Lenten Love Stories #6: Home Away from Home

February 1st, 2009

For years after my conversion I didn’t go to church. Oh, sure, I attended the odd service, particularly at college, where the Chapel offered up a different style of worship every week. And I church shopped in town a good bit, too, trying to find something that felt right. I went to Mass and Taizé services and I raised my hands to worship bands and I broke big fat communion loaves in a circle of chairs, all of that from time to time. But I did not go to church with any regularity. I tried a bit of this and a bit of that, rarely staying long enough to be recognized or remembered, certainly not enough to be vulnerable.

Even after my dramatic (for me) call back to the Church body, I didn’t visit church buildings too much. I was still weighing my options, trying a bite of this and that but never feeling nourished.

Then I walked into a small, dilapidated-looking Catholic church in my neighborhood, something I’d seen out of a bus window on a trip downtown. Maybe I should try that one, I thought idly as it flowed by.

I tried it that Sunday and quickly saw past the crumbling building to the vibrant life inside. I think I may have finally found a church I want to keep going to, I wrote in my journal that night. I was immediately impressed by everyone’s sincere friendliness and the care which they took to welcome me. I also thought the music was beautiful and powerful, and the church itself is more subtle than some but very beautiful, with a carved wooden crucifix which displays Christ not sad and suffering, but triumphant, clearly the Resurrected Christ, with his arms open and a very welcoming feeling.

I felt very at home there theologically, too. There is a great emphasis on service in this community; they use their meeting hall to feed the homeless six days of the week (in fact, the post-Mass coffee and donuts sort of merges with serving lunch, a seamlessness I was impressed with). The sermon was a call to social justice, but also firmly grounded in Scripture… Seems like a place to acquire some wisdom and good influence.

I’m still going to that same church. Ironic that after all the different churches I sampled, I’d wind up at one walking distance from my house. And as I went regularly, I realized I needed to be there. I realized that taking part in a church week after week, sharing joys and sorrows, growing and encouraging others to grow, enriched me in a way church shopping never had and never could. There were completely new joys involved, like the first Sunday I realized I could hug people during the sharing of the peace because these strangers had become my friends.

Sometimes, I’ll admit, I still get the urge to shop. I’ve been at this church long enough to know that it’s far from perfect. Sometimes I wish for something that suited me a little better, that understood me a little better. But the wiser part of me knows there’s no place for consumerism anymore in my experience of the Church. Every congregation is human and broken. No part of the Church is perfect; only Jesus is. So I’ll strive to stay faithful to my little corner of the church, which has indeed molded and shaped my life in major ways, has fed my hungry soul with the Bread of Life.

I sit in the back and marvel that I’m even there, that I settled down and stayed. Truly, it’s one miracle that happens every Sunday.

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Lenten Love Stories #1: How I Came Back to the Church

October 2008

I woke up one day with this song in my head I hadn’t heard since childhood. A song they used to sing sometimes in my church when we went up to receive Communion. But I’d stopped going to that church ten years ago. I couldn’t believe I still remembered it.

Do not be afraid; I am with you / I have called you each by name / Come and follow me, I will bring you home / I love you and you are mine

I had just moved to the city from my small-town college, still slept on my friends’ living room floor. After months of applying for jobs, I’d landed one at a cookie factory, what I called “my I Love Lucy  job.” Workdays, I woke up at three in the morning, ate plain oatmeal, and went to wait for the train in the dark. When I left work, it was dark again.

The day I woke up with the song in my head, though, was Saturday, a day off. On Saturdays, I woke up and tried to meditate, perhaps trying to convince myself there was something romantically monastic about my spartan lifestyle.

I opened the book of devotions I was using to a random page, and the same words jumped out at me, the beginning of Isaiah 43:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
    you will not be burned;
    the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I blinked. How weird, I thought. Well, maybe I had seen this page on another day and that was what got the song into my head. I did my usual sad attempt at meditating and went about my day.

