Uhg. Blub, blub. These are my thoughts every time I begin to write a response to the church-thing. Really, Katie, CHURCH? Is this how everyone feels when I write about food? Not for the reasons someone might think; not because I don’t like church or the people who do. (Obviously, because I LOVE YOU and YOU LOVE CHURCH!) It’s just a difficult subject for me to discuss, given the shortfalls of our usually-sufficient English language. Sometimes there are such perfect verbs, nouns, adjectives, to describe my thoughts, experiences, struggles. (But never adverbs, because ADVERBS SUCK.) But when it comes to such deeply personal, emotionally-charged, enigmatic topics as faith, spirituality, belief…and the baggage around them and the associations made with them–church being one of them–the language fails me. (I guess this is why you are the one who writes about faith.)
In my mind, a person can be spiritual without being religious or having faith, can be religious without belief or spirituality, can be a believer without being religious…you get the idea. Yet most people use these terms like they’re interchangeable. And the language is tricky, too, because of the inherent implications. By that, I guess I mean taking a label and understanding what it implies by considering its opposite. Is the opposite of a stay-at-home-mom a mother who stays away from home? If you aren’t pro-life, does that mean you’re pro-death? In a word: no. There aren’t really accurate (or prevalent, at least) words in my case for what my personal views are on the topic of faith, spirituality, belief. But they definitely aren’t just the opposite of common labels. For example, I bristled, for reasons I don’t really understand, when I read “some people don’t claim faith at all…” It made me picture a lonely, old baggage carousel with one floppy suitcase on it labeled “faith” without anyone there to pick it up. But don’t we have to clarify, faith in what? Belief in what? Religious about what? I guess, for the sake of keeping this post blog-length, I’ll assume we’re talking about the western understanding of God and all his peeps.
So, I’ll do the best I can. Let me state what I hope is obvious: I only speak to my experience. I want to do it with compassion and understanding and I hope this is the way it’s received. Furthermore……and also……uhg. Blub, blub.
So I’ve been to a lot of church in my life, too. I grew up going to Baptist-variety churches for every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night service. That’s three church services a week, every week, for most of my childhood. And I loved them. I loved the music and the potlucks and my “church-clothes.” (And the Mario Brothers at the preacher’s house afterwards, while the adults drank coffee and chatted.) I went to at least two church camps every summer from the time I was 10 until I was 18. I also loved them. I loved the music and the softball and the preacher’s son, who was my first kiss, on the softball field one night past curfew. (Want to shout-out a “sorry” to my aunt, who was my chaperone that year at camp.)
As an adult, after I went to college, dropped out and became a flight attendant, quit that and went back to college, I weaved in-and-out of a bigger variety of churches. Catholic churches, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist. Really hip We-Don’t-Label-Ourselves-But-We-Meet-In-A-Basement-And-Are-All-God’s-Children churches. Once, when I lived in Memphis, I was the only white person visiting a televised Pentecostal church that had a robed, hand-clapping gospel choir and people convulsing in the aisles. A big group of them took me out to lunch afterwards at a cafeteria-style restaurant, where I promptly fainted in the macaroni-and-cheese line. When I came to, there was laying on hands and praising God for overwhelming me with his presence. I excused myself to the restroom, for a little private recovery time and realized I’d started my period. That, coupled with my recent anemia diagnosis (I was vegetarian at the time) might have been the reason for the fainting, or may be just the scientific explanation for God’s mysterious ways. We’ll never know.
Around the time I met Chris, I finally began to get honest with myself about what I do and don’t believe. You’re right, Katie–church can be such a life-giving place, when it’s done right. Acceptance, grace, goodness; all that stuff. That’s the stuff that kept me going long after I stopped believing pretty much everything the other church-goers believed in. (And the music. I sang and played guitar in the band of almost every church I’ve gone to since I left home. The music is powerful. It moves me.) But the reason for the gathering–what you call worship–doesn’t work for me as a social, public thing and leaves me feeling like, ultimately, I don’t belong and don’t want to belong.
Paradoxically, having kids is what really cemented the change of my church habits. (or lack thereof.) I say “paradoxically,” because most people return to church once they have kids–because of all the great things about it– and I’m the opposite. I don’t want to bring my children up with a religion. Yes, there are voids we feel as a family by not going to church: the sense of community, the rituals and celebrations, the casseroles at the door made by strangers, the one time a week we get to wear great clothes. (This last one may just be me.) But I don’t think these things need to have anything to do with what I consider the most personal of matters, that which I find unexplainable and always changing: what I currently refer to as “the invisible world.” My kids believe in some ridiculous things right now: Santa, The Easter Bunny, Justin Bieber.
For me, this is not the time to confuse them with religious concepts that are shaky, at best, and cruel, at worst. Because they believe in one thing right now more than any: me and what I tell them.
So, what do we do with our time? Actually, we do things that are quite nice. Our closest thing to a Sunday routine is for one of us to run out for bagels, coffee, and the New York Times while the kids sleep in. Chris and I read and chat, the kids roll out of bed and putz around with their toys and bikes. Last Sunday, we called up our neighbors, now good friends, and went for a multi-family hike in the Santa Cruz foothills. Sometimes I go for my long run or Chris takes his long bike-ride. It’s unusually quiet out, as Sunday morning is the only time Palo Altans take a break from being ambitious. Maybe they’re all in church.
But I wouldn’t worry too much, if I were you, that those of us who don’t go are missing out. I mean, I get why you do, just like I worry people who haven’t tried yoga, or visited Mexico, or smoked pot, are missing out. (Maybe all three at once?) Chances are, the non-church-goers know what they’re missing, and this is why they’re choosing to miss it. We are friends with many of these types and together, we make up a different kind of community. We depend on each other for the casseroles and baby-sitters and strong shoulders to lean on. At our home, instead of prayer, we go around the table before we eat and tell each other what we’re thankful for. We celebrate the equinox and solstice and the natural world. (This is not the same thing as worshiping the devil, which I’m pretty sure I was told at some point when I was a child.) And there are always people like you, Katie, who bring the food and love and support anyway, even to people like me, who don’t go to church.