Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

14 January 2007

This Week's Struggle: Church

Today is Sunday, and we’re not going to church. The world beyond the windows is coated with ice, but that’s not why, although the prospect of an ice storm last night did occasion the happy speculation—on our daughters’ part and, secretly, on mine and perhaps even my husband’s—that slick roads might preclude our attendance at the church we have been visiting for the past few months.

And it is not our tenuous relationship with the church in question that keeps us home. We’re only visiting because we are in search of the perfect church, one loved by the entire family, and we all know this church does not, cannot, exist. Because my teenage daughters require a church that is not boring and speaks on their level, but my husband and I want a church that is not inane and speaks on our level. Somehow these two notions of church don’t, can’t, won’t mesh. The sort of church my daughters would like to attend—and I need to add that, ideally, it should also not entail rising earlier than noon on Sunday—does not appear to exist in a town famous for its abundance of churches, and the churches my husband and I like and force our daughters to attend cause the church experience, for me, to approximate my idea of hell. In my moments of enlightenment, I hear my daughters sighing beside me. If I break my rule and allow myself to look over at them, I find them rolling their eyes or concentrating their surly gazes on the back of the seats before them. If, despite this, a song moves me to joyful enthusiasm, Charlotte and Lulu can’t restrain their embarrassment. “Mom, don’t sing so loud!” they hiss, and the bodies of the other congregants before and beside and behind me shuffle and lurch in commiseration with my lot or pride in theirs, and I am silenced by the horror of life.

In truth, I love all churches. The predictable liturgy of my Catholic childhood pulsed with revelation for me. And the roiling Baptist hymns--every one of them about blood or the sea or both--of the local church I attended when I returned to my faith after years of atheism routinely made me cry. I loved even a church we visited a few years later that my husband and I decided was a cult. They required members to tot up the number of people they had managed to evangelize each week, and they enforced discipling sessions called Bible Talks in which no one was allowed to examine what the Bible actually said. Their members were forever calling us up and wanting us to join, and every time we talked to anyone from the church we discovered a new rule—no musical instruments, no malls, regulated fasting—that made us both suspicious. But their services—the unaccompanied singing, the shared fervor, the bracing message—sucked me into them. The first time I attended I had to go to the bathroom but couldn’t persuade myself to leave. I thought I might miss something. Had it not been for one of those answered prayers that are the miracles of my daily life, I would have had an accident and embarrassed not just my daughters—although they were younger then and less embarrassed by my perceived missteps and in any case absent from the service in the church’s concurrent Sunday school—but the whole congregation.

Recently I figured out, after a summer of nonattendance at any church at all that left me feeling bereft, that what I like about church is not just singing with others, although I do love that, and not just hearing a message that causes me to look inward and to enter the week with a fresh burst of love for God and my neighbors, but getting together with a bunch of people who are very different from me with the shared purpose of considering God in our lives. That, I have decided, after a decade of wondering and worrying about it, is the sole appeal of going to church for me. Getting together with others to share God through dialogue and instruction and corporate acts of appreciation.

Why is this so hard to find? Or, why is the locus of this shared experience so hard to agree upon in families, especially families containing teenagers?

We had it once. Not in an actual church building. Not directed or organized by a pastor or worship leader or deacons or elders. Not in a particular denomination. It was just a couple of college girls who came to our house most Sunday nights and ate with us. The discussions we had were lighthearted, ribald sometimes, about everything but God, one would think if we listed the topics: books we were reading, dogs, problems with friends, funny things we had heard on the news, boyfriends, clothes, marriage, the food we were eating, other countries, stupid jokes, my daughters’ friends and classes, growing up, families, the stuff people talk about over a meal. And yet every word offered was God-infused for the simple reason that he just wouldn't stay out of it. We broke bread together. That too was about God—about our gratitude and luckiness to be his children—although we didn't make much of an ado about it beyond giving thanks. And after the meal, one of the girls got out her guitar and we sang songs together. Old rock songs. Hymns. Made up songs. Songs about ponies and gum trees and putting the pickup in the barn in a storm. My children were sucked in, as I was by those cult gatherings. Or, to use the more churchy term, they were evangelized. And I was strengthened in my faith, ready for the week, once I got the dishes washed and the kitchen put back in order.

Those meals were a preview, it seems to me, of the promised feasts of heaven. My ideal church. Satisfying what one of my colleagues told me the other day—trying to convince me that regular attendance at a church was important—were the four functions of church: fellowship, teaching, evangelism, and worship. Those meals served all four purposes, unorganized, unforced, unled.