The next day, Sunday, I decided to try out a church. I’d never really stuck with one in college, preferring to make brunch for friends on Sunday morning. But now, in this new place, I’d decided it would be good for me to have a church of my own. It would help me meet people. I’d heard about this church before, seen its beautiful picture online, heard great things about its welcoming atmosphere.

It happened to be a Catholic church, like the one I’d grown up in.

When I came out as a Christian to my father in my late teens, the first thing he asked me was, “Does that mean you’ll do everything the Pope says now?”

“No, Dad,” I said, with a great show of patience. “That’s Catholics. I’m not specifically Catholic anymore, I’m just a Christian.”

During my college years, I’d never felt a draw back to my childhood church. The churches I shopped were Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, nondenominational.  I’d attended maybe one Catholic Mass since my conversion, and I felt completely unmoved by it.

The one thing I’d really missed about Mass was Communion. Some of the churches I’d attended only shared the bread and wine occasionally, and that never felt quite right to me. So as the Mass went on, I started to get excited about receiving Communion again. After all these years of getting it sporadically at best, I guess I was hungry.

Finally the moment approached. People started to sing the Communion song.

I started to laugh. Then I started to cry, covered my face and sobbed right there in my wooden pew.

It was the song that had been in my head for the last two days: “You Are Mine,” by David Haas.

As I went up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, I was crying so hard I couldn’t even think of singing. On my way back to my seat, a stranger swept me into her arms and gave me a huge hug.

Things like this don’t happen to me. You should know that. I am not a magnet for miracles, or even remarkable coincidences. But after all my wandering and all my doubting, that day I got a sign I couldn’t ignore. Don’t be afraid, it said. Come on. This way is home.

What Is Worship? (Why I Go to Church, Part 3)

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the Why I Go to Church series.

Not long ago, the question came up in my church community: What is the difference between worshiping Jesus and following Jesus? When our community gets together on Sundays, is what we’re doing worship?

To my surprise, a lot of people immediately said no. They had a lot of negative connotations with the word worship. To them, to call our services worship meant Jesus wasn’t present in our lives except on Sundays.

Now, personally, I love worship and I have no issue with calling it that. So this discussion got me thinking: what is worship to me, and why do I love it so much?

Although I’m a very analytical person at times, for me, worship is an emotional and on some levels mystical experience. Consequently, anything I try to say about it will necessarily be incomplete. But since that’s never stopped me before, I will share some reasons why I love worship and don’t want to part with the word.

The word worship comes from the Old English weorthscipe, meaning “respect” or “worthiness.” Starting my week with a formal worship service reaffirms that God is the center of my life, the most important part, worthy of my love and devotion. And believe me, I need lots of reminding of this. When I put my own desires in the center of my life instead, I give myself implicit permission to hurt other people if my desires aren’t met, and that’s where all the problems start.

Now a little about specific elements of the worship service. I love Catholic worship and other highly liturgical services in particular because they present all my favorite elements all the time. A balanced meal, so to speak.

Things get started with congregational singing. Now, I like singing in my own, in the shower or at karaoke, but there’s really nothing like singing with an entire room of other people.  I mean, not to get too literal about Heaven, but apparently praising God loudly is most of what we’ll be doing there. It feels so good to just sing out your love at the top of your voice in a crowd of others doing the same.

Then, of course, there’s liturgical prayer! First, we declare that we are a community in Christ. Nothing but Jesus brings us together. Despite all of our differences, we are all part of the same Body, which is just as much of a miracle as anything else, if you think about it.

Then we confess our sins as a community. I know a lot of people think this must be horrible, and to be honest it’s not always easy, but with the world as messed up as it is in so many ways, how can we neglect to acknowledge our part in that through the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do, and also voice our desire to change? And as with any apology, when I work up the courage to offer it, and even more when it’s accepted, I feel a great weight lifted and I’m all the more ready to celebrate…

… which is exactly what happens as we raise our voices again to glorify God! This is worship in a nutshell: saying out loud how much God is worth to us and recounting the many blessings we’ve received through Jesus.

