Thursday, September 13, 2007

Finding my place--very long and rambling

I'm trying to find my place at my new church. I woke up this morning to realize that I'm rather engaged, suddenly. I'm a confirmation mentor, a Stephen Minister, a member of the Chancel and Bell choirs, attendee of that crafty group of women that meet monthly on Friday evenings to talk and create. And I hit a Thursday AM Bible study this morning. Huh. Imagine that. What has possessed me?

I left my old church last fall. The kids and I had been worshiping at P for 10 years, following Carl there when he took a choir director job. I was not wedded to the place, though I found the denomination (United Church of Christ) generally to my liking, if a bit over-pleasing and amorphous. But I stayed on with the kids after Carl left to become a Bach Lutheran. Did a bit of intellectual work and decided it would be best for the kids to stay put.

And I wasn't sure if I would fit in at a church where God always seems to be He and where politics aren't mentioned from the pulpit. Wasn't sure that my likes would be welcomed at Grace. Way liberal both in politics and theology. I meditate. God is neither personal nor puppeteer, if I even know Her at all.

Truth be told, I'm one of those boring souls who isn't ever sure that her likes are welcomed anywhere. I say "boring" because it's so self-involved. Get a life. And I'm hardly alone. Lots of people feel the same way. Guess that's one group I would fit into . . . . But most often, not so much. Anywhere. Church is the least of it. But also perhaps the most, as my life since marriage has revolved around church.

I started out as nothing, denominationally speaking. Raised in a home where Sunday mornings were reserved for very pleasant mornings of bagels and a leisurely perusal of the newspaper. The religious upbringing I took from my growing up was that religion was a crutch for the possibly weak-minded who needed it. And it was a crutch that often seemed to bludgeon its users, taking advantage of them in numerous financial ways.

The day I joined my husband's American Baptist church home was probably not the proudest moment of my parent's lives(though I know they are proud of me, generally speaking). Yet they'd raised me to think and ponder. And I'd always had a hunger to know what it was, exactly, that other people were doing Sunday mornings. Maybe it was a separateness thing, another way that I didn't fit in.

Either way, I read the Bible extensively in high school (you didn't know, did you Dad?), reveling in the language of King James. I came back to the psalms again and again, fixing on the comforting images of God as knowing and knowable shepherd.

We see what we want--or need--to see. :-)

When I hit college, I explored a few churches on my own. I remember the Methodist church most clearly, as it had the best (read loudest) organ, shaking the pews below while voices soared above. I fell into friendships with Christians in my dorm. And they were absolutely capital C Christians of the born again variety.

That was a little much for me. I tried, but utterly failed, to take in the notion of a personal God yanking my strings and a literal inerrant Bible. It seemed terribly comforting, though. And it required little thought. I wasn't sure why Bible study was so attractive in these circles, since actually critical analysis of the texts was not exactly encouraged. Plus, they were all Republicans. Not a good fit.

So I readily left that group to attend church with Carl at First Baptist. May not sound like a step away from the born agains. I guess probably most of those at First Baptist would have answered the altar call.
But there were Democrats there. And thinkers, too. It was an intellectually stimulating and intimidating place, full of Michigan professors.

I spoke little, but did open my mouth wide enough to sing in my first church choir. It was a transformative experience, worshiping through song. My last organized vocal experience was taking the role of Smitty in "How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying". I'd never acted or sung before, having been chosen for the role simply because I could carry a tune and was richly sarcastic. Copping an attitude and pitch production do not an musical actress make.

But making music that wasn't about me, that was about something so much more than one? Doing it well, so that the silence afterward was more than applause, a space that none of us dared inhabit, as we knew the music and where we were had been taken to by it had nothing to do with our mere voices? That was my first indoor encounter with God.

We left First Baptist when we moved to Chicago. And so was launched our period of church shopping. We assumed we'd attend an American Baptist church. It was my husband's denomination of birth--his father and brother were both ABC ministers. ABC is the "liberal" Baptist denomination. So we tried out the local ABC church.