But why, you may yet ask, are we not going to church today? My husband says that, contrary to what I have been arguing, it is not because we and our daughters want something that can’t be had. He thinks the girls don’t know what they want in a church, although they have told us many times what they don’t want: a boring experience where the preacher talks about matters of no concern to them. Kris is confident that such a church exists. So we try the church that used to be a skating rink and the church with the gigantic youth group and both halves of the church that used to be the most popular one in town until it split in two a while back. Kris is hopeful that the church of our dreams can yet be found. He would like to try a megachurch—they have something for everyone, don’t they?—in faraway Lowell, Arkansas and has even proposed that the girls’ involvement in any church-related group, such as a Sunday School class or a youth group, be their church for the nonce. But none of these ideas make them happy. Or me. There’s the drive. And that we’d be split up, them in their youth group playing Capture the Flag, and us in an idyllic Bible Study class we have yet to find. And finally, most importantly, there's the fact that we have experienced the church of our dreams, at our own kitchen table, and nothing we could find elsewhere could compare with that.

Maybe I just like misfits, but most of my Christian friends are unhappy with church. They don’t like the music, but they like the message, or vice versa. Or they don’t feel like they belong. The church they attend is too big, too small, not really a family like they want it to be, too much of a family: dysfunctional, predictable, replete with gossip, enforced participation in miserable anniversaries, and the inevitable feuds that cannot be resolved. One of my friends has repeatedly complained that her church doesn’t send flowers when a member of the congregation loses a loved one. And the church troubles of most of my Christian acquaintance—even the churchiest of them readily admit—increased when their children became teenagers. Is it merely that inevitability, the metamorphosis of tractable children into almost adults with wills and tastes and requirements of their own, that accounts for the growing inability of any one church to fill the family's need. Or could it be that for other Christians, as for my family, the memory of some happy gathering of two or three fellow believers in their pasts—maybe it was a feast with friends, maybe it was camp, maybe participation in a former church that figured out a way to make everyone present happy—precludes all possibility of finding a something even close to their private definition of church in the present?

There is always the future. Heaven. That ultimate gathering of believers that we can only guess at from hints here and there in scripture. Our own apartment in a mansion. The dissolution of our meannesses into Christlikeness. Feasts. We will joke and laugh, I’m sure, at that table. Talk. Tell funny stories. We will help one another resolve our problems. Yes, I think we’ll have problems, as here, that will need resolving. If we didn’t, what on earth would we have to talk about? Beyond the windows, the trees will be jeweled with ice, as they are today; we will admire them. And we will sing. Kris, my tone-deaf husband, will belt out his crazy, tone-deaf dog songs without embarrassment, and we will all join in. I will sing loudly, but no one will object. My own daughters will sing. Also loud. Tearful. Ecstatic. We will be church.


Spring said...

Bravo and brava. I just learned that "bravo" derives from the Italian word for "brave." I like that.

This entry is excellent. Everything a good blog should be. I feel silly now for offering all that unsolicited advice. You obviously didn't need my help.

I dreamt last night that you and I were talking about your book. I told you that my favorite essay is "Blind Driver," and for some reason that offended you. So I hope telling you that "Blind Driver" is my favorite essay when I am conscious as well does not offend you. I think it's a masterpiece.

I am, by far, the most active commenter on here, which may strike you as odd (since we were never that close in college, except when I was having a nervous breakdown), or it may not. I suppose that, since I aspire to be a professional blogger, I'm merely taking your advice and being a fan of others' writing.

Even though I work at a church, I have not found a "church home," as people at JBU like to call it. I came to work at the church because I fell in love with its reflective, holy, quiet services, but once I started working there and getting to know the priests and parishioners on a personal basis, I missed the anonymity I previously had when attending services. It's probably a paradox that anonymity is what I want in a church home.

My husband, Chad, and I can't agree on a denomination. I switched violently from Baptist to Episcopalian our senior year at JBU, and I'm resolute to stay here. Chad, however, has strong objections to some of the practices of the Episcopal Church (such as reading from the Apocrypha). Also, he's not baptized, for whatever reason, and he feels left out of the Communion Club when we go.

The denomination we're looking for doesn't exist, which is a rite II liturgical church that doesn't baptize infants or read from the apocrypha or interpret the Bible literally but still takes wine in communion. I need the wine. We're both picky and unwilling to settle. Which, I think, is called a stalemate.

I'm not sure if we'll ever agree on a church, but I do know that we've got a while to figure it out. Hopefully, in the meantime, we'll keep growing. And, if we're lucky, we just may grow in the same direction.

Katy said...

This same thing is such a struggle for me. I think it's because I loved my family's church growing up. The youth group was something from a dream, and kids from school whose parents went to other churches in town came to our church for their youth group experience simply because it was fun and wasn't annoying or hoaky or trite. The leadership actually seemed to think we were all fairly smart individuals, so we young people actually managed to get something out of it.