Then there is reading out loud from the Word. This is another thing I love about services with more traditional liturgical structures: you get some Old Testament, you get a Psalm, you get some New Testament, and you get some Gospel, every time. This gives you so much valuable food for thought in terms of how they are all connected. And hearing the Word spoken right here and now is such a different experience from just reading it to yourself. The best readers amplify God through their reading, telling it to you like a riveting story, both beautiful and important.

And then there’s the preaching on the Gospel and how we can apply it to our lives. That is amazing because professional preachers know so much more than me! Some of them are scholars and have great knowledge of the historical and cultural context of Scripture, bringing it alive in new ways. Some of them are truly wise and experienced in serving in radical and humble ways. Some of them are just great at communicating the Gospel and reminding us why it’s such good news. The best are all three! But even taking into account preachers’ imperfections, as long as they are speaking the Gospel, it’s Good News to my ears.

Then, typically, there is a profession of faith of some kind, often in the form of a Creed. Now, often we don’t do this at my current church, although sometimes we do. I think some people in the community are uncomfortable with it in the same way they may be uncomfortable with the word worship: to them it conjures up images of something forced and confining and exclusive and joyless. I respect that, although for me, Creeds are very joyful, a way of expressing unity with other parts of the universal Church, and honestly not all that different from when we affirm our core beliefs in other parts of the service or in songs.

Then there are the communal prayers for the Church and the world. We pray the big prayers: for the Church to actually be Good News to people, for our Church leaders (and our world leaders) to be responsible peacemakers, for God’s presence in the overwhelming issues of the moment and the human response to them. And we also pray the smaller prayers, like for members of our community who are suffering, and for us to carry out the specific mission God gave us.

Then there is Communion or the Eucharist, which of course deserves way more space than I can possibly give it here. To me, this is the most beautiful, most joyful, and most real part of worship. That we get to literally taste and see that God is good! That we get to metabolize God into our bodies, mysteriously! That we get to all be mystically connected in this sacrament! I will never get over what a miracle this is any way you look at it.

And of course, in the middle of the Communion rite we say the Our Father (or the Lord’s prayer, if you prefer) – the oldest and best prayer, from Jesus’s own mouth! And then we get to share the peace, which ironically sometimes makes me quite anxious, since I am an introvert who loves people. However, in my current community I know almost everyone and we’re all very comfortable hugging each other.

As we conclude, the pastor prays for all of us to grow closer to each other and God through communion and worship. Then we are sent out in peace to proclaim the Gospel and bring God’s kingdom nearer. And then, more singing!

Truly, worship is worth it. I can’t think of a better way to start the week.

4 Simple Steps to Centering Prayer

Modular

(Photo credit: derekbruff)

About a dozen of us came to the church in the dark, an hour before the Sunday morning service, and formed a circle on shabby folding chairs around our teacher. Our expressions were serious and determined. We wanted to learn how to Really Pray. We figured there must be lots to learn, since Sister Shirley’s class would last for six weeks.

I still have the little card she gave us, the one with the instructions. It’s lived for years in my threadbare first Bible. Essentially, Sister Shirley told us, Centering Prayer is as simple and hard as this:

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.

3. When engaged with thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Turns out, there wasn’t much more to teach us. The six weeks were more like a support group, meant to get us in the habit. Sister Shirley checked in with each one of us, gently, about how faithful we’d been to our prayer practice over the previous week.

We struggled. Our lives felt too crowded and urgent for silence. Some days, we forgot all about the Centering Prayer thing. Often, we tried to pray and fell asleep instead.

“When that happens,” Sister Shirley instructed, “just thank God for the rest.”

I’m still grappling with these simple instructions. It seems so hard to do so little! And I’m way out of the habit now. I’ve found room in my life for so many more things than just sitting there in thankful enjoyment, in quiet relationship with God.

