I Went to Church for the First Time in 9 Months

Episco door

Two weeks ago, my friend Shirley came to visit from Atlanta.

We met during a Spiritual Formation conference at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in June 2016. I was a Christian “none” who wore pink Chucks and asked unnerving questions. She was a purple-haired Episcopalian who wrote a thesis on Buddhism and Christianity and talked openly about how much she loved her cats.

We became fast friends.

Shortly after my husband and I married, she sent me a message about her plans to attend a conference in Alexandria, about an hour’s drive from our abode in Ashburn. She asked if we could loan her our couch, our kitties, and our board games.

I was more than happy to oblige.

The weekend was filled with lots of laughter, IPAs (for her and my husband), storytelling, and yummy food. It was refreshing, energizing, and wonderful for all of us.

And then Shirley had to ask me, the absentee Christian who had all but abandoned traditional church, if I was planning to attend a worship service on Sunday.

I wanted to be a good hostess and a good friend, and I figured if I was going to creep back into regular church again, Shirley would be a great person with whom to do this. As such, we spent Saturday evening surfing the web for local Episcopal congregations. We decided against the one 10 minutes down the road, whose website boasted a picture of an altar-housed American flag, in favor of a non-flag-flying church in a small town about 30 minutes away.

For the first Sunday in nine months, I found myself crossing the threshold of the red door characteristic of Episcopal churches.

It was a tiny sanctuary, quaint if you will. Most of the pews were empty, and the occupied ones contained no more than 3 people each. There were no kneeling bars, but there were adorable cushions embroidered with scenes both biblical and rural, from the Magi following the star to a map of the state of Virginia, from the Annunciation to cats snuggling in wicker baskets.

I also winced in internal discomfort when I noticed a plaque dedicated to past church members who served the Confederacy right above the pew of a black family in attendance.

My eyes and thoughts remained, for the most part, on this jarring example of Christian racism during the opening prayers and music. But the priest’s sermon drew my focus away from the walls. A seasoned metropolitan priest new to this particular parish, he began his sermon with jokes about Virginia Tech and University of VA fans and ended by calling out his own racism and the racism of our current administration and white Christianity, all while walking among us instead of standing behind his pulpit.

I sighed in relief upon realizing there are those who resist systemic evil in the name of Jesus, exist in flesh and blood, and do not just use Twitter as their pulpit.

After the sermon, as is traditional with an Episcopal service, we prepared for Eucharist, a meal I had not consumed at the altar in such a long time. So when the time came, I walked up to the bars, knelt before the priest, and partook of the bread and wine again.

Despite the hiatus, I did my best not to consume the meal too hastily. I savored the light, delicate wafer as it sat on my tongue and as I slowly chewed it. I let the small sip of wine saturate my taste buds, rich and sweet, before letting it fall down my throat.

It had been so long since I had known those particular tastes, and I wanted to hold onto them as long as I could.

After final prayers and final songs, and after taking pictures of our favorite kneeling pillows, Shirley and I had lunch at a nearby cafe, which boasted a much larger attendance than the tiny congregation. Over turkey sandwiches, kettle chips, pickles, and Coca Cola, we talked about God’s restorative work, living with mental illness, and eradicating white privilege and supremacy. In short, we had communion one last time.

And as I said my good-byes to my friend, I realized I had enjoyed my time with the congregation.

Yes, I had issues with the plaques on the walls, but I also had hope that restorative work could be done.

Yes, it was a 30 minute drive on a chilly morning, and it had been a bit unnerving to step into a church building again, but I had partaken of a physical and emotional communion, and I felt refreshed and excited.

To be honest, I do not know if this congregation will become my faith community, if I will search for one closer to my own home, or what my next step in this journey will be.

But I know that as long as my spiritual pilgrimage lasts, there will always be those to house me along the way, from visiting friends to small town churches with cat pillows, and everywhere in between.

I Haven’t Been to Church in Four Months, and I’m OK

Church

Outlook Mag

Next week will officially mark four months since I’ve gotten myself out of bed on a Sunday morning to attend a church service.

I’ve kept myself otherwise occupied.

I played card games with Bryce and our roommate. I visited my mother and helped her with yard work. I watched a lot of TV and read a few books. I spent Mother’s and Father’s Day with my future in-laws. I added to our wedding registry. I fasted from social media.

I slept in.

But I haven’t been with a traditional community of believers.

I have become what I once feared: a non-church attending Christian.

The congregation members I grew up with attached a lot of adjectives to people like me: lukewarm, backsliding, and hedonistic are probably some of the nicer ones.

You can’t be a Christian without a faith community, they insist. If you’re not part of a gathering of believers, you will follow a God in your own image and become idolatrous, they warn. Why must you be one of those pesky Burger King Christians who has to have everything their way, they fuss.

But guess what?

I’m OK.

I’m well-rested, emotionally stable (to an extent), and still in love with the Church, the Bible, and the Holy Trinity.

This being said, I still struggle to read the Bible. I find following Jesus into the difficult places harder than ever. I find God to be more mysterious than I could have imagined. And I am more annoyed by the Spirit’s non-stop calls to lay everything down and open myself up to love.

I still talk about theology and what it means to follow Jesus, although I’m even less reverent than I’ve ever been. I partake in communion, but I break the bread of gigantic slices of Manhattan Pizza with my co-workers and gluten-free, vegan rolls with racial justice co-conspirators. I pray more than I have in some time: for peace, for my loved ones to get through their days, for mercy and justice, and for people to just listen. I look for God’s presence everywhere and in everything, in the breaths I take during a run, in my fiance doing the laundry for me, in protesters as cops beat them, and in writers who share their stories and trust they will mean something to someone.

I know there will be people who will read every single thing I’ve just said and see it all as lies and heresies, more evidence of my backsliding ways.

But in reality, I feel more solid in my faith and more confident claiming a Christian identity than I have in a long time.

It could be because I’m living with my fiance and not afraid of anyone’s nosy judgment, or because I’m politically and socially engaged with no fear that a theological higher-up is breathing down my neck, waiting for me to make a theological mishap and tear me down. Maybe it’s because I have more freedom to actually ask a variety of people a lot of interesting, difficult, uncomfortable questions without having the authenticity of my faith put on trial.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting more sleep.

I’m not saying I will never attend a traditional church again. By no means. In fact, I can no longer pass an Episcopal church without feeling a tremendous pang in my heart and an intense longing for choir anthems and collects.

I also have to admit there are some drawbacks to not having a faith community right now. I miss the communal life of choir practices and youth Sunday School. I miss long, deep conversations with clergy. I miss coffee hours after Sunday service and lunch time gatherings around the seminary table.

But I can’t say my lack of a “real” faith community is completely awful either. And I definitely can’t say I will regret this time in my life, or that I feel like a failure and a backslider in my walk with Christ.

For once in my life, I feel OK with where my faith journey has taken and is taking me, even if it’s the non-traditional route.

And I’m going to soak that up for all it’s worth.