On our first expedition, we drive twenty minutes to charismatic Episcopalian church in a nearby town. A friend back home went there for a few years and liked it, and so it seems a good place to start. They are in the thick of a church split, we discover quickly, and most of the congregation is working toward full fellowship with the Catholic Church. So, we find ourselves in Mass, with three young children and creaky wood pews, unprepared. There are no crayons or books or Goldfish in my bag. Still, there’s a young family just ahead of us with a toddler who’s creaking the pews and floor quite a lot himself, so we don’t feel so bad. No one seems to pay too much mind to our noisy little ones, and there’s a lovely message there: kids are welcome, distracting noise and all. We don’t exactly relax, but we’re not on edge either, and we follow along as best we can with the service. I sneak in a few moments to take in the words and surroundings. As time passes though, Aimee and Silas only get louder, and I can’t hear a single thought in my head, much less outside. Ricky and I give each other the look and slip out.
We find a fairly new church plant whose website and Facebook page look promising. They meet in an old building close to downtown, and again we find ourselves creaking on wood floors as we climb a curving flight of stairs to the small meeting room. They are already singing, and we file into the only empty seats we see after pausing in the doorway. The space takes me back to Chi Alpha, a ministry that Ricky and I were part of in college. The pastor plays an acoustic guitar and sings familiar worship songs, and we sing along easily. After the singing, we greet each other and the pastor’s wife offers to take the kids to another room, where they’re going to have a snack and Bible lesson. There are a few other kids there, and Nicky’s eyes light up. He misses kids’ church. We listen to the message, and I realize I’m leaning forward. Hungry. Lonely for the familiarity of it, but not completely sure if it’s what I want anymore.
I find a Lutheran congregation online, and their welcome statement draws me in. We again enter a building feeling a little unsure, looking for clues as to where the kids should go and where we should sit. We find a place in the back, sing some unfamiliar songs and feel a bit awkward. I realize, in this moment, that worship songs have a certain predictability to them and these songs don’t. We listen to a young woman read from Scripture, and murmur thanks be to God after the reader says the Word of the Lord. Our kids go forward for a very enthusiastic children’s message, then out for Sunday School. We listen to the Homily, and it’s not so much this is what God thinks as a more modest this is what I think this might mean. Then, we sing some more, shuffling pages, trying to keep up. We pass Peace around like an invisible orb between the flesh of our hands, and that’s when things start to slow down. Next, the Table: the center of it all. The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you. We make our way to the front to receive the bread and wine. The atmosphere is reverent, soft, earthy. Our children come back in for a blessing; the pastor kneels in front of each one, speaks a blessing over them, makes a cross on each forehead. Tears spring into my eyes; I feel a certain heaviness lift. It feels mystical but not complicated. The elements, I remember hearing them called in church when I was growing up. Please prepare your hearts as the ushers pass the elements. Yes, exactly, it feels elemental. Afterward, our kids swing and play outside and we make easy conversation with the pastor and his wife. We’re not Lutheran, is that okay? Ricky asks with a wink, and his question is met with similar humor. This place is so different from what we know, but it could be home. It could be, but we’re not ready to choose just yet.
A few weeks pass and we decide to visit a church that another friend recommends. We find ourselves on a long driveway in a line of cars entering a parking lot. The building is massive. We find the kids’ wing, where we’re given a quick orientation by a very friendly woman. She assures us that the church is very diverse and that they only sing contemporary music, and maybe in a different situation I’d roll my eyes but her sincerity preemptively convicts me. We register as visitors and take multiple badges and beepers and numbers, then drop the kids off in their respective rooms and find our way to the main auditorium, just in time for the transition from worship time to announcement time. A group of young adults has just returned from a retreat. There’s a support group for the grieving. The men are having a special breakfast next weekend. It seems easy enough to get plugged in, to find a small planet within this enormous universe. The sermon is interesting, challenging, and organized. I can’t find fault with any of it, really, but I wonder if we would ever actually meet the pastor, if we went there. I already know of my tendency to shut down when I go to church, perhaps the potential for anonymity would only encourage more of the same. Perhaps I’m not really giving this megachurch a chance, because my heart went cold toward such things a few years ago. It’s not their fault.
Maybe I want more than can be given. I’d like some years back. I’d like to somehow disassociate Sunday mornings from sorrow, and suppression, and survival. I’d like to heal in public as well as in private. Me, always smiling on Sunday mornings, never quite able to show myself. Driving home, relieved. Driving home, sad. I used to belong. I want to belong.
I feel like such a cliché sometimes. Flirting with liturgy, criticizing my evangelical experience, cringing at my indecision.
Informing my thoughts are two selves: one who learned early to shrug off preferences and personal opinions, and one who is slowly learning to pay attention to them. There’s a whole generation of us, echoing each other, helping each other define what went wrong, looking for a way forward. There’s a reason for it.
I want small, because small challenges me in important ways. Community, noisy children, thoughtful conversation. I want bread, wine and blessing, candles and Words. Oh, the words. I think it’s my mother’s doing, teaching us so many hymns when we were growing up. I can’t stay away from the words. Stirring words for the easy times, soothing words for the rough.
A while back, I tucked away these words from pastor Brian Zahnd:
Orthodox beauty. Catholic mystery. Anglican liturgy. Protestant theology. Evangelical energy. I need it all.
Most likely, I won’t find all of these things in one building, but I have access to them. We won’t find a perfect community, but I’d like to find something that honors the way we believers all need each other. Because we do.