How did I go about selecting a church to be square one of my odyssey? Did I go to the library and research the founders, philosophies, and activities of different denominations? Did I make appointments with local pastors to sit and discuss my spiritual status? Did I ask people I knew to recommend a good church? Those sound like intelligent, solid courses of action, don’t they? So, of course, I didn’t do any of those things. I did what any self-respecting twenty-first century American does when she discerns a need for something: I recalled a catchy television ad campaign. The United Methodists. Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. Shots of attractive people of all ages, colors, ethnic backgrounds, and possibly even sexual orientations, streaming into their church, looking happy, accepted and fulfilled. I suppose I figured that, given the tenor of the times, any sect that advertised nationally about having "open minds" was worth looking into.
The extent of my research was to locate the closest United Methodist Church. I found it up the highway about ten miles, in the next town. A largish, slightly ramshackle gray frame building with yellowed stained-glass windows. I drove by it and peered at it curiously, cautiously, as if the building itself might whisper something to me. Insidiously, it planted itself in the back of my mind, like a seed from a years-old, forgotten packet. Months, maybe even a year or more, went by, and that germ of faint attraction lay there, unresponsive, until I finally took it for granted that nothing was going to come of it. Until the flood of my post-holiday gloom washed over it and coaxed it to sprout. When I decided I needed a church, there it was, in all its faded glory. It seemed as good a place to start as any.
I don’t know what I expected to find when I walked through the doors last Sunday morning. Perhaps if I had given my expectations a little more reflection I might have been better prepared…might have even decided to look a little deeper into the thing before making the plunge. But I think I didn’t want to think about it. The story of my life has been to cogitate myself right out of doing things, making changes, going forward. I am the queen of coming up with reasons not to do things. My heart was sore enough that I didn’t think it was a good time to put my knee-jerk excessive caution into gear. I needed something and I had to start somewhere.
I had pictured walking through those doors into the congregation in the commercial—a diverse crowd of happy, progressive Christians of all ages. What actually greeted me—effusively, at the door, standing between me and a safe, anonymous seat in the back of the church—was an assembly of about fifty souls, easily eighty percent of whom were over seventy. They were sweet…they really were. But the red flag began to climb up the mast as soon as I started making my way through the gamut of outstretched, welcoming, wrinkled hands. I wish I could say it got better after I finally achieved safe haven in a pew. But then, of course, after the candle-lighting and the processioning, the minister exhorted us to "extend the peace of Christ" to each other, and we were hand-shaking and hugging all over again. This was no surprise, however, so I put myself on auto-pilot and participated in this ritual to the best of my stand-offish ability.
Song service consisted of a bunch of well-known Christmas songs played with a flourish by a lively organist, in a key impossibly high (or low) for me to sing in. Still, I sang along as well as I could, breaking into alto harmony when I couldn’t reach the high notes. Then the eleven-voice, mostly septuagenarian choir came forward and completely botched a performance of a sweet little German Christmas lullaby. I have long considered the existence of beautiful sacred music one of the transcendent proofs of the existence of God… And I wasn’t expecting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but perhaps a tuneful rendition of some selection, appropriately chosen to fit the talents of the well-meaning little choir, would have gone much further toward thawing my heart than all the handshakes and hugs they could muster. As it was, I struggled politely not to cringe, shake my head, or put my fingers in my ears as they massacred that poor little song. Yes, it was as bad as all that. I was embarrassed for them.
Still, I told myself that my unrealistically high expectations were to blame for spoiling the experience for me thus far. Surely the sermon would provide at least a taste of what I was craving. I realized I had been hungering for an inspiring, topical spiritual message, the like of which I haven’t heard since I backed painfully away from Pentecostalism years ago. Ah, but those men could preach! Those forty-minute homilies that took a moral message, attached it to a skeleton of biblical references, and then fleshed it out with anecdotes and exhortations, turning it into a spiritual feast big enough to gnaw upon for days. Sadly, the good-hearted Methodist minister’s rambling, stuttered message, which he read almost verbatim from his inadequate notes, proved yet another disappointment.
And then came the spiritual meat of the morning: The New Years Rededication Communion Service. Which turned out to be a chanted exchange between the leader and the congregation, read from the little pamphlet that had been tucked into my hand as I entered. It reminded me for all the world of the "dead" Catholic service I had rejected back in my teens. The rote recitation of the same words every Sunday, without feeling them in your heart or suffering the inconvenience of thinking about them, was one of the things that had driven me away from the stiflingly traditional Catholic mass. I felt that if I couldn’t say the words from my heart, and mean them, they shouldn’t come out of my mouth at all. Standing in the little Methodist church, thirty-five years and twenty-five hundred miles removed from that fervent little 70’s hippie, that same conviction gripped my heart and closed my mouth. As the congregation, including my husband, read the words of the Methodist profession of faith out loud from the pamphlet, I remained conspicuously silent. And felt miserably out of place. I did not belong here. I did not believe what these people were saying. I didn’t know what I believed. I certainly wasn’t ready to profess anything.
As the Communicants streamed toward the altar, I seriously considered turning tail and sneaking out the back door. But I could not find it in my heart to insult the little assembly, or embarrass myself, so blatantly. I gripped the back of the pew in front of me and resolved to complete my half of the bargain as best I could. I would carry this through to the end…or at least to the point of making a graceful exit.
To be continued…