends teased me, saying that they always ask visitors to collect the offering, and I said I’m not a visitor. I’m family.
I had coffee with my dear friend Jay, once again in the Oregon area for Christmas and his brother’s wedding while I was in the area to cuddle babies and drink loose-leaf tea. We met at the coffee shop we always met at as undergraduate students. We caught up about life and grad school and teaching and family and future plans. Then he mentioned he had been going to both a Quaker meeting and an Episcopal church as part of his spiritual practice. Jay grew up in the evangelical Quaker church, and he embodies so many of the things I love about it. They are part of who he is, and so I asked the question that wouldn’t leave me: how does he do it? How does he reconcile the complete lack of sacraments and hierarchy within the Quaker church with the full-on liturgy and ecclesial faith practice of the Episcopalians? He paused for a moment, and said it was all about encountering Christ. The way he sees it, both faith traditions put a premium on a personal encounter with the living God, whether through the Inner Light and open worship, or through the Eucharist and the liturgy. Vastly different practices, but with a similar result. The power of the Eucharist, of the bread and wine, is something that cannot be explained but can only be felt and experienced. It’s the very same thing with open worship. I realized in a moment how rigid my rules had been, how I was missing the underlying spirit of these faith practices. And I suddenly knew I could try again.
I was going to do it this time. Come hell or high water (all puns intended), I was going to take communion at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. I was going to walk down the center aisle, up the stairs, through the choir stalls, up three more stairs, kneel, and accept the bread, accept the cup. I was going to do it.
It was my first service back after Christmas, and the sanctuary was the same: beautiful, sacred, and filled with grey-haired parishioners who bowed their heads at the right times but didn’t even attempt to get into kneeling positions. Neither did I. I wasn’t ready yet. I also didn’t cross myself when others did. I knew the motion wouldn’t mean anything to me, and I couldn’t pretend it did. I hoped, though, that other things would have meaning.
The choir sang a beautiful hymn, a stellar young tenor taking a solo that “brought me to Jesus,” as some faith traditions are known to say. The sermon was short, as the rector’s voice was gravelly due to a cold. Even so, he spoke simply and honestly about the need for the church to move outside of its walls, of how it should work to bring people into this beautiful space by going out and getting them.
I felt at peace in this sanctuary, the dark beams above, the stained glass over the altar and along the sides, the creaking of the pews, the calming pattern of the liturgy that lulled and challenged. I started listening to the words that we said aloud, that we claimed to believe together, the forgiveness we asked for together, and the people we prayed for together.
I started to notice things that felt familiar from my time with the Quakers. The silence, for one. For another, calling government leaders by their first names during the Prayers for the People. The prayers for peace: the recognition that we are part of the problem and we can pray for a solution. The allowing of children in the service, and recognition that they can experience God too. The belief that women, if called, should lead a church. The idea that the community hears God together and participates in his spirit as one.
For once, I didn’t let myself get distracted by the differences; instead, I rested in the similarities. I didn’t need to become confirmed in the church. I just needed to listen for Christ wherever I could, and if I could hear him surrounded by Texan Episcopalians who crossed themselves while juggling multiple books and saying ancient words together, if I loved the church for the beauty of the sanctuary and the words said aloud in it, and if I felt like I could be known here, then Jesus was there with me.
Later that day, I went to the zoo for the first time since the fall. Only as I walked toward the orangutan complex did I realize it was my first visit since Batari’s death. Batari was the little girl orangutan, born right after the birth of my goddaughter in May. Every time I saw her little monkey face, her crazy hair, the care of her mother Mei, I thought of my little Maddie. Batari’s death in December crushed me in a way that I didn’t expect. I cried for the little girl monkey and the unfairness of life, and I asked what the point of this all was if baby monkeys die and baby humans die and adult humans do too. At that point, I didn’t know when I’d come back to the zoo, because I was so sad. But I did go back, because I love the zoo and I’ve felt at home there.
Approaching the orangutan complex, I thought about church that morning, and why I kept going back to church even though it was hard, even though it didn’t make sense most Sundays. I realized I went back because I needed to go, even if it hurt, even if I felt lonely or sad or discouraged. I went back because the joys that I have known in the walls of a church—through my dad’s voice, through open worship with the Friends, through the poetry of the Episcopal liturgy—outweigh the pain I feel. At the core is always hope: hope for community, for family, for an encounter with the divine. It might be a foolish hope, but it’s one that has been realized before, and so I’ll keep trying to put myself in situations where it can be realized again.
So, as I leaned up against the railing at the orangutan complex, not seeing the grieving orangutan couple, but praying for them regardless, I felt a peace, just like the one that brought me to tears that morning after tasting the bitter red wine of Christ’s blood on my tongue, the dry wafer of his body crunching between my teeth. The priest had given them to me after I had survived the long walk up to the front of the nave, and I had taken them. Then, a rush of gratefulness and peace, a salve for a tired soul. I had found a place, for now, to add to the places that I can encounter Christ: a pew between my parents. A creaky sanctuary in Oregon. A kneeler in a nave in Texas. And a zoo that gives me joy and pain because it is something sacred.