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.

Theater is Church

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Eastern Mennonite University Black Box Theater

I met my Dad halfway through my sophomore year of college. I remember hearing his voice on the phone for the first time in 15 years and thinking to myself, “He sounds just like he did on those old home videos.”

During those early phone calls, he told me about my siblings, my stepmom, her pregnancy with my then unborn brother, his upbringing as a Palestinian born and raised in Jordan, and about his life as an Arab American.

That same semester, my Theater professor assigned My Name is Rachel Corrie for my class and I to read, a one-woman play about the late activist who lost her life defending a Palestinian home in the Gaza strip from being bulldozed by the Israeli army.

This play brought me closer to my father and our shared roots, and it pushed me into an inner confrontation with American and international policy. It is a story I return to when my Dad tells me about the pain of displacement and when I continue to see the plight of Palestinians, who are my family by blood, ignored by American and international media.

*****

During the first semester of my senior year at college, I took a Basics of Acting class. For our final project, my fellow actors and I acted out scenes from a themed series called “University.”

At this point in my life, I was in the deep throes of my faith crisis. Day by day, my firm foundation revealed its unsteady nature. I kept hoping to find solid ground but continued to be met with sinking sand.

It was in this state of mind that I found out my professor had assigned me the role of a young college student who had just had an abortion and found herself in a confrontation with her one night stand about it.

I hated him for that.

And yet, it was this acting exercise that met me where I was in my crisis, in all of my uncertainty over my previous ideologies and biases, and pushed me into the mind and body of someone I had once deemed “other.” It was in the black box theater, as I worked on memorizing my character’s lines and getting into her skin, that I realized how to play with a story, discover the crazy nuances of human lives, and remember that when we talk about “issues,” we are always talking about divinely made human beings.

*****

My second year of seminary, I joined the cast and crew of Corpus Christi, a play depicting Jesus as a young gay man living and proclaiming the Gospel in Texas. I served as the dramaturg (a nice, fancy, theater word for the one who does lots of research) to prepare the cast and help them understand their roles as disciples, and I joined rather last minute as an actor to play the part of John the Baptist, in which I baptized (read: washed the hands of) all of our cast members.

Unfortunately, due to the “controversial” nature of the show, we had to shut it down.

That didn’t stop us from holding a final and open dress rehearsal to a packed house, though.

The powers that were also couldn’t stop us from sitting around during rehearsal time and trading laughter, tears, university cafe treats, and stories about how the Church had wounded the LGBTQ community.

The powers that were could never take from us the power this production had, in many ways, to save and heal the lives of the cast and crew, most of whom identify as LGBTQ+.

In this communal theater experiment, I found myself pushed into a story that was and wasn’t mine. I found myself in the supporting role, and as such, I learned to listen and be present instead of my more natural role of taking charge and stealing the spotlight. I confronted my own pain and the pain of others suffering in ways I cannot completely understand but with whom I can sit, stand, and live in love and camaraderie.

*****

Theater is not frivolous. It is not for the faint of heart or the narrow of mind, but it is for the experienced and inexperienced, the diva and the shy, the believer and the skeptic. Theater molds, shapes, and even break us in ways we spend a lifetime unpacking.

There are times when theater is the voice, body, and spirit of God when churches remain silent, paralyzed, and breathless. There are times when theater becomes the Church to the doubters, skeptics, LGBTQ+, people of color, and the oppressed when the churches all but slam the door in their faces.

 

Theater does this, because theater is story. It’s the stories with the immense power to make us confront our “others” and our own roots. It’s the stories which wake us up and wind us up. It’s the stories which comfort the uncomfortable and discomfort the comfortable.

It was stories Jesus used to illustrate the finer points of his gospel message, through parables of seeds and soil, great banquets, feuding families, and pestering widows. It was theater Jesus employed when he caused a public and zealous disturbance in the temple. It was these stories that baffled the disciples and the religious elite but made sense to the ones who had lived them in some capacity.

And throughout all of those stories and theatrical displays was the call to remember we are God’s, and we belong to each other.

While many fear the “death of the Church,” I have no fear of this, because as long as theater and stories exist, and as long as we continue to tell the stories to each other without fear or shame, the Church will survive and thrive.