Then I went to JBU and didn't go to church for four years, aside from a handful of visits to CCF and Grace Episcopal in Siloam Springs. Something happened that made me not believe anyone when they spoke about having an authentic experience with God. I thought they were all pretty much full of shit.

And then I graduated and moved to Waco to work for a newspaper and didn't have any friends and I started to go to a Baptist church full of Baylor students called UBC. And I loved it and something healed. Is it sacreligious to say that a person may have helped heal my relationship with the church? Our pastor's authenticity made me love church again, even if I was surrounded by Baylor students whose parents bought them BMWs and who hadn't a clue about the poverty across the street from their pristine bubble of a school.

Now, I live in Oregon, and I feel like all the churches here are filled with liberals. I am often of the same mindset, but I still don't like hearing about politics in church. Maybe I am just too much of a hard ass about church. Maybe. I also always feel so selfish for looking for something specific and feel so constantly discontended by church. I feel like I am too picky about what I'm looking for, and I continually tell myself that a perfect church doesn't exist because churches are full of people and people are imperfect. But then I just don't go to church, and that's not any better.

I like the idea of doing church with just people I love and that being OK.

I like your book. I read about half of it yesterday, and I often felt like I might as well be sitting back in a classroom in the Cathedral of the Ozarks listening to you read it. Good work.

darby said...

thanks for articulating, and thereby easing, the same ecclesial tensions that erupted in our own kitchen this weekend. feeling myself increasingly at odds with church, and in danger of abandoning traditional modes of christian practice altogether (at least in the sincere part of myself, if not outwardly), my man and i decided to address our ambivalence with renewed attention to scripture and the creeds, and a redoubled effort to be present at both services on sunday. it's the best act of resistance i can think of, to work against my own apathy. i don't know if it will work or not. i do know that the only times when i have a sense of spiritual belonging is in the friendly, often spontaneous company of people. it's tempting to abandon the structure and just seek the community, but i know that doesn't work. it's the very love of church, which you wrote about, that complicates things...christ is there, somewhere, even when the liturgy's rote or the music is off or the sermon feels like a scolding. it is, as the scripture says, a mystery. thanks for exploring it.

darby said...

spring? is that you? ali's told me about you often. i'm her older sis.

i have a friend, a really cool friend, carla, who's just moved to mckinney (suburb of dallas) and, if memory serves, you're somewhere around there too? ali, who knows you both, thinks you'd be friends.

she's a literature person with a new baby and an aversion to the suburbs, which makes life in mckinney rather lonesome. she needs clove-smoking, episcopal friends who read from the apocrypha. if that's you, and you're interested in making contact, ali can throw you my email address and i can connect you with carla. say the word, spring. you won't be sorry. :)

sorry for the weird personal add, mrs. kirk.

Spring said...

Hey Darby! It is me. A friend sounds wonderful. I'm just about to give Ali a call, so I'll tell her. Thanks!

Patty Kirk said...

I'm curious to know how it works out with the new friend. Tell that, Spring, in your blog. I've heard of arranged marriages, but never arranged friends. Leave it to Ali to come up with a new construct.

Phil said...

How heartfelt and real. Thanks for sharing this.

For any of your blog readers who might not have discovere her book yet, let me give you my recommendation http://posterchildforgrace.blogspot.com/2007/01/confessions-of-amateur-believer.html

Julie said...

This is the clearest, loveliest essay on church. (I feel like some word should end that sentence, other than church, but I want no other word. Feels like 'ever' or 'anywhere' should be in there, for some grammatical reason.)

We went to a church in Nairobi for a few years, in the slums, that went usually from 9 AM to 3 PM. I didn't deal well with that as an eight year old, and Mom kindly sent me home with friends after S.S. (Is the abbreviation creepy to anyone else?) The church in Loiyangalani, though, is I think the only church I've ever felt really at home in. The sermon (which is usually reading about some particular thing from the Bible, trying to find what else the Bible says about it, putting it together, and trying to figure out how it relates to ultimate reality), is translated, from Swahili, into Turkana, Rendille, Samburu, and even German or English occasionally. People spit on the floor. Mid-aged folk who've just learned to read stammer through a Psalm or whatever.
Here, in the States, I just don't seem to fit into the typical church crowd. I think I tell too many stories that involve profanity. Although I'm in a mostly Cherokee church on a reservation right now, and the pews have tobacco spitoons, if that is what they're called. I'm quite pleased.
Ali, if you know of any literature-reading clove smoker down my way, arrange us.
Love Teej