Which is why I’m glad you’re reading. Sister Shirley knew: these kinds of simple things, it’s hard to do alone. We need each other.

And if you want to use these four simple steps to follow along at home, I’d be delighted. Leave a note in the comments if you’d like to share your experience.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: taken on my lunch break, in the training room. Crazy, dreamlike thoughts floated through my mind and I tried not to get stuck in them (with limited success). I think I actually did fall asleep for a minute. When it was over, I mentally conjured Sister Shirley’s expression of patient encouragement.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

Ernie and the Feast of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

Last year, on the eve of the Feast of St. Francis, I left our church building late. The next day, the building would be alive with people who brought their animals in for a blessing, cats and dogs and mice and snakes crowding the pews with their humans. Tonight, however, had been the Transitus service, commemorating the passage of St. Francis from his earthly life into the arms of God.

I wasn’t planning on coming the next day; I was scheduled to take the GRE instead. Ironic, to skip church so you can take a standardized test and apply to graduate school for the purpose of being a Bible scholar. Some of the other parishioners who knew about tomorrow’s appointment were shocked that I’d come to the evening’s service instead of studying. But I felt like I’d already put in my effort on this, and now it was up to God. So why not spend the evening listening to Scripture, remembering a beloved saint, and revisiting why I was doing this in the first place?

No one offered me a ride home that night, so I slunk out the side entrance of the church, intending to slip home in the shadows. But I’d forgotten my eye-catching attire, the hand-sewn quasi-Franciscan robe I’d inherited from someone in our community who had passed away. I could never walk down the street wearing such a thing without comment, and tonight was no exception.

“Hey!” said a voice from the darkness. “You’re dressed up like a monk, aren’t you?”

I turned around to see a man maybe in his late fifties or early sixties sitting in a folding chair with his meager possessions in front of our church building (a not uncommon sight which doesn’t endear us to some of our neighbors). He was smiling, seemed friendly, and suddenly I was inclined to talk to him.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m dressed like St. Francis because we’re celebrating his feast day tomorrow.”

“I knew it,” he said triumphantly. “This church of yours is a good place. Your pastor gave me one of these Catholic Bibles. Now I know the Bible backward and forward, but this has books I’ve never read before, and I can’t wait to get down to studying them.”

“So you like reading the Bible?”

I was just being polite, but his face lit up at the question. He started telling me what he read in the Bible that brought him joy – leaping from page to page of the great Story with ease, shining light on connections between Law and Gospel.

I found myself nodding and echoing things he said, all but saying “Amen.” This strange man, with his days worth of stubble, sitting in his folding chair surrounded by all his worldly possessions, was speaking encouragement to my soul.

At one point he paused and appeared to size me up. “You get what I’m saying, don’t you? You don’t think I’m crazy?”

I shook my head. “I think you make more sense than almost anyone else I know.”

He smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Ernie. Nice to meet you.”

From there, Ernie told me some of his own story. He said he’d been caring for his elderly mom for years back east and had decided to leave her in the care of other relatives so he could travel and do other work for awhile. But when he’d gotten here, there was little work, and his savings had rapidly dwindled until he could no longer afford to get back home, then until he had no place to live.

He said he couldn’t ask money from his mother, since she lived on a fixed income, and anyway he was sure he would soon figure out how to get a ticket back. He said he was trying to make his way further north, where he was sure more work could be found.

He told me this without a trace of self-pity and didn’t ask anything from me. Finally, he fished a picture out of one of his suitcases and showed it to me beaming. “That’s my mom, right there. My best friend.”

“You look like her,” I said. “Same smile.”

I realized I’d been standing there for at least an hour listening to him talk. I’d forgotten about the text the next day. I’d forgotten about everything but the Story God told and this man’s story of his life.

“You’re probably thinking you should head home,” he said, noticing the look on my face. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Rachel.”

“You too, Ernie,” I said. “Thank you. I hope I’ll see you around.” And I walked off into the night, his words still buzzing in my ears, words that tumbled over each other with his passion about the Bible.