Yikes. Met some wonderful people there. But the pastor was to die for. And I don't mean that in a good way. I mean I think I might've died if I'd had to worship with him on a regular basis. Machiavellian. Bring 'em to Christ by any means feasible. My favorite event was the communion during which he urged everyone to take the wine and bread, even if you were a non-believer. Don't worry, you won't have to take it if you don't want to. Then he did some manipulative song and dance about well you could put it back but why not take it or some such crap. Then there were the candy canes with the blood of Jesus on them . . . .

We left that church. Tried the Methodist church up the block. Nice place, nice organ, nice people. But it was small then, with no kids. Didn't seem right. So, after a few months, we whimsically drove up the North Shore to visit North Shore Baptist one Sunday. Just because.

We stayed 9 years. It was a long trip each Sunday. And Wednesday. And all the evenings in between, as I started serving on various boards and councils and search committees. For a while, it was worth it. Thoughtful pastors, good friends, and great worship made the driving a very necessary evil.

Carl served as music director. Our kids were born and dedicated there. OK, they weren't actually born there . . . though I did go into labor with Annie during the 11am worship service. It was an odd place, with gay pillars of the church firmly ensconced in the closet and multi-culturalism practiced and preached with a fair amount of teeth-bared polite bloodshed.

Oddly enough, though, I felt at home there. It was conservative. I had to do lots of mental tap dancing and u-hauling to make what I believe fit into the general ABC structure around me. Why go through such machinations?

Because God was indoors again, and I saw Him in people I loved. Shocked the hell out of me. Sometimes, during communion, I would look out of the choir loft at the congregation, look around at my singing friends, and weep. Not mist up, which is usually the best I can do in the crying department. But sob with joy because, why?

I was known. I knew. And God was. In some way bigger way than I ever comprehended. You want more, you want clarity? Ask a theologian.

Then the bloodshed grew most impolite. Our beloved pastor "chose" to leave during a nasty fight about gays. He took my best friend, his wife, with him. Even as I sat on the search committee to replace him, it became clear to me that I could no longer worship here, in this place that was so ready to judge and exclude. Absolutely, I know that God doesn't reside in one person or one pastor. But it felt to me like God had left the building and that I should, too.

Plus, the drive was killing us, the kids were getting older, and we wanted a church closer to home so they could easily be involved. That's what we said when we left. and maybe it's why we did leave. Or maybe not.

So Carl saw a poster somewhere advertising the job at P. He asked if he should look into it. Was probably a bit shocked when I said yes. It felt very fated to be when I showed up on a Sunday morning to check it out. Sitting in the pew in front of me were Steve and Karen, dear friends from North Shore who, serendipitously, were also trying out Pilgrim that Sunday. He took the job.

But it was never a good fit, for him or me. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. But there wasn't much going on about God in that church during worship for me. It was mostly about us, and how great we were because we were liberal and celebrated diversity. The self-congratulation was a bit suffocating.

A new pastor came in shortly after we joined. Interesting preacher. Fascinating woman. We became close friends. Then she started in on Carl--and never quit. Without adding several thousand words more than I've already written, let's just say she
was rather unpastoral. Mean. Demeaning and unprofessional. A number of times. It was hard.

She was sorry when he left, but never seemed to understand her role in the leaving. I stayed, but never felt liberal enough. I liked classical music. During worship. I didn't really want to dance or shake maracas. I didn't like Republican ideology, but didn't want Republican people denigrated from the pulpit. I thought a diverse congregation was good, but not the most important thing. At a church, I thought that was supposed to be God.
I wanted worship to be about God, not us. There was no awe in that place for me, even when we sang "Our God is an Awesome God" over and over.

Four years after Carl left Pilgrim, he took a job filling in as choir director at his church, Grace Lutheran. Big fancy place in River Forest. I had come to a few services over the years. Felt out of it as I didn't know the liturgy and the women were dressed to the nines. No one looked unsure or questioning or opinionated. Not that I was judging on looks or anything. But I met parents I liked when Annie attended the great school at Grace. Got a little more comfortable there. Listened to some sermons and heard a theology I could live with.