I’ve seen the theater be Church for me and for others, and it gives me hope that Church will outlive every congregation we ever make or attempt.

Church Runaways, Meet Marvel’s Runaways

Runaways

WordPress

This year, I didn’t go to church on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday.

Instead, I binge-read 3 volumes of Marvel’s Runaways, the comic series about “a group of young teens [who] find out their parents are actually supervillains and do the rebellious thing…they become superheroes.” (Read the whole article if you’re a new fan to graphic novels and comics, while you’re at it!)

The group consists of 6 individuals: Chase Stein, the oldest and a stereotypical jock (with a penchant for lasers and vehicles) despite having mad genius parents; Alex Wilder, a lonely MMORPG lover with firm but loving parents who is considered the brains of the group; Nico Minoru, the daughter of two sorcerers who wields the Staff of One, a magical device which can do any spell but only once; Karolina Dean, a Majesdanian alien whose parents hid and suppressed her powers for her whole life; Gertrude “Gert” Yorkes, whose time-traveling parents gifted her a dinosaur with whom she shares a telepathic link; and young Molly Hayes, a precocious pre-teen mutant with the power to lift all the big things.

The series sees the teens coming to terms with their parents true selves, the motives behind their actions, familial and fraternal betrayal, coming of age without the parental guidance they expected to receive, and living with and leading each other through these difficult and new days.

It’s the perfect read for people struggling with the Church, those who have left the Church, those who are thankful they left, and those who still feel remorse over leaving.

There’s Molly Hayes, the youngest Runaway, who is perhaps the most confused over her situation. She is still in that stage of life where adults can still be trusted. She doesn’t have her house, her bed, or her parents, and while she knows they did something wrong, she never witnessed it herself, because the older kids didn’t think she could handle seeing it. She is a runaway, but a reluctant one.

There’s Chase Stein, who rather willingly abandoned his abusive household and came into his own as a member of the Runaways, providing them with a hideout (albeit it literally unstable), fighting baddies with his parents’ technology, and piloting their Leapfrog ship. Being a runaway, in some ways, saves him, and he finds a true family with the rest of the gang.

There’s Nico, Gert, and Karolina, who are aware of their families villainous ways and know they have no choice but to flee them, yet they continue to be haunted by the lives and legacies from which they left behind.

And there’s Alex, the group’s leader, who seems to easily leave his family and lead the Runaways but refuses to cast off his familial identity indefinitely, hoping instead to redeem them.

We’ve seen Big Church, the Christian Machine, act in ways they believe will save us but harm us more. And we’ve become runaways as a result.

But it’s not an easy decision to make, even if it’s a necessary one.

It’s not easy to leave our church homes, our comfy beds of unquestioning faith, the warm hugs from the Christians we love and who love us but suddenly become cold and false, the routine traditions. Sometimes, even after we’ve been gone a while, we still dream of those “good ol’ days” and want them back. Even when we understand that staying would have meant falsehood or even death, returning to business as usual is appealing. At least it meant a home was involved.

Runaway status isn’t always fun. Not having one place to call “home” can wear on you after a while. Rootlessness isn’t the safest way to live. We are creatures of habit and security, and while having nowhere to settle gives greater freedom to make nests in other places, there really is nothing or no place like home.

But Runaways reminds me that realizing the home you once loved is no longer there, and perhaps never was, can be the Good Friday which eventually moves into the Easter of finding family in the ones who have also fled.

Running away is sacred and scary. It can involve putting down roots for a time only to yank them up again. It is being honest with the beauty and the brokenness of our upbringing and figuring out what’s left to salvage. It is dropping our nets and leaving our tax collector booths like Jesus’ disciples and following the One who calls us into a new way of life, one more risky and more fantastic than we care to imagine.

Most of all, running away can remind us we are the Church, and we make home wherever we go, on the run or otherwise.

To the runaways, take comfort and know you are in good company, and even though some may say you’ve fled God, God is with you through the wilderness and in the homestead.

Also, may you find out you have an 87th-century dinosaur with whom you share a telekinetic bond. Because that would be freakin’ awesome.

My Life as a Doubting Thomas

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas

In one of my first chapels as a seminary student, we discussed how people are dissatisfied with the Church because they no longer find life within it. For some people, Church has become synonymous with dead traditions, lifeless worship, and a series of mundane services.