I took the test the next day, locked for five hours in a gray room with noise-canceling headphones. I rocked it (well, at least the parts important to my future). I would have liked to have told Ernie, told him about my dream of studying the Bible, but I never saw him again after that night. Maybe he found a way to get where the work was, or even to get back home.

And I didn’t go to graduate school after all – not this year, anyway. I got accepted to my dream school, but didn’t get the financial aid I wanted, and I wasn’t sure whether I could make it work in the big picture of my life. After I deferred my admission I felt mostly numb, but a few weeks after that I cried for days straight, mourning my dream.

But now, when I think about that night I talked to Ernie, I feel more encouraged than ever about my future. I can do what I love – study Scripture and bring it into people’s lives – whether I end up in school or not. Ernie did, armed with almost nothing in this world but his Bible and his mind. He spoke truth to me from a humble folding chair in the shadows of the street, and I’ll never forget it.

View from the Back (Why I Go to Church, Part 2)

This post is an attempt at answering a question from Jessica of Faith Permeating Life. She is currently taking a break from blogging, but I encourage you to check out her archives. If you like A Glimpse in the Glass, I guarantee you will love Jessica’s insightful writing about her faith and life.

Here’s Why I Go to Church, Part 1.

When I was in college, I’d sit in the exact same place in just about every class: second row, second from the left. I wasn’t front and center under the professor’s gaze, but I was near enough that I could see and hear everything he or she did. Sitting there, I didn’t have to be distracted by my classmates, since most of them were behind me. I could focus on taking down every word out of my professor’s mouth. I wasn’t without friends in college, but generally I didn’t meet them in class, and I think sitting where I did contributed to that.

In church these days it’s the total opposite. I tend to sit in the back, by the right. I can still hear the Scripture and the sermon fine, but I am sometimes distracted from elements of the liturgy by the people around me. The back, you see, is where people sneak in when they’re late. It’s where newcomers who are unsure whether they’ll fit in sit. It’s where young mothers often sit so they can dash to the vestibule if the baby gets too loud. And the extreme right of the church, for whatever reason, is where most of our homeless congregants sit. Often during Mass I will hear a child fussing, someone asking their seatmate a hushed question, or a homeless visitor talking to someone who isn’t there. And surprisingly, I find it only adds to my enjoyment of the experience.

Honestly, I love the view from the back. From the front, I might only be able to see well-scrubbed families and pillars of the church. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! God bless those people!) But from the back, I see the whole holy mess, the miracle of the motley crowd God has managed to assemble. I can see people who are lonely, hungry, confused, distracted, crazy, and/or overwhelmed come back to hear the Word and eat the bread and wine week after week. Their dedication humbles me.

My parish is kind of weird for a Catholic faith community. In many ways, we’re on the fringe. Though still proudly Catholic, our focus is sometimes very different, both in liturgy and in the social issues we focus on. We question authority sometimes (shocking, I know!). Going to Mass there is kind of like sitting in the back of the Church. I get to hang out with all the people who are on the edges, those who might not feel comfortable in a more “traditional” church but who are desperate for grace and a chance to worship. I guess I would often describe myself that way as well. And I love us, with our big hearts and our deep flaws and our comfort with what makes others uncomfortable. When I go there, I know for sure I’m in the right place.

Humble Pie Never Tasted So Sweet

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church

(Photo credit: Snap Man)

You may be wondering how my visit to my mom went – my first visit in over six years. I must admit, as that train rocked restlessly I tried to distract myself from thoughts of the past, tears shed on previous visits, harsh words that had passed both ways between us over the years. I was full of anticipation and anxiety as I stepped off the train into the hot California morning.

And there she was, waiting just outside, screaming like I was a rock star. We hugged and kissed and I thought how different she looked after all these years apart – and I realized that, whether this visit lived up to my fears or exceeded my dreams, I’d be glad I had come, just for the privilege of being here, next to her in space.

