In Return

Someone told me once that the best thing you can tell your spouse is often “that sucks”–as in, don’t try to fix things when they’re upset. Don’t try to tell them what to do. Just listen and say, “that sucks.” Because what most people want is to be heard, the feeling that someone else cares about the hard things that happen to you. More often than not it’s what I want: just acknowledgement. Saying “I know exactly how you feel” is untrue. Telling me what to do is awful. And you can forget about “just relax” or “it’s fine.” Well. I am lying about one thing. It wasn’t a person, it was an episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but it still changed our marriage. “That sucks” is often just right.

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Three months ago, I went back to church. Do you see how I buried that in the second paragraph? It’s hard to write about. A little embarrassing. Church sure has a lot of different connotations, doesn’t it? I feel you forming an opinion. I have an opinion, too, because it’s been almost 20 years. Church is a loaded word, conjuring either a closed mind, or too much liberty with the word of God, depending on which peanut butter you buy in 2018. And my tendency is usually to hem in whatever bits of myself might be most interesting or bold so I don’t offend. But that’s exhausting. At almost 40 I just want to be. Like RuPaul says, “what other people think about me is none of my damn business.” In the last year our cruel president’s policies and my health issues have clarified my sense of self. Remaining silent or immobile is a privilege I don’t want. But I don’t want to do good alone, either. I want to work within in a body that does good for others in the community and the world. I finally realized that the place I’d grown up, a small congregation of the United Methodist Church with its policy of inclusion and a history of serving vulnerable populations–was it.

As a kid, I liked any part of the church service that was said in unison. Sometimes I’d close my eyes and speak along with the prayers that hummed around my head, while the light warmed my ear from the stained glass windows. Often, though, I’d snuggle into my grandma’s side, bow my head and run my finger along the sewn-in seam on the knee of her polyester pants while we prayed. I loved the sounds of the Lord’s prayer. Especially: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. All those good S-es that the debt/debtor people miss. I struggled, then, to think of any trespasses against me. I always had a list of my own.

My church wasn’t cool, but it was earnest. I stopped attending around my late teens–not because I gave up on religion, but because I looked down my nose on my church’s simple and steady routines; they didn’t seem like enough. Please stand for the reading of the Gospel. You may be seated. Let us pray. The creaky pews, the casseroles, the basement fellowship time. Puppets. Choir robes. Powdered lemonade. I wore my Methodism–which comes to me by both sides of my family tree–like a scratchy hand-me-down sweater. I shed it the first chance I got: I was attracted to my friends’ sparkling mega-churches—where people raised their hands in worship and sang the refrains of songs over and over with their eyes closed. These churches had rock bands and LCD screens, dark lights, and altar calls. We were married by a dear pastor in one of those big churches when I was 20. I felt happy there, but when I look back I wonder at the spectacle. It seems like some churches are designed to draw people in to entertain them with the show rather than to inspire service to the community at large. (What rock concert would Jesus attend?) Where I settled, there was so much emphasis on judgment–never from the pastor, mind you. But I can’t avoid the memory of so many prayers for friends in our circle who had “fallen away,” so many whispers about other people’s sin. And so much daily, constant anxiety about my own. It was easy for me to get lost. That wasn’t the case where I grew up, and yet it was the world I found myself absorbed into by my late teens. In 2000, around the time I was married, a group came to a church service to speak about Prop 22, a precursor to California’s Prop 8 Marriage Initiative. I was hardly woke, then, by any standard, and it still felt wrong. Really wrong. I didn’t feel like my heterosexual relationship was in danger if my gay friends could get married. I was disgusted by how people acted in the name of God. Soon I gave up and stopped attending.

For almost the same time that I’ve been avoiding church, I’ve been teaching public high school. In some ways, that was easier. There are strict restrictions about what I can say and what I am allowed to teach. I could never–and would never–espouse a particular political or religious view as the only view in a lesson, and yet my entire job is interpretation. When my job as a critic is quite literally to have opinions, it’s a strange dichotomy. So in the interim, it has worked to believe, quietly, in God. I am positive that I believe in God in such a different way from most people, anyway, and for a time, I felt like that might be wrong. In 2014, I reviewed Sara Miles’ City of God for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Miles, a Director of Ministry at a congregation in San Francisco’s Mission District, writes in her memoir about taking ashes out into the Mission on Ash Wednesday. “God so seldom means just one thing to any individual, much less the same one thing at a time to a whole group,” she writes, “and so worship spills out every place God meets people.” This idea and Miles’ account of faith interacting with the vibrant city spoke to me, so much that on a solo trip to San Francisco, I visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. I just wanted to see it.

I’m not sure why that detail should be important to you. I’m not sure about Mr. Rogers, either, except I want to tell you that I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor the other day, and I sat alone in a theater, crying a little bit as I watched him tell college kids that they were valuable just because they are, thinking about what a bold idea it is to be loving. Thinking about how many of my students need warmth. “Love is at the root at everything,” he said, “all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” It’s the same feeling I had when I watched Nanette, the groundbreaking Hannah Gadsby comedy special on Netflix, last week. It doesn’t matter why we choose a different kind of story. It’s risky, right? To be open to all people? To believe them when they tell you who they are? Our patterns of storytelling are built around heroes and victories. Power. Mistrust. On a national level, we’ve decided right now that we are going to be in this moment where winning matters. Where having matters. Where everyone is a liar. Going to church right now, being a part of a community, listening, serving others, speaking out, choosing love–these feel like acts of defiance–especially with a group that dedicates itself to serving vulnerable populations.

I’m not even sure if I’m conveying this properly.

I walked into church again on April 15th of this year because I’d just finished a book about recovery by an author who felt like she was too smart for AA’s scripts and clichés. In reviewing the book, I had to examine my own biases–I found that the author’s disdain for the rituals of AA grated against a part of me that felt comfort in repetition, in belief, and in gathering together with others who will listen, or in being someone who says yes, I will be here for you. But also, I read an echo of the pride that made me leave my home church almost 20 years ago. I decided to finally push past my embarrassment about not having gone for two decades and just go. Last Sunday, I sat next to a woman about my age. During the sermon, the pastor asked each of us to think of a time when we had felt most alone in the world. Then he asked us to turn to the person next to us and share. (Church comes with more interaction, now, I guess.) I won’t tell you what the woman shared, but it was painful. I thought about that advice from Parks and Rec as I listened to this stranger who was incredibly vulnerable. As she spoke through her tears, I tried to offer a more eloquent version of “that sucks.” I shared something in return. We stumbled through a conversation, but it had value. 2018 often makes me feel like I need being human classes. Church feels like my way to reach out rather than to reject, right now. A way to acknowledge the humanity of the people around me. Earnest connection, which is something.

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4 thoughts on “In Return

  1. Well said, Heather. I really enjoyed this, the flow of your thoughts. And I love how the “that sucks” thing that seemed to disappear comes back round, in a great and nuanced way, at the end.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I need connections and common ground more than ever. The reference to AA made me laugh, because I too rejected my childhood religion in my teens. Now I spend three nights a week in AA meetings with a familiar congregation, repetitious readings and ritualistic formats. Maybe I like it better because we can curse. 🙂

  3. I love the way you write. I have learned to use “That sucks” with my kids too. They will ask if they want advice.

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