It sounds like a joke. It felt like a joke – walking into that church on a Sunday morning schlepping our 18 month old daughter. After all, there was essentially NOTHING about church that appealed to me. Well, that’s not entirely true. I enjoyed the music – if it was good, well performed, and not any of that contemporary christian crap. And the stained glass – I could happily stare at stained glass for an hour. But this church didn’t have stained glass. And it didn’t have a proper choir loft, so I could be pretty much assured that there was going to be no orchestra playing.
So what in the hell was I doing there? Simple. I was inoculating my daughter against fundamentalism. I thought that if I could expose her early to some “normal” church people, perhaps she wouldn’t be blindsided in high school when someone in the cafeteria asked her if she’d “found Jesus.” After all, I’d lived in Nashville for a year and a half, and I knew that one of the first questions any stranger asked was, “Do you have a home church?” I couldn’t have my kid saying, “Uh, I’ve never been to church…Sure I’ll go with you,” and coming home with tracts about end-times reading: “Repent or Burn.” So I was being proactive.
I had grown up going to church. My mother sang in the choir (in a proper loft) and I, along with twenty or so other children, got dolled up in choir blouses and big red bows once a season to perform. I played handbells; later I joined the youth group. But it was boring, except for the cookies in Sunday school, and the books (particularly the ones with watercolored pictures of Jesus surrounded by lambs and children) smelled funny. Still, my great-grandparents had deeded the church the land that the education building stood on, my parents had married in the church, and my grandmother was memorialized in the church. Going periodically was just a given, much like the obligatory visiting of those old relatives who can never really remember your name.
I have no idea if my school friends went to church. Nobody asked. Nobody cared. Okay, one person cared: my Uncle Joe. I met Joe exactly one time at my grandparents’ house. I was seven. He pulled me aside and told me to pray hard for my Jewish friends because they were all going to hell. It made me cry. But Joe was weird and nobody liked him, so he doesn’t count.
I was in high school when I started questioning this whole church thing. Now, as I sit here typing I can hear tongues clicking and people saying, “See there? You go off, and if you aren’t real careful, you get pulled into the world and away from your religion. You fall in with the wrong crowd, the crowd that doesn’t know Jesus, and you’re lost. Just lost.”
But that wasn’t it AT.ALL. In fact, it was just the opposite. Suddenly, everywhere I went people were talking to me about Jesus. There were optional prayer meetings on the front lawn before class. Girls got into screaming matches in the cafeteria about whether Catholics or Mormons were real Christians. Girls whispered at lockers about who was having sex with whom, and not only did they call “those girls” sluts (which, though mean, was at least tantalizing) they called them sinners (which was just plain creepy). By the end of high school I had exactly two Christian friends I could tolerate. One was sweet Russ from youth group (where, interestingly enough, we rarely talked about God) and the other was Christy; she told me once she saw hell baring down on me like a Mack truck, but she was smoking one of my cigarettes at the time, so I gave her a pass.
As an adult, any God talk from acquaintances immediately disqualified them as real friend material. I knew how that worked: they lure you in with the “God is love” line and then just when you’re feeling comfy, they smack you on the head with some admission about how, although they “hate the sin, but love the sinner,” all gays are still going to hell. NO, THANK YOU. I got so pissed off about this that I actually wrote a song about it – and if you had any idea how long it takes me to actually finish a song, you’d know that’s saying something.
Still, here I was at this no orchestra, no stained glass church on a Sunday morning with my innocent baby. We’d visited a bunch of churches over the last year (only one I actually had to leave mid-service) and we’d decided to come to Eastwood based on a mistake. My gay neighbor told me he sang in his church choir. He said it was a Disciples of Christ church, old brick building, drive somewhere, blah blah blah, I forget. So I ended up at this church on that Sunday searching the choir for my neighbor’s face. He wasn’t there. I worried about his health. After all, he was HIV positive. But in the middle of worrying and looking around at all the faces (some young, most old) I noticed that the man doing the reading seemed pretty gay. I mean, he opened his mouth and purses fell out. But no one was snickering. No one looked uncomfortable. He walked down from the podium and people reached out to squeeze his hand in greeting as he walked by. Then the pastor got up there in front of the altar and started talking about “the bread”. Holy Mother of God, here we go again, I thought. Communion. That extremely awkward moment when you have to either pretend to be a real believer, or abstain and stand out like the heathen you are. But the pastor said everyone was welcome at the table. Even if you’d never been baptized. Even if you were just here for just this once and you’d never set foot in a church again. Even if you weren’t sure you believed in God.
In all my years (going on 10) at Eastwood, no one has ever asked me if I am a real Christian. They’ve never told me (when I questioned the importance or the factuality of the Virgin birth or anything else) that they will pray for me. They’ve never, NOT ONCE, made me feel like I didn’t believe enough, or believe enough of the right things, to belong there. What they have done is take excellent care of my children, making each one feel special and loved and perfect, even when they can’t find their fucking shoes. They’ve showered us with love and casseroles, and free babysitting, and free concert tickets, and hand-me-downs, and opportunities to feel useful and valuable. These people, these regular everyday people: some rich, some poor, some pretty, some plain, some black, some white, some gay, some straight, have looked at me not like someone who needs saving, but as someone who can help save. These fools seem to think I’m perfect just the way I am. They look at me and my ridiculous, noisy, messy family like people that are dearly beloved.When we show up after having been too untogether to get it together for the last month, they don’t ask us, judgmentally, where we’ve been. They hold us to them as if we are all, each and every one, a child long hoped for. And in their eyes, their clear eyes and their rheumy eyes, I see a reflection of the face of God. I swear, the more I fucked up I am, the more they seem to love me. Almost like, well, Jesus.
So here it is folks, straight from the
horse’s heathen’s mouth: If you want to win hearts for Christ, talk about him less, and love like him more. We are a world weary of being sold to, but hungry for true investment.
As for me, well, I’ll probably never care about the virgin birth. I’m not sure about a personal relationship with Jesus – I have a hard enough time having a relationship with people I can actually see. But those people I see at Eastwood Christian Church on Sunday mornings… those people are something I can believe in one hundred percent. And if they are, in fact, the hands and feet of God in the world, well, I’d say I’m almost there.