“I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment…and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.”
It was because of something an atheist said that I started salivating for church again.
I haven’t gone to church for several months now, a decision that wasn’t made lightly, nor was it made with a spirit of finality.
My dad asked me recently about this decision. “But what do you do with the verse that says ‘Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’” (Hebrews 10:25)
“I don’t know,” I answered, wishing I had more words to offer that would ease his worry.
At the same time that I was in Ohio visiting my family, I visited with one of my English teachers from high school. The subject of church came up at one point and he said, ” Why don’t you do some interviews? Meet with some pastors or priests from a variety of different churches and tell them where you are in your faith and see if they feel like their church is a match.”
The thought intrigued me, if for nothing else than the learning opportunity. I loved the thought of having a discussion one-on-one with a variety of spiritual leaders as opposed to merely sitting in a church service. And as a writer, surely it could add to my storytelling.
Sitting in a park one day, letting my three-year-old play while we waited for his three siblings to get out of school, I started looking up churches on my phone. Episcopalian churches, Lutheran churches, Catholic churches, Unitarian Universalist churches, Church of the Open Arms, all of which had been recommended to me by one person or another. I glanced over their core beliefs, I perused their programs, I checked out what it means to be a member. I even attempted calling one, but then quickly hung up the phone after the first ring.
What was I doing? I didn’t have a good feeling about this. In fact, I felt like I was using a dating service, trying to set up blind dates when I wasn’t even really sure I was ready to get back in the ring. Why was this so difficult? When had I become such a skeptic?
Looking through all the churches websites made my stomach turn. What if the interview with the ordained clergy went okay? Would they expect me to check out their church, like I owed it to them? I started to imagine myself walking in on a Sunday morning where I would be greeted with what would feel like a conjured up warmness. Where I would sit and listen to the ordained tell me what to believe or feel convicted about. Where I would perhaps be introduced to the person that handles Visitor Relations: “Can we get you more reading material? Can we drop off a loaf of bread at your home sometime later in the week? Can we follow up with a phone call? Will you be returning next week? Have you seen our children’s programs? We have so many different places to get you plugged in to serve. We can get you into a small group that will make church feel more intimate.”
I don’t want to be the fresh meat at a church looking to save me, convert me, or get me to fill a seat, a volunteer spot or a budget goal.
I just want to feel God and converse on big wondrous, creative ideas with other wanderers in the flesh (not merely online). But truth be known, I’m terrified I would lose the wonder of God in a church. It seems I don’t trust anyone anymore who manages a gateway to God.
“Tony, I even looked at the Unitarian Universalist website, thinking maybe it’s just Christianity that bothers me, but even that one made me uncomfortable,” I said to my husband, baffled at my discoveries. “I don’t think it has to do with their doctrine as much as it has to do with the structure of it all. The organized church feels a bit too organized for the messy God I’ve come to believe in. And I know that must sound dreadfully prideful, but I don’t feel I’m being prideful by wanting to protect my own faith.”
Later in the week I was painting a logo on a window at my kids’ school and listening to a podcast where Krista Tippetts was interviewing Alain de Botton author of the book Religion for Atheists. He has started an organization or a community called The School of Life that offers guidance on how to live out the great challenges of life because he believes strongly in not doing life alone. Maybe I am still pining for a local church, I thought, as I heard him speak about his School of Life. Even his book, which I’m currently reading, is fascinating to me because he’s able to help me see some of the benefits of religious organizations, and help me understand why I am both drawn to and repelled from them.
At one point in the interview he mentions the grandeur of standing in a cathedral, how it makes you feel so small up against something so big. I decided that right there was what I needed a church to be. A place where people are having conversations about something indefinably small against something indefinably big, in which both the big and the small are of great worth.
“I find it so fascinating that I would have more in common with this atheist gentleman then I would with many Christians,” I said to a friend. “He just seems awake and alive. He seems like he still has questions left to live. I feel certain I could sit down with him and we could talk for hours.”
“Yes, it seems there is an awakening that goes deeper than just the surface of diligently meeting a religion’s standards,” she responded. “Those ‘awake and alive’ are the sort of people you’re looking to be around,” she said to me, “whether in an organized church setting or not. Those are the like-minded people you want to be ‘meeting together’ with, like your dad suggested in that scripture. Those are the people that breathe wonder into your faith instead of suck the wonder out of it.”
So the search continues, but really, deep down I know, I wouldn’t want it any other way.