April 2019 Issue
I decided to return to my old church for a visit. Readers of Bearings will recall that it’s been a while since I’ve crossed the threshold of the church that nurtured me through graduate school and the various ups and downs of life at that time.
I’d been mulling a holiday return. I wanted to see how much changed in the intermittent years, and I wanted to know if this community would still be a space that welcomed and bolstered me. But I didn’t attend services at Christmas. What I told myself was that my family was too busy. And, it’s true, we did have other engagements and family obligations. Then, my toddler was sick for a week. The holidays were over and gone before I realized. Our Christmas tree didn’t last much longer. Soon, my children moved back into the routine of school and preschool, and I shifted back into my writing. Our time quickly parceled into dance, soccer practice, birthday parties, writing deadlines, visits to grandparents, all those necessary household chores, and the sheer busyness that comes from parenting two small kids.
January transitioned into February. I was asked to write again for Bearings Magazine with maybe even a follow up about whether I returned to my previous church. This spurred me to not put off my visit any longer. I had been dragging my feet. I would go to a service. I really wanted to. Writing up how I felt about the visit would give me a chance to reflect on whether this church would again become my place of worship or if I would find another church home. This seemed so easy. Go to church, worship, and make a choice. Yet, I was not entirely comfortable. I’m not sure that I want to become a member of this church or any church. I’m not even sure what my faith is now.
The more I thought about attending my previous church, the more I felt that I needed to. I needed to know where they are now, so maybe I could figure where I should be too. They were my map a long time ago, so maybe they could help me find whatever I’m seeking. Or maybe they can’t. I wouldn’t know until I attended a service.
With my children happily squared away with grandma and my partner, I went alone. I wanted to experience worship by myself, to dwell in all that was familiar while also recognizing that the service would be different from my memories.
As I pulled into the gravel drive, I felt nervous. I parked my car and sat safely in its confines. I looked at the church with the new paint, the same shady trees, and the stained glass panels that I loved. I watched people exit their cars, one by one. They climbed the steps and opened the doors to the foyer. Yet, I remained in my own car. What was I afraid of? This was a space of comfort, not judgment. I would simply go in, stay for worship, and go home. How hard could that really be?
After all, this was once my church. I was baptized in front of this congregation. I made friends. I found mentors. I shared joys and concerns. I prayed for members of this congregation and they prayed for me. I made meals for the local homeless shelter. I sang in the choir. This was a place that once felt comfortable. They saw me, for good or ill, and loved me anyway. Would this church still bring me comfort and love? Would I still fit in? Would anyone remember me? Would that matter? My nerves almost defeated me. I texted a friend to explain my trepidation. I thought about cranking up the car and driving away. She texted back with reassurance and encouraged me to experience what this church offered now, not then. After a deep breath, I willed myself to get out of the car and go inside.
I quickly walked to the door and opened it slowly. As soon as I walked in, someone shouted my name. Familiar faces appeared, and I was pulled into hug after hug. They were excited to see me and to have me back for a visit, and I was so happy to see people who I haven’t seen in years. My nervousness floated away with each warm welcome.
I felt like I was coming home.
I chatted about my kids, my partner, and our life in Florida. The kids from the youth group I once led have grown up. Some are in college; some are married. Many of the congregants I knew are gone. They’ve moved away or found new churches. I can’t bear to ask about some of the absent; I fear what I will hear. I’m afraid that some of the older congregants that I don’t see have taken ill or died in my absence. I’m not sure that I can handle the bad news.
The membership has changed. There are fewer people that I know and more that I don’t. I make small talk with strangers. They are kind and curious. I get introduced to the new pastor. She’s fierce, funny, and thoughtful. Her stole featured a comma, which made me like her instantly. Never place a period where God has placed a comma. I’ve always appreciated the Gracie Allen quote that the UCC adopted as a part of its Stillspeaking campaign, and, certainly, I remain nowhere close to a full stop on this ecclesial journey.
After greeting old friends, I grabbed a cup of coffee from a sitting room, which was previously a classroom. My nerves returned. I quickly ducked inside the sanctuary before I could be pulled into any more small talk. I surveyed the sanctuary looking for clues of how the church has changed. I felt remarkably alone as members moved to their seats in a sanctuary that no longer seemed familiar.
I relentlessly studied the printed program as much to figure out their worship now as to have something to do. I sought to look engaged to distance myself from those sitting near me. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I was an interloper in their midst, and I questioned once again what I was doing at this church. What did I hope to find? Community? Spirituality? Meaning? None of the usual answers seemed quite right at this point in my life.
The service started late. I would have been surprised if it had started on time. This church is not known for promptness, which would have annoyed me years ago, but now I find it endearingly familiar. The opening song was “Come, Now is the Time for Worship.” I sang this song at this church so many times, and now, I was singing it again. As we sang together, tears stung my eyes. I didn’t know how much I missed this place until that moment. It felt like habit to be back. Other songs were less comforting, but I stood and sang any way. The pastor welcomed us into the space as whole people, who could worship free of what ails us for at least the hour of service. Tears gathered in my eyes again.
I listened to the many prayer concerns, the reading of scripture, the sermon, and to songs. The concerns overwhelmed me. There were mentions of illness, death, grief, and mourning. The sheer stress of the world bearing down on bodies appeared in each request. Life’s hardness was on full display. My concerns seemed petty and small. I kept them to myself.
I waited for communion. It was a fluke that the service I attended included this sacrament. The open table of communion was one of the main reasons I started attending this UCC church. The previous churches I attended barred people from communion rather than welcoming them to participate. The table was open in here, no matter who I happened to be. I stood with everyone else and shuffled into line. I dipped my gluten-free bread into grape juice. For a moment, I was home.
After the service, I started humming Miranda Lambert’s song, “The House that Built Me,” which is about returning home to only find it’s not really there anymore. She sings, I thought if I could touch this place or feel it, this brokenness inside me might start healing. If I could be here in this place, maybe I could be whole for a moment. Maybe I could heal my brokenness. Other congregants come to be healed and heard. Maybe I could find what I was seeking. Maybe I couldn’t.
This church felt like home, but it also wasn’t. I felt like I returned home only to discover that the furniture had been rearranged in my absence. The same comfy chair and sofa are still there, but they have been moved slightly. Everything feels familiar, but also slightly off. The house appears to be comfortable place that I left, but I’m disoriented by the small changes. I’m not sure this is the church for me any longer. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I did tell them I would visit again. And I will.
I’ll return because this church made me feel welcome. The congregation was glad to have me back despite my long absence, and those warm greetings made me realize that there’s a place for me in this church if I want there to be. I just have to figure out for myself what that place is and how it fits into the rest of a life that is very different from the student life that brought me to this church in the first place.
“Every separation is a link,” Simone Weil wrote. I’ve felt that separation and its pull to connection. I’m beginning to look and listen for signs of a new link between the church I once knew and the church that might connect to the me I am now.
"Greeting Hug," by samuraijohnny, 2008. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0