I was the odd Christian who loved going to church far more than daily devotions. I never missed a Sunday, whereas daily devotions were a pain and a frustration that didn’t get off the ground for longer than a few days strung together. Church was where I met God best. Even when I began deconstructing, church was the last thing to go — and only very reluctantly.
Despite my love of church, I’ve got a checkered church past. I once belonged to a home church that, while well-intentioned and on the surface a great fit, was controlling and spiritually abusive. I kept “growing out” of the two Baptist churches I attended most of my life. I say “growing out,” because even though they weren’t a good fit theologically, I stayed with them out of love for the community and ignorance about where else to go. They were like family. You don’t just abandon family because your beliefs change, no matter how frustrated or upset they make you.
This left me with so many questions about church after I got married and started the “settling down” process — in other words, the hunt for the forever church.
I wanted to be loyal to a church, not like the church hoppers who found fault with everything, but I didn’t want to end up bored out of my mind, offended, or leaving service midway in tears a couple years after joining. How was I supposed to anticipate where my spiritual growth would go?
I also questioned where to compromise, because there was always compromise involved when it came to denominations and me. I finally settled on the idea that while it would be ideal to agree with the denomination at large, it was more important to find a local church we felt comfortable with. Yes, it was disappointing to consider joining a church that belonged to the Orthodox Church of America, which was taking steps to further limit women’s involvement, but if that particular church was pastored by a self-proclaimed feminist, I wasn’t going to complain.
But finding out I was pregnant shook up our options. If we homeschooled, church might be a major social outlet, so a church with young families was more critical. Since we wanted our son baptized and able to take communion from birth, that quickly eliminated most options previously available to us as two baptized adults. I was initially willing to belong to a more male-dominated church, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of raising a child, particularly a girl, in a church that told her her womanhood barred her from service.
And these are just a few of the beliefs I could have personally overlooked; they either didn’t affect me and my husband because we were baptized adults, or they didn’t affect us because we knew tradition and theology well enough that disagreement didn’t confuse our faith. Now that we had to consider what we wanted our son to see, hear, and participate in, our options narrowed.
For a while, Erich and I visited an Orthodox church. We loved the liturgy, the theology, and the people of that church. Ultimately, we decided against it because I wasn’t comfortable with their anti-egalitarian overtones and because it was hard as Westerners to get our foot into the door of an Eastern church. The Eastern church calendar is different than the Western, which would alienate us from our Western families’ religious celebrations and practices.
And as petty as this is, the community felt foreign to us without some of the Western trappings of groups and adult Sunday school, and with the rigorous process of catechesis and chrismation. We were already shy, lonely, and totally new to the real world. Joining our family to an unfamiliar church tradition proved too much for our faith and social capacities at the time.
So for those reasons, and other reasons I’ll share at another time, we didn’t go to church for the majority of this year. When we did go, we would never go two Sundays in a row. It held little meaning for us, as I didn’t consider myself a Christian, and we were in the middle of moving, and church exacerbated spiritual and social problems.
Even after I decided to go back to Christianity, and even after we settled into the area we hope to live in for the rest of our lives, we were slow to find a church. And I will shamelessly admit this is partly because having two days a week to sleep in is glorious. But mostly, again, what was the point?
Then cancer and casseroles reminded me of how much I missed church.
A woman in my old church had been diagnosed with aggressive cancer, and I listened to my mom share the details of how she and the church got involved, bringing casseroles to the family, calling them, praying for her every Sunday, and all the things communities do.
I realized we wouldn’t have that if our family went through a tragedy. There would be no retired grandmas or homeschooled teens willing and able to watch the baby. There would be no assurance that anybody within several hours of us would be checking up on us weekly. And there would be no casseroles in foil pans. We’re fortunate to have my in laws five minutes away from us, and some close friends and family an hour or two from us, but that’s not quite the same thing as having a local community mobilize to your aid.
And that was my pious motivation to get serious about church hunting — wanting a community who would bring my family casseroles if something ever happened to us.
We worked out on paper that the Episcopal church would be the best fit for us theologically and practically, accommodating Erich’s Catholicism, my Protestantism, our shared desire to baptize and raise our son in a historic faith tradition, and our strongest theological beliefs. Eucharist every Sunday was nonnegotiable. Sacramentalism and liturgy were nonnegotiable. Our views on the Bible, tradition, equality, and love of the other were absolutely nonnegotiable.
We’ve been attending a local Episcopal church, and I love it. The community is warm, united, and diverse. It feels like one of those small town churches you read about in novels or watch in Hallmark movies, where the main issue is how to love one another instead of people’s pet theological fights, where parishioners are simultaneously ornery and opinionated but not above changing their mind by the end of the story.
The pastor journeyed from fundamentalism to, in his words, “crazy liberalism.” “I tell this to everybody, I’m a crazy liberal,” he told me. “Just so you know where I’m coming from.”
But his crazy liberalism results in simple, thought-provoking sermons that challenge all of us to take seriously Christ’s call to love, starting with the person in the pew next to us. He manages to touch on politics without ever being political. During one sermon, he mentioned how loving one’s enemies means doing good to them always, regardless of who they are. We were collecting money for hurricane relief efforts that Sunday, and he prompted us to remember that the money was going to people some didn’t think should be in America (illegal aliens) or people whose political views disturbed us — to the “others” we often treated as enemies. It was the most tactful, convicting reference to our nation’s divisions and its impact on our spiritual lives.
Then there’s the deacon with the pierced ear and the Kentucky accent who says, “Peace, y’all!” when we pass the peace, and the older ladies who waved the colored pom poms during our anthem from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat more vigorously than the kids. And the church still manages a reverence and solemnity lacking in many other churches we’ve visited.
Speaking of which, there’s the choir. It’s beautiful and fun and an easy foot into the community’s door (particularly since I passed out cold during our kickoff Sunday).
It’s not an absolutely perfect fit. I’m more theologically in agreement with Eastern Orthodoxy on certain issues. There aren’t any young couples our age, much less those with young children. We miss the five-senses experience of Orthodox liturgy. The congregational responses are just slightly different enough from Catholicism’s that we keep messing up and fumbling around in the Book of Common Prayer.
But for the first time in a long time, I am excited to go to church. I don’t want to sleep in on Sunday or go on weekend getaways if it means missing church. I meet God there. I am relieved that they encourage all who seek a closer relationship with God to take communion, as I still feel unworthy to partake. Once again, I think church is a crucial part of my spirituality.
Plus, it’s looking like this is the kind of church who would bring us casseroles when needed.