Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Matins, 3/27

(Holden Village has someone in the community volunteer daily to do matins--a morning reflection we listen to during breakfast.)

In 7th grade, I started going to my friend Bethany’s youth group.  Wednesday evenings we gathered with dozens of other tweens in a gym with polished floors and padded walls to listen to Christian rock music and do icebreakers where we brushed bodies with other adolescents: wheelbarrow races, human knots, and relays where we passed eggs between plastic spoons that we held in our mouths.   At the end of the night we sat in front of a stage and a youth group leader with frosted blonde hair told us stories about God.  He spoke slowly, pacing the spot-lit floor.  He asked us to close our eyes.  Raise your hand if you would like to accept God, if you would like to say yes to Jesus, right here, right now, in this room.

The first time I raised my hand a pony-tailed girl in blue jeans ushered me into a back corner where she prayed for me, in a kind of frantic and repetitive way, repeating Jesus’ name in fast blessings with her hand on my shoulder before giving me a paper-bound teen bible.  The second, third, fourth time I raised my hand, no one pulled me aside.  But I kept going to church with Bethany on Wednesday nights, kept “saying yes to Jesus” at the end of the service. 

I did not grow up with that kind of church.  My Mom was Irish Italian Catholic, one of ten kids.  She grew up in a Detroit neighborhood where the houses had built-in fonts for holy water beside the front doors.  My family went to church at Our Lady of Sorrows where sat in a pew near the back and only funneled forward toward the altar for communion.  We crossed ourselves with holy water when we entered the building and genuflected before we sat down. We grounded worship in ritual, in rhythm, in the strain of staying straight-backed on a kneeler and the smell of incense on Easter. There was no rock music.  No teenagers sitting cross-legged in front of a spot-lit stage.  My experience at Bethany’s raise-your-hand-and-give-your-life-to Christ brand of church lasted less two years.  By the end of middle school the hubbub of praise music and testimonials began to make me feel out of place.  I was too quiet, too bookish, annoyed at what I’d started to perceive as a manipulative strategy of ministry: a way of gathering members rather than a means of being Christ’s church.  I got older and the religious leaders I admired most seemed to view faith as less of a “yes or no” question and more of a practice of being at home with the poor, the outcast, the conflicted, and the outsiders.

I’m only twenty-eight years old but I’ve been at least a dozen different people in the churches where I’ve prayed, pondered, whispered, heckled, sang, served, and doubted.  I’ve been the thirteen year-old with a hand raised high to give my life to God at youth group and I’ve been the high school junior who made out with my boyfriend in the front-seat of my Jeep after mass.  I’ve been the child cantor at Christmas service, the twenty-something who walked out of church because an older congregant shoved a hymnal in my hand when she noticed me sitting silent and not singing, the little girl who wanted to be a nun when she grew up, and the college student, who lurked in the back of the Holden Evening Prayer service at my university’s chapel on Sunday nights, not because I wanted to go to church but because I loved the stillness of the candlelit room and the way the song seemed to bounce off the ceiling, rising far away from the bodies producing it.  I’ve been the visitor to Jain temples and Sikh gurdwaras--standing in the back with a scarf wrapped around my head, smitten with the way people make meaning and I’ve been the student who loved examining both Genesis and the gospel of John, not as holy texts, but as essays with a thesis filled with narrative, imagery, and some of the most beautiful language I’d encountered.  I’ve served chicken soup and glazed donuts with self-proclaimed “fallen Catholics” in Detroit, men and women who’d lost patience with religion but still believed in a life of service and solidarity with the poor and I’ve stayed up late drinking Pisco Sours with a women in Iowa who told me she hadn’t believed in God since college but she still longed for a life where work could be a kind of prayer, where she could see pressing seed to palm or stooping to touch the ocean as holy.  I’ve been the traveler who stayed with Benedictine monks in Ireland, Wyoming, and Washington soaking in Gregorian chants, incense smoke, and gardens so green my camera couldn’t photograph them without blurring and the transient who found solace in an hour of silent-sitting during weekly Quaker meetings in Tacoma, Seattle, Ames, Iowa, and Detroit. 

In the summer of 2011 I came as a short term volunteer at Holden Village, a placed where I learned that one definition of the word “faith” is the ability to sit with your questions.  During my time on staff I was able to attend graduation, prom, and a vespers given by the Village’s lone graduating senior, a woman named Alyssa.  During her vespers, Alyssa read the following passage from the beautiful novel The Brother’s K by David James Duncan:

 "It's funny how everybody has their own pet notion about Jesus and nobody's pet notion seems to agree with anybody else's. Grandawma, for instance, says He's "just a defunct social reformer." Then there's Papa, who once said he's God’s Son all right, and that He survived the crucifixion just fine, but that the two-thousand-year-old funeral service his cockeyed followers call Christianity probably made Him sorry he did. Meanwhile there's Freddy, who's six now, and who told me she saw Christ hiding under her bed one night, but that all He'd say to her was "Psst! Shhh! Pharisees!"...

Personally I'm not sure just who or what Christ is. I still pray to him in a pinch, but I talk to myself in a pinch too — and I'm getting less and less sure there's a difference. I used to wish somebody would just tell me what to think about Him. Then along came Elder Babcock, telling and telling, acting like Christ was running for President of the World, and he was His campaign manager, and whoever didn't get out and vote for the lord at the polls we call churches by casting the votes we call tithes and offerings into the ballot boxes we call offering plates was a wretched turd of a sinner voting for Satan by default. Mama tried to clear up all the confusion by saying that Christ is exactly what the Bible says He is. But what does the Bible say He is? On one page He's a Word, on the next a bridegroom, then He's a boy, then a scapegoat, then a thief in the night; read on and he's the messiah, then oops, he's a rabbi, and then a fraction — a third of a Trinity — then a fisherman, then a broken loaf of bread. I guess even God, when He's human, has trouble deciding just what He is."

There’s a lot I don’t know about faith.  At this point in my life, I can say that I believe in God, if only to give a name to the way the sun shadows the mountain and the space between people when hold each other in gentleness.  I can say I feel comfortable claiming beauty as holy without having answers to hundreds of other questions religion raises about life and death, grace and sin.  When someone asks I usually say I’m Catholic, Lutheran, Quaker-ish.  But my relationship with church feels fragile.  I keep my questions as close as my convictions--and I don’t think I’m unique here.  I returned to Holden, in 2012, one year after my first visit, in part because I wanted to be in a place with the capacity to hold both my belief and my uncertainty.  I joined a church for the first time in my adult life because I wanted to engage in a community that supported and challenged me--a community I could support and challenge.  Holden has long been a community of faith, but also a community of doubt, a community of searchers and seekers--and I think a lot of our strength as a church comes from the diversity of our experiences.  We don’t know always know who or what we are--so we cling to our becoming, we get creative with our questions, we lead vespers, sing in choir, light candles at prayer around the cross, or we lay on our bellies in the loft of Koinonia, watching and listening, writing poems and sketching pictures of the Sunday praise band in our bulletins.  We give each other permission to wander and wonder. We wake each day, shaped by the stories we tell and the ones we don’t, striving to be born again to the mountains, to doubt and dirt, melting snow, mid-day sun, and changing visions.

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