This morning, my heart heavy after days of scouring news reports for mentions of hundreds dead in Haiti while trying to not absorb inescapable home-spun hatred, I did something odd.
I went to church.
I used to do this fairly often, though of course one’s choices as a child are limited. I was full-immersion baptized at New Prospect Baptist Church at around age 7 or 8, and for a few years, I tried to live up to this thing I’d signed up for but didn’t really understand. I shopped at the Precious Moments store at the mall and turned my judgmental pre-teen nose up at friends who scurried off to Spencer’s. I remember being horrified at the Ozzy cassette I found in my brother’s car.
Looking back, this was a bad path, and it hit a speed bump when I was a teenager listening to a Sunday School teacher rail against the evils of dance and drink (he was kind of a hard-liner, even for us Baptists). He told the class that if one of us was out carousing on Saturday night, he didn’t want to see that person on Sunday morning.
I didn’t do much carousing, not in any organized, official sense, living out in the sticks and largely being a reading, writing introvert. Still, I didn’t much like his tone, so I didn’t go back.
I’d drive to Church, otherwise known as Preaching, to meet Daddy and have a peppermint in the balcony. I didn’t just keep going out of rote. It still meant something – something hard to define but that stirred in my heart when the notes of hymns I remember my grandmother loving played.
As I got older, my attendance ledger suffered. College and young adulting are just so self-importantly busy, you know. But that wasn’t the only reason Sundays changed.
I don’t necessarily want to get into the abduction of Christianity by the religious right, and the complicit silence in which those of us to whom its message is abhorrent have sat. I don’t want to get into the issues that said right has claimed as Christian cornerstones but which Jesus never spoke of, and how so much of its rhetoric blatantly contradicts words he did speak. I’ll just say that the process of distancing myself from all that has been necessary but sometimes painful. Even as I talk to God each night with no need of an interpreter, or find him as strongly present in the woods or at the ocean as in a four-walled building, part of me misses the stained glass and the Doxology.
It’s true that these are, on some level, the symbols of which I spoke derisively in a recent blog. They are also more.
This morning’s sermon, delivered by a young, fresh-faced woman who radiated joy, focused on the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers. Ostracized by society, these 10 were driven by the human need for companionship to make their own community, she said.
Yes, I thought. That need is undeniable, but it is complex.
It is not my nature to willingly enter into a situation where I will be compelled to smile at strangers, to chit-chat with them, to field questions such as “And where is home for you?” when I don’t rightly know the answer to that. And yet multiple days of speaking mainly to my cat – excellent conversationalist though he is – have left me itchy, antsy, questioning the self-sought solitude of baseball and wine on the comfortable couch even as I revel in it.
The lepers are made clean when they follow Jesus’ instructions to present themselves to the priest. One of them – just one – comes back to thank him and receives an additional blessing.
Did this really happen? I don’t know. But that’s not the point. Hearing the story with sunlight streaming through a color-saturated depiction of Jesus’ baptism gave me an additional blessing.
I listened to a message of gratitude and contributed to a reconciliation offering explained in an insert that addressed intolerance and violence, as well as a love that casts out fear. After chatting with the minister and several congregants, I headed for my car, smiling a little at its Human Rights Campaign bumper sticker. It didn’t look out of place here.
On the way home, I turned up “Hell’s Bells,” because it’s a good song, and thought about contradictions.
Yes, I still read my weathered Precious Moments Bible with the deeply creased cover. Yes, I think that a lot of what I read there is allegorical, lessons translated by men from language to language in varying political climates. I still try to learn from it, understanding it as a helpful source, not a billy club.
Yes, I am the self-described pinko commie liberal among most of my family and some friends. Yes, I believe that love is a human right, and that concern for children should extend past birth (and that women's lives count for a little something, too), and that all lives matter completely misses the point of all men being created equal. And yes, I am a Christian, a word that has gotten harder and harder to say in a sea of self-righteous bullshit.
As I drove, I passed a steady line of traffic headed the other way on the interstate, Gamecock flags flying from the SUVs of church folk hurrying to today’s weather-delayed football game. I love God and I love football, too. It just feels like the way I love them sometimes is so different as to be discounted.
Be Reconciled, the insert in the bulletin says. God knows, I’m trying.
I’ve got about four or five people to reconcile into the person I’m becoming now. I’m still a journalist, though no longer the sportswriter whose work defined my identity for so long. I love my family, in all its forms, but in ways that life has dictated must change and evolve. I think I’m still the quick-witted smartass who wouldn’t take much shit, even as my sharp edges have been ground down by the inevitable crap that beats you up if you live long enough and try enough things.
Maybe the question, on this sunny Sunday with a bit of fall on the breeze, is not so much who I am as whose. This I know, and have known. The devil, to be sure, is in the details, but my footsteps are firm – and sometimes they even darken the doorway of a church.