As it happened, the visit was pretty great. I credit good timing, grace, and of course, your prayers. Thank you so much to all those who prayed. I’m so glad I asked; I could really feel the difference.

Over the three-day weekend, the two of us walked around town in the sunshine. We ate omelets with hash browns and English muffins at Mom’s favorite sun-soaked brunch place, real Tex-Mex like I hadn’t had in years, cut up fruit with lime juice and chili on the bus (probably against the rules). I stole sips of her iced mochas. We walked to the library and hung out outside it with a statue of John Steinbeck and the library mascot, a small tortoise. I read to her from The Message as her bedtime approached.

Most beautiful of all, we worshiped side by side in a big church packed with families. We sang songs I remembered from when I was a child, and it made me think of how Mom all but dragged me to church that first time, how patiently she’d answered my frantic, searching questions about religion as a child, her responses amounting to, Well, there are a lot of things we don’t know, honey. Be patient. God will reveal it to you. Without her guiding me toward baptism and my first taste of holy bread and wine, who knows if I’d believe today?

And then, before we ate bread and wine from the same table for the first time in seven years, we sat holding hands, waiting for the Scripture to be read to us. The lector’s voice rang out, speaking words from the book of Wisdom:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.

It was one of those times when the Word stood out to me in neon lights. This is for you. I knew I had almost been too proud to set aside my schedule, sacrifice the time and money I’d spent on the gift of this moment. I could have missed it all.

And then we made our way to the Table together for the first time in over seven years. I often thought of Mom when I received communion at home, knowing it brought me closer to her in a mystical way, but it was another thing to be right here beside her.

Mom had her problems when I was a kid. And I couldn’t kid myself: she has her problems now. We might never have your typical parent-child relationship. But I was grateful all the same for the relationship we had, for the ability to share what we did. I was so glad I’d humbled myself enough to admit I’d been wrong not to visit her all this time.

Yes, I’d been so wrong I could taste it. But bread and wine had never tasted sweeter.

When It’s Hard to Hope

Recently I spent a Saturday night playing a board game called Is the Pope Catholic? It’s a humorous trivia game best suited to those who grew up in pre-Vatican II Catholic schools. You know, where you’d memorize the entire Baltimore Catechism under teachers named things like Sister Michael of St. Peter. Since I’ve grown up in a Vatican II-happy bubble my entire life, I suffered a crushing loss. It’s not just my generation, either. I couldn’t name the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. I am a terrible Catholic, you guys, dorky board game nights notwithstanding.

Honestly, I don’t even remember the answers to most of the questions I got wrong. However, there is one that stuck with me. The question was What are the two sins against hope?

Apparently, one of them is despair and the other one is presumption.

I still don’t know the theological explanation for this. I’m sure there is one. I’ve just had those two words ringing in my head in the weeks since the game. Despair and presumption. I’ve been thinking about what they mean, not just in the context of the Catechism, but in my everyday life.

I realized I know despair pretty well. It’s that moment when I know I’m screwing up but I say to myself I give up, I’m in too deep anyway. Then I keep running my mouth or mindlessly stuffing my face or otherwise indulging the same old destructive patterns. I think despair is the root of a lot of my passive aggression, and honestly, a lot of the cynicism and snark of my entire generation. We don’t dare to hope, because secretly we’re convinced we’ll inevitably be disappointed.

Then there’s presumption. At first I wondered, How is that a sin against hope? Isn’t it an excess of hope or something? But then I realized that another way to say “presumption” is “taking things for granted.” Not realizing what enormous gifts I’ve been given, and thinking that they’ll always be mine. Forgetting to tell people I love them. Not calling or writing old friends and assuming they’ll always be there. Shortsightedly wasting my money, my time, my attention, because in my blind entitlement I think they could never run out. When I’m presumptuous, I sin against hope because I lack gratitude and I fail at seeing the big picture.