As a former Pentecostal, I can never say that I ever thought my faith community was “dead.” In fact, I thought we were so alive, everyone else was “dead” in comparison. I thought the same of my first college community, which, though it boasted a non-denominational label, acted more Pentecostal than my home church, complete with healings, tongues, and charismatic, worship-song fueled services that lasted almost two hours.

I never thought of my communities as lacking life. On the contrary, they were chock full of energy, charisma, excitement, passion, dreams, and drive. The most traditional things we did were communion and baptism, and aside from The Sinner’s Prayer, we didn’t have weekly prayers. While we mostly sang contemporary music, any hymns included on Sunday services were sang with a lot more excitement (and a lot more repeated verses for extra effect) and passion than those ‘other churches.’

Everything was exciting. Everything was on fire. Everything was alive.

So why did I leave?

I left because of Thomas.

Let me explain…

I was taking a Senior Seminar class during Fall Semester of my Senior year at Bridgewater, and our topic of the semester was Clashes of Culture. We read books by atheist authors who argued that Christianity was preventing America from advancing culturally, technologically, and intellectually compared to the rest of the world, which was more secular. We debated reading the Bible literally as opposed to metaphorically or in a historical-critical way.

To me, it seemed as if this class was tailor made to completely rip from under my feet the rug that had been my faith, turning everything which I held dear and cherished as the bedrock of my life into worthless, illegitimate, out-dated rags fit for no one.

I had so many questions that I was afraid to ask, not because I thought they would be brushed aside, but because I feared cookie-cutter answers and Band-Aids over wounds that needed further medical treatment, maybe even some surgery. I feared asking questions because I feared being treated like a project. I feared asking questions because I didn’t want people to pray that I would have more faith to overcome my doubt so I could conform once again to their proper mold.

Suddenly, the mold that had given me life and purpose left me feeling claustrophobic and fake. I knew if I stayed within this mold, if my questions remained in the dark of my fear and never saw the light of my confession, I would die on the inside.

I knew if I couldn’t ask why there were more sermon series on sexual purity than simplifying our lives, why we donated gobs of money to pay for unnecessary church renovations instead of feeding the hungry, or why God would send countless people to hell because they didn’t believe the “right” things, my faith would have shriveled up within me. The church that had brought me so much life and made other communities pale in comparison would kill my soul if I couldn’t get my greatest fears and questions out.

This was around the time two things happen: I became a big fan of Jesus’ disciple Thomas, and I started going to RISE.

In churches I’ve been to that have mentioned Thomas in any number of their services, Thomas is not portrayed as a role model. In fact, he is portrayed as quite the opposite. When I have heard Thomas’ story spoken of by pastors, he has been portrayed as someone whose example we would be better off not following. Yes, they have told me, you will at times be like Thomas and doubt God and Jesus and all sorts of matters related to the Christian faith, but when you find yourself in those times, try to get out of them as soon as possible.

Don’t sit in doubt. Don’t wrestle with doubt. Don’t try to understand what or why you doubt. Just get out of it. If doubt is a desert of slavery, unquestioning faith is the oasis of the Promised Land. Pray it away. Have more faith. Do anything to just get over it. Doubt is inevitable to the Christian, I was told, but it was also not good to go through. As I interpreted it, it was as bad a sin as any other.

And that’s how I found RISE. I had met Amanda the previous year, soon after RISE had launched, when she came to speak at BC Chapel. As I was finally beginning to question whether or not women really could be leaders when the rest of the Church was saying “No,” I went to Amanda immediately after the service to arrange a meeting with her to further discuss the topic of women in church leadership. We had an excellent conversation, and I could tell from that one meeting that she was someone to whom I could be open about my own struggles and questions. With this meeting in mind, I went to RISE, where they were beginning a series about the Rob Bell book Sex God. I remember Amanda talking about sexuality and spirituality, how we can use both to either acknowledge the sacred humanity in one another or defile and degrade it.

But most of all I remember the band getting back on stage to play the final songs and thinking to myself, “I really need to think about this.”

