This is what Sunday morning looks like at my house these days. In fact, this past Sunday, miraculously, I got to sleep in until 10 AM, for the first time since I can remember. If that’s not worship for a new parent, I don’t know what is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about church lately, probably because I’ve been following Rachel Held Evans’ blog series on church abuse, and also because I’ve had several recent conversations with a handful of people I consider to be spiritual giants, and I’ve been surprised to discover that these people (whom I frankly thought were WAY out of my league, faith-wise) have the same struggles with churchgoing that I do.
So I’m feeling a bit braver now, a little more ready to talk openly about my ambivalence toward church – and I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences in the context of their own faith traditions.
Five Reasons Why I Want to Go to Church…
1) I want to be part of a close-knit community.
This, first and foremost, represents the greatest value of church for me. It’s not so much worship, because I feel like I can do that anywhere. Worship, for me, is not just singing songs, but more about trying to cultivate a spirit of awe and gratitude on a daily, even momentary basis, to get back that childlike sense of wonder we adults learn to function without. The real appeal of church is all about community, about sharing purpose and brokenness and sorrow and joy with like-hearted folks. And pooling our resources to help one another, as well as those in need.
2) I want to encounter the sacred.
This has always been true; I have a ravenous mystic’s heart. I want to see God, to look straight at him/her while my eyeballs light on fire. And I do catch glimpses – often times NOT in church, actually. But there is something to be said for stepping into a place that is set aside, a place outside the hum and buzz of daily chaos, a place where people gather to be Christ to one another.
3) I want to get better at this whole faith thing.
Doubt comes naturally to me. I speak fluent skeptic. The faith thing, though, takes some work. Don’t misunderstand – I don’t think my doubt is stronger than my faith; both forces are alive and at work within me, constantly. This used to cause me quite a lot of anxiety, until I began to accept their interconnectedness, to accept that the tension between them is hardwired into me. My head is prone to doubt and over-analysis, but my soul is like a loyal, dopey golden retriever who is constantly looking toward God and wagging his tail hopefully. Being part of a life-giving church community could help me be better at faith, to choose to keep hoping and looking and wagging, to not get swallowed into my head all the time, to better maintain that crucial balance between the needing to know and the being okay with not knowing.
4) I want my son to experience being part of a faith community.
The question of religion springs to the forefront as soon as you have a kid. You’re no longer just responsible for your own spiritual wellbeing; you’ve got a malleable little soul on your hands. I know that Julian will ultimately decide whether or not he wants to be religious, but I want to do everything I can to prepare him for that decision. I want him to grow up experiencing the positive aspects of a life of faith, without feeling scared or shamed into it. I want him to develop a spiritual sensibility, an awareness of the numinous, an orientation of service and compassion toward the world. The little old lady who can pinch his cheek and give him wet kisses, those other kids who can wreak joyful havoc with him among the pews – I want him to have those people in his life, to be surrounded by a community that loves him and is invested in his welfare.
5) I feel guilty if I don’t go.
… And Five Reasons Why I (often) Don’t
1) I am too tired.
Okay, I know people with babies go to church. I’ve seen them, back when I used to go to church, back when I didn’t have a baby. But by the time I’ve floundered on terrible, patchy sleep throughout the entire workweek, I am beat. I am done. Even when I start to psych myself up on Saturday night – Totally going to church tomorrow! Totally doing it!!!! – when I am actually faced with the temptation of sleeping late and sharing my baby’s mid-morning nap, I am not strong enough to resist. Sleep has become a drug, and I am an addict, always jonesing for more.
2) I have high expectations.