Hope often seems a fragile thing, my hold on it tenuous at best. It’s easy to get lost in the moment, see only the painful and the unfinished, and give up. When someone tells me their depression is coming back, when I realize it’s been months since I called a good friend, when old temptations suck me in like a whirlpool, it’s good at least to know the names of my enemies, despair and presumption.

Radical hope is what I’m called to cling to instead. The life of Jesus Christ, if you leave off the resurrection, was utterly hopeless, a crazy tragedy. But I believe in ludicrous hope, in taking it one step further. And it’s not enough just to believe it; like any belief, it will take on meaning only when I live it. When I encourage my depressed loved ones and pray for their healing, when I make time to pick up the phone and call friends, when I take a deep breath and summon compassion for those who push my buttons, that’s my belief and my hope in action.

Whew. There is so much to learn on this Jesus Way. When I’m done with this, I guess I’ll get to those sorrowful mysteries…

Do you place a high value on hope as a belief and as a way of living? What makes it hard for you to hope?

Why I Go to Church (Part 1)

Ugly church

(Photo credit: °Florian)

As many of you no doubt have gleaned, I am not a morning person. Coffee does no good; it gives me crushing headaches which, ironically, are only cured by sleep. Consequently, if I make it out of bed at all before ten, I tend to be a sad, sad sight.

So why was I up, and chipper at that, last Sunday morning at seven-thirty?

Why, to walk down the country road that leads from my partner’s parents’ house to a certain church about a mile away. Their earliest service is at eight-fifteen, and goodness knows I wanted to get church in as early in the day as possible, before my partner’s family’s household could whisk me away and treat me to breakfast, which is what they do on Sunday mornings instead of this insanity.

Also worth mentioning is that the church building in question is very ugly, large and brown-gray and thoroughly modern, with all the charm of the big box store. My partner’s family members seldom drive by this building without remarking on what a hulking eyesore it is (and since it’s on their way to town, they drive past it often). They have repeatedly asked me why I would go there and not somewhere else, gently trying to steer me toward the Lutheran and Pentecostal churches that are also in the neighborhood, but not such a visual blight on it.

Why do I insist on going to the ugly church? The practical answer is that I know where it is and not even I could get lost on the way, not even at seven-thirty in the morning. But the real answer is that, honestly, I am not too picky about church gatherings. If there’s a group of people worshiping Jesus, reading the Bible, celebrating communion, and singing as a group (with or without hand-waving), I’m totally there.

I’m pretty much driven to church by hunger, a craving for this particular type of spiritual food, this common table. Not having eaten for a week means I don’t much care if the food isn’t served just the way I like it; I’ll eat it and be thankful.

I loved the church service that morning, despite its many differences from the Catholic worship services I normally attend. The songs were different: “Blessed Assurance” rather than “You Are Mine,” “O Thou Fount of Every Blessing” rather than “Anthem.” There was no altar, and the focal point of the room was not a crucifix, but a Powerpoint display showing song lyrics and Scripture quotes. Probably the biggest difference was that Communion came before the sermon, quietly, served to you in your seat, with the words “in remembrance” projected nice and big on the screen.

At Mass, of course, Communion is the high point of the service because of our belief that, mysteriously, Jesus is really there, a Presence we can eat and drink and metabolize, becoming connected to him and to other members of his Body through the sacrament. Don’t ask me how it works, but I feel it, something happening in me that I don’t feel if I miss Communion for a week. I felt it there in that ugly boxy room. I ate the wafer and drank the grape juice and it fed my soul just the same.

So when people ask me why I’d go to this church, so different from my own, so seemingly unappealing from the outside, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Because that’s where the action is. Because I’m hungry, and as long as I get fed (and inspired to feed others throughout the week), I don’t much care where.

Plus, any followers of Jesus are, in a mystical but still very real way, my family. So asking, “Why would you go to a church that’s so ugly?” is like asking, “Why would you want to hang out with your mother? She wears such unflattering sweatpants.” Not that my mother does; this is entirely hypothetical, but the point is, who cares. Unless you’re a callous preteen, you’re not going to avoid your own mother over sweatpants, horrendously tacky though they may be. You love her, you want to spend time with her, end of story.