A year ago, a father of one of Annie's classmate died. I was invited to sing in the choir for the funeral. I did. It was a sweetly (but not saccharine-y) moving service of rock and roll, Bach, and words. When we finished, I turned to Annie and said, "Sometimes, I wish we were going to church here". She said, "Why don't we?" So now we do.

Moving churches has been wrenching each and every time, even if the moves were each voluntary and welcome. We were at each church long enough to make connections. So, even when I didn't "fit", I was a part of things. That at least gives the appearance of belonging to someone who feels apart.

The first years at a church are always hard, even if good. There is so much history surrounding each person--and each of those persons to whom that person is connected. It's like the web of roots beneath a tree. You know it exists, but you don't know who and where and what is connected to whom.

After a year at Grace, I am learning who is connected where. Its history is rich, almost revolutionary in places. Surprising for such a staid-seeming institution. Of course, I feel separate and don't fit in yet. But most everyone has been kind and welcoming, even as they turn back to their portion of that very complex Lutheran web of roots. And, by being active, I've at least crafted the appearance of belonging to it.

The rest will follow, I think. It had better. Because I'm done moving. No more church shopping or denomination hopping. I like being Lutheran. We do good works and have fun. I love the different liturgies, the hymns. Luther intrigues me.

But mostly, I want to stay because I want to put down my own roots here, amidst and amongst all the others. One of my favorite writers, Scott Russell Sanders, said, "Real estate ads offer houses for sale, not homes. A house is a garment, easily put off or on, casually bought and sold; a home is skin. Merely change houses and you will be disoriented; change homes and you bleed. When the shell you live in has taken on the savor of your love, when your dwelling has become a taproot, then your house is a home."

May we all find that home, wherever it may be.



Blogger Suna said...

I have heard it said that many liberals join churches for the 3 Cs: choir, coffee and community.

OK, and lots join because they want their children to have some understanding of the dominant religious paradigm in the US.

I joined my UU church for those reasons. It's hard to find liberals where I live, otherwise. Our church works hard to put down no one, even Republicans, and we have lots of nice liberal Christians who will point out any accidental or on-purpose bashing in a flash. But pagan agnostics like me, Hindus, Jews and all others can show up too, long as they want to grow spiritally and treat others respectfully.

But, UU church ain't for everyone. It's hard to find the liberal Christian churches sometimes, because they aren't the mega churches or the ones that make big noises about themselves--they are quietly trying to do good in the world, emulate Christ and be decent.

I have been having an unpleasant time in my school volunteering, but it led me to a nice conversation with a fellow parent who is a minister at a local liberal Christian church. That has almost made the bigotry and intolerance I am dealing with from other parents all right--one good connection outweighs many bad.

I ramble.

But, glad you found a home for your spiritual self!

8:12 AM  
Anonymous Rose said...

"But it was never a good fit, for him or me. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. But there wasn't much going on about God in that church during worship for me. It was mostly about us, and how great we were because we were liberal and celebrated diversity. The self-congratulation was a bit suffocating."

I couldn't have phrased it any better. While it's sad situation to watch, your thoughts about it were very refreshing to read. There have been very few people I've ever been able to talk openly to about that.

I'm so glad that things are going so well for you at Grace. My experiences there have all been very positive, and it's still one of my favorite places to worship.


5:30 PM  
Blogger Liz T-G said...

I've heard the 3 Cs, too, Suna. :-) Ditch the coffee, add the tea, throw in some spirituality, and you've got me covered!

I imagine that I could feel comfortable in a UU church. But I am really enjoying the liturgy of the Lutheran church.

Am SO glad that things have worked out around the band parent issue. And congrats to you and Lee. :-)

6:54 PM  
Blogger Liz T-G said...

Hey Rose,
Glad to know I wasn't the only one who saw things in that particular way, though sorry it wasn't meeting your needs, either. I wish my old friends at Pilgrim all the best, and don't imagine that the newest pastor will be content with self-congratulations. Hope teaching is going well for you. Takes a lot of energy, doesn't it?

Take care, Rose.


6:56 PM  

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