I’ve been to services that are convicting and have brought up many good points that affected my outlook on life, for better or worse. But I had never heard a message that was so relevant to who I was and how I lived that I needed time to process the implications of the message in my life. It was at this moment that I knew I had found a faith community in which I could grow and learn to be me for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

So back to Thomas, the doubter with the bad rep. I think most people give Thomas a hard time because he’s human like us, and also because they believe he doubted out of apathy, because he couldn’t be bothered with what Jesus’ resurrection would do to his life. But now, I disagree with this assessment. I had a counselor named Randy during this rough period of my life, and we were discussing my doubt when Thomas came up.

And for the first time in my life, someone explained to me how wonderful an example Thomas can be to us.

To Randy, Thomas didn’t doubt because he cared too little about Jesus and the Gospel; he doubted because he cared so much. He doubted because he took Jesus’ life, message, and death seriously, and if people were going around saying that Jesus was back, Thomas wanted to make sure Jesus’ message remained intact and didn’t become another myth or tall tale. Thomas cared SO much, not so little, about the implications of Jesus’ return that he knew better than to take them lightly, and he expresses the importance of his faith in Jesus in doubting.

When I looked at Thomas’ story through this light, I realized that my story was similar. I didn’t start being real with my doubts because my faith wasn’t important; I took my doubts and questions seriously because my faith is the bedrock of my life. Like Thomas, I care too much about my questions and what they mean for my faith to simply discredit them and push them under the rug or let them fester and become infected. In tending to my doubts, I allow God and my community to wash away the things that have become artificial and lifeless to let life-giving Truth rush through my veins. In sitting with my questions, I sit with God, my community, and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before me, from Job to Pope Francis, and have sat with God in the pain and fear of doubt until God shines his light on them.

In acknowledging my doubts, I find life. I refuse to let my faith die. It becomes more alive and less stagnant, a living, breathing organism instead of a frigid set of rules and beliefs.

I also identify with Thomas because of his need to touch and see Christ’s physical body. I wonder if so many young people are leaving the church because they no longer see the body of Christ in action. People ask if God is dead. They know Christians by words and beliefs, but not actions and deeds. People hear a lot about Jesus, but they don’t see him moving or doing much. This is not to discredit words (I myself am a huge fan of them). This is simply to remind us that the Church is a body, Christ’s body, and if we’re not being a whole body but just a head or a mouth, people won’t understand what we mean when we say that Christ is risen and alive and in us.

RISE became the body of Christ to me in my doubt. I saw Jesus’ body in the tears of a girl at mentoring sharing the story of her cousin’s deportation. I saw Jesus’ body in Amanda sitting across from me at Mr. J’s bagels as she said, “Me, too” when I told her of my struggles and doubts. I saw Jesus’ body when a young woman in our congregation began to cry while administering communion. I saw Jesus’ body in the thirteen year old boy who was part of a youth group mission week at RISE as he became best friends with a lady named Hope at a retirement community. I see Jesus’ body each Friday night in the midst of the holy chaos that is Sister2Sister, in the connections and bonds the mentors make with our girls, and in how our girls teach us so much about life, love, and the Kingdom of God.

I think this is what I love so much about Communion. It is in Communion that we are reminded of Jesus breaking his body and shedding his blood to meet us in our own brokenness and hurt. Communion is God meeting us exactly where we are, and it is where God begins to heal us. When I saw my friend crying as she gave Communion, I realized how appropriately emotional she was being. Communion was always practiced so solemnly, so quietly, something very uncharacteristic of my otherwise loud and flashy religious upbringing. Before we took communion, we were reminded to check our hearts and see that we were right before God so we could take communion in good conscience and not make God mad. I understand the importance of not viewing communion as another one of those traditions that can become lifeless and meaningless if we simply go through the motions of it. I also understand that there are times when taking communion should be solemn.

But it is also emotional, joyful, hopeful, and inspiring, and I no longer believe that I have to have myself all put together to partake of it. This is further proof that in Jesus and the body of Christ, God meets us where we are. And we as the body of Christ are to meet people where they are, like Jesus met Thomas in his caring doubt and gave him physical evidence of what Thomas loved the most.

Jesus meets us in our doubt. As the Church, we must also meet the world in all of its doubt and brokenness. There are too many lives at stake if we allow the questions to go unanswered. In a way, it really is a matter of life or death. As the Church, what will we choose to do?