Church, when it works, is basically Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes you’re sitting around that big table with people you’d never be friends with otherwise. People who are your political opposites and love to argue about it. People who don’t respect you or get what you’re trying to do with your life. People who just plain drive you nuts. A big mess of broken people, choosing to overlook everyone’s blatant deficiencies, bad taste, bad decisions, ugliness, so they can share a feast that declares they are family.

So thank God I can drag my sorry self to that ugly church at what feels to me like the crack of dawn. Thank God they feed me – and for free. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll be there. Me and the little church and the big Church, we’re all echoes of each other, ugly as sin but brilliant with hope.

Is That What You Call a Fast?

English: Place setting with red charger.

Just so you know, I am terrible at fasting, even the Catholic version, which from what I hear is so much wussier than the version in Judaism or Islam. Catholics are allowed one full meal on a fast day and two snacks that don’t add up to a second meal. Now, of course, children, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions are completely exempt from fasting. But I’m pretty sure feeling tired and cranky without ingesting something every two hours doesn’t count as a medical condition. Several hours into the fast I always realize just what a hostage I am to my body, how clueless it is about the fact that this is not an actual survival situation, just a drill.

“Hey,” whispers my totally intact lizard brain. “You know what you do if you don’t eat? You die. So get on that.”

“Look,” I try to tell it, “Remember how we live a ridiculously privileged life in a nation that is at this moment one of the wealthiest in the world? We can eat as much as we want again tomorrow.”

“There is no tomorrow,” it hisses. “There is only right now. Put something in your mouth this instant or we’ll see what happens to these fancy philosophical thought processes of yours.”

After several hours of this, I often get worn down. My entire being is concentrated on when I’ll get to eat that one meal of the day and whether I can reschedule it to the next five minutes. But I don’t want to be needlessly mean to my body. It’s a perfectly good body, and the excellent survival instincts encoded into it are no doubt a large part of why my ancestors survived and I’m here today. My mind can play tricks on me too when I’m fasting, and actually they’re a lot sneakier. They tend to hit if I’ve successfully ignored my body’s nagging for a few hours.

“Good for you,” says my mind silkily. “Look at you, fasting and not even complaining at all, even though it’s so hard for you! This is a lost art, you know! Don’t worry about how you snapped at that person earlier. It’s totally understandable – you’re hungry! Look what a sacrifice you’re making.”

Any other matters get labeled a nuisance, messing up my lovely holy experiment. Surely I would be getting so much more out of this whole fasting thing if I didn’t have to do the dishes or answer call after call at work.

This is why I love reading the Bible (well, one reason, anyway). People think the Bible is supposed to be full of great role models for us all, and then they’re all shocked at how absolutely packed the Bible is with everything bad from whining to murder (except, of course, for Jesus, whose most violent action is probably kicking a fig tree). Conversely, I love the Bible because it gives me great comfort to know I’m not the only one who’s completely messed up. Any mistake I’ve made has already been done, possibly thousands of years ago.

Case in point:

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:4-12 (NIV)

As with most things, if I can’t fast with the right attitude I might as well not do it at all. If I just want to feel like I’m so good at mind over matter, or if my main motivation is to kick my sugar cravings, or if I smugly imagine I’m securing myself a place in the Spiritual Olympics, forget it. If my stomach is on empty and I let my patience follow, if I use being hungry as an excuse to be lazy, if I feel like I’ve “done enough” for the day, forget it. Empty fasting, like empty feasting, just causes me to focus on myself, rather than deepening my commitment to share my food, shelter, clothing, love.

But hunger pangs can be an invitation to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. Pouring myself out in true love, I can participate in the work of breaking chains and building houses, giving up my own desires in a true fast. And when I break through to this kingdom, even for a moment, the light can touch me too, heal me, break my chains, and fill me like never before.