I admit it. I’m the Goldilocks of churchgoers. I have a long list of demands. I want a church that welcomes absolutely anyone – in practice, not just speech. I want a church where women are actively involved on every level, including leadership. I want a church that loves children and doesn’t believe they should be seen and not heard. I want a church service that is more than just over-produced worship time followed by a long-ass sermon. I want a church that sees worship as more than just singing along with a rock band whose mics are turned up so high that the voices of the people are drowned out. I want a church that doesn’t have a mean theology. I want a church that welcomes a spirit of questioning, rather than imposing a spirit of certainty. I want a church like the bar Cheers, where everyone knows everyone’s name. And, most importantly, I want a church that doesn’t keep you locked in the foyer if you have to go to the bathroom during the sermon. WTF?
3) I am introverted.
Going to church can be really hard if you’re introverted. And church HUNTING is a complete nightmare, which is pretty much the mode I’ve been in for the past two years. (Did I mention I have high expectations when it comes to church?) Not only is there, in many churches, a pressure to perform by emoting publicly and praying out loud extemporaneously (ideally while using the word “just” in as many capacities as possible, i.e. Lord, we just thank you for bringing us here, and we just ask that you would just…), there is the added pressure of somehow getting to know the sea of strangers in front of you, who may or may not be that welcoming. This dynamic seems even more daunting for the introvert with a young baby, a baby who could start crying or pooping or want you to take your boobs out at any minute and attract the eyes of said strangers. Sigh. As you might have gleaned by now, church tends to cause me no small amount of anxiety, and when I imagine bringing a baby along, the list of possible shame-inducing events exponentially skyrockets. (At this point, if you’re a regular reader and saw this earlier post, you might be beginning to wonder if I have a phobia about taking my baby out in public. I think you might be right.)
4) I am tired of feeling guilty.
This might seem paradoxical, but feeling guilty for not going to church is another reason why, on principle, I don’t make myself go. I’ve been trying, in my life, to free myself from the never-ending onslaught of shoulds and oughts. I ‘should’ on myself way too much, to the point where I pretty much constantly feel inadequate and ashamed of something or another. So it’s been healing for me to realize that, as an adult with a driver’s license, I can go to church because I want to be there, because I might actually have those experiences I long for. But if guilt is the only thing that will get me through the door, I’m not going to go.
5) I’m not sure I need it.
This is scary to say out loud. Even scarier to write in black and white and post on the internet. But this is a question I struggle with – do I need church? I happen to teach at a university with a strong religious commitment, which means that, during the week, I’m constantly engaged in vibrant conversations about God. You know that close-knit community I was talking about? I have that at work, surrounded by like-minded colleagues who are also good friends, people who challenge me to live authentically, people who are Christ to me on an almost daily basis. When I’m talking with a student about her spiritual longings and frustrations, that feels like church to me. When I manage to facilitate a lively class discussion on The Book of Job or Flannery O’Connor, that feels like church to me. When a ragtag group of colleagues/friends come to my house on a Saturday night to share food and wine and fellowship, that feels like church to me.
There is part of me, then, that feels like whatever church is and should be, I am already experiencing that in my life. There’s another part, though, that is bothered by the selfish tenor of this whole inner monologue, which tends to focus on what church can do for me, rather than what I can bring to the table. Or the potluck.
So, here I am, left feeling ambivalent in the true sense: torn by strong, conflicting emotions. Why do I care so much? There have been seasons of my life in which church has been incredibly life-giving – and there have been other seasons when I’ve been damaged by church, when I’ve felt silenced and shamed. That’s why I’m taking the whole idea of where I go on Sunday mornings so seriously; I know what’s at stake. I know how church can heal, and I know how church can wound.
But I’ll end with some hope, a little sprinkle of fairy dust for those of you who read through to the end. Toward the last half of my pregnancy, I began attending a local Quaker church, and until exhaustion and impending childbirth knocked me off the churchgoing wagon, I was beginning to feel like I’d found a spiritual home – a little church that is a healing place, a place for doubters, mystics, and introverts, for nomads of the soul.
Of course, going there still means getting up on Sunday morning, so… baby steps.
[Tell me, how do you feel about church? What makes you go? What keeps you from going?]