back to the pew

Photo by Leon O’Neill on Unsplash

About two and a half years ago, I stopped going to church.

It was convenient because of covid, and we had also moved. It coincided with my husband’s need for a church break, so we did it together. At first, it just felt like rest. After 33 years of intense church involvement, we slept in on Sunday mornings. We stayed in our pajamas. We made pancakes and sausage. We had that second cup of coffee together. We read books of our choice. It was amazing how many other things we did because we did not go to church. Astonishing.

Of course, there was always a vague sense of guilt following me around the house, like a cranky grandmother, nattering in my ear about what a terrible, horrible, very bad Christian I was. What a terrible example. What a complete disappointment. I had sealed the deal as far as the afterlife was concerned, she reminded me. There was nothing to be done about me. I was a lost cause.

I would tell Grandma to piss off periodically throughout the morning until the time that church would have ended and I would be off the hook. Then I would exhale and relax. We might turn on the television. I might read a book. We might take a walk. We might even hop in the car and do our grocery shopping on SUNDAY MORNING while there were fewer crowds. We worshiped at the altar of Trader Joe’s, is what we did.

 We unclenched a little bit at a time. I never stopped reading books about the experience of walking with Jesus in ways that were different from mine. We listened to podcasts from people talking about reimagining faith, deconstructing pieces that were no longer working, and other pieces that we recognized were really part of our trauma, not our faith at all. People were having conversations about the have-tos that we had accepted for so long, questioning if they actually were have-tos or not. P and I began to have great conversations about those conversations. Each Sunday morning we peeled off more pieces that came from the culture and not the actual faith.

At the two-year mark, I got my usual itchy feet to go back to church. P did not. He was content with what we were doing. I longed for community, and especially for the Eucharist. Something about that bread and wine was deeply moving to me, to know that I was following the command of Christ to “do this in remembrance of me”. It made me feel like a part of an age-old tradition, closer to Jesus.

I could have done it at home, with my own bread and wine. It wasn’t terrible when I did that, but it was not the same as having someone serve me the bread and hand me the common cup. We couldn’t duplicate that. And that gave me a pang. It could be argued that this one factor was a lame reason to want to go back to church. What about all the other stuff? The liturgy, the activities, coffee hour?  I didn’t miss any of those things quite as much as the bread and wine. So that is what sent me back to the pew.

Photo by Sven Read on Unsplash

I continued to be restless and wandering. I went to a couple of different churches and dipped my toe in the shallow end. One was totally my cup of tea, but not in my neighborhood. (How would I get “plugged in”? ) One was closer but did not have the things that drew me to the first. I was at an impasse. This is always when I bring the thing to my spiritual director. I take it out and put it in the middle of the space and ask for her perspective.

This time my she asked me such a good question that shifted everything for me. She asked me if I could reframe taking spiritual nourishment from a church and see it as receiving directly from God. I was used to seeing church attendance as transactional. I get something but sooner or later, I need to give something back. In fact, I should already be thinking about what I can give from the moment I enter the building and sit down. Where do I fit in? How can I serve? What are the “felt needs”? What’s my ministry?

Believing that God wants or needs nothing from me, he simply wants me: broken, limping along, confused, and bewildered about the current state of my faith. He wants to fill my cup and it might be okay to just let that happen instead of trying to figure out my payment plan upfront. I know this, I have known it, but I kept forgetting and reverting to the culture I was steeped in for so long.

I meet with a spiritual director to be reminded of what is real and authentic, not what is safe and predictable. I went back to the first church, out of the area and all. I dithered a little more and then finally, allowed the inconvenience to become a meditation, and in reaching that 100-year-old church building, knew I was coming to a different kind of home. It did not have to make sense, I did not need to immediately know where I fit in, where I could serve, and what I was going to do to justify taking up space, breathing their oxygen. I could just be. So I did. I plan to continue doing that until further notice. So come sit by me.