Sunday, April 02, 2006

Back to Church (Literally, This Time)

My mother relocated to Long Island last fall and now lives just a few blocks from the church we attended until 1988, when Texas beckoned. (In fact, she lives much closer to the church now than we did then, but she doesn’t attend this time around, as its practices are no longer strict enough for her. Let it be said: seventeen years in Texas does things to people.)

Two weekends ago, I accompanied her to said house of worship for a memorial service for the bishop who had confirmed me when I was an impressionable lad of 12; though probably not quite as impressionable as the major players involved would have liked, as it turned out. One imagines they wanted me to be impressionable enough to remain in the church with something resembling fidelity past the age of 14. As it is, they have to console themselves with the fact that I was impressionable enough to be compulsively blogging about pseudo-religious issues 20 years later. Something tells me this is not much consolation at all. Or, rather, someone tells me: my mother. And I’m sure the bishop would, too, were he still around.

I thought he was. Under the mistaken impression that he was alive and visiting to catch up with the congregation, I got to the island with my younger sister to learn that he had passed a few months before (which I’m sure I’d been told at some point) and that the day's purpose was a belated celebration of his life. The point is, it’s a good thing I happened to be wearing a black suit.

Younger sister, whose antagonism toward all things god resembles a welder’s flame, harbored a different assumption, painfully deflated, which was that we were only going to the church’s refectory for snacks, coffee and conversation. Told there would be an actual service, she reacted in the composed, quiet, human version of how a dog reacts from the back seat when the vet’s clinic comes into view through the windshield. Not pleased.

Ironically, she should have been more worried about the eating and chatting that followed the service, as I think she’ll readily admit. First, there was the sheer nostalgic horror of the setting. It was odd enough to sit in the church where I had been a stage-frightened altar boy two decades before, but when we later descended into the Sunday school classrooms in the next building over, Leigh (calling her younger sister is getting really old, and I think all of you know her anyway) nearly shrank down to her nine-year-old size from the impact of the time travel.

Then it was up to the spread: sandwiches, cookies, coffee, wine and awkward meetings. This is not to denigrate the efforts of Mom, who in such settings is a valiant and tireless socializer the likes of which you probably haven’t seen, and who managed to steer us to a few people who were genuinely good to see after so many years. Still, like we all learned long ago, your parents’ wing span can only protect you up to a point, and eventually I found myself roaming the reception hall flanked by neither Mom nor Leigh, who had excused herself to make a phone call. That’s when I ran into two men who looked vaguely familiar (one of them had been a Sunday school teacher of mine), and had the following conversation:
Vague Man #1: So, what have you been up to? Where are you living?
Me: I’m in Brooklyn.
Vague Man #1: Huh, most people go from Brooklyn to Long Island, not the other way around. (Ed. Notes: 1. I have only a slight idea of what that means. 2. The twelve years in Texas between those two stops for me throws off whatever it does mean, I’m almost sure.)
Vague Man #2 (to Vague Man #1, as if I wasn’t there): Well, before long he’ll be looking for a house in Rockville Centre, somewhere to settle down.
Vague Man #1: That’s right.
Vague Man #2 (staring into the distance now, as if both myself and Vague Man #1 weren’t there): It’s the circle of life. (Quick, bitter laugh; still aimed into the distance.)
I’m not one to be visibly rude, even in social situations I’m not enjoying, but the shudder that passed through me at that moment possessed the force to literally turn my body from these two men. So repositioned, I quickly walked away. Having been, essentially, a creature of the suburbs until I was 26, I often defend them against the most ridiculous and paranoid portraits. Still, there was something about that 30-second exchange that chilled me to my core.

Then it was off to do a bit more wandering, and I was struck by something. I’ve realized for most of my adult life that church -- for most people, I think -- is first and foremost a place to get together. To mingle. (Granted, this is because Episcopalians are really good at that side of things. My father was raised Irish Catholic, and even though he's not particularly God-fearing himself, he would often bemoan our churchgoing experiences when I was a kid, saying things along the lines of, "I don't go to church to eat pancakes; I go to hear about how I'm going to burn in Hell if I don't shape up." Which always made me laugh, partly because it's closer to the truth to say he went to church as a down payment toward watching football later that afternoon in relative peace.) It’s not that the minglers don’t believe in God, obviously, but more that they don't seem outwardly invested in believing in God. When you go to a baseball game, you often hear fans on the concourse talking about statistics and injuries and impending match-ups. When you go to a reading, you hear people discussing the author’s work, or recommending books to each other. Even at highly rated restaurants, patrons surely talk about the food, the service, the decor. But after a church service, no one’s talking about God, or their spirit, or large questions of morality and mortality. Not in my experience, at least. And I think that’s the second reason I don’t like church. The first reason is that I don’t believe in the story its built to house, of course. But if I did, I think it might be even worse. I’d find myself shouting over the croissants and decaf: Where’s the engagement with our subject? Surely, your soul’s credit rating or God’s relationship with the universe or how to make earth a bit more heavenly is of slightly more import than whether Ken Griffey’s hamstring is going to heal before the All-Star break, so why can’t we talk about it? (Luckily, being a non-believer myself, I’m able to fervently discuss Griffey’s hamstring without such concerns. Whew.)

I also think this is why I love discussing religion with those who are no longer directly influenced by it but still wrestle with the one-time influence it had -- because unlike true believers and confident naysayers, the subject means something to them in a way that isn’t always obvious to them, and that makes for good conversation. And when talking about it, I prefer whiskey to coffee, and Radiohead to hymns.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again, beautiful. However, it's worth noting that some people do talk about their spiritual development constantly. These people can be called "Southern Baptists," but I like to call them "annoying."

Seriously, I don't think it's a lack of concern that causes people to not discuss their spiritual growth with others. It's a lack of vocabulary. We can talk about batting average and ERA in baseball, but how do you quantify how you're doing spiritually? And more than that, how do you know how you're doing spiritually? Wouldn't that require knowing how God keeps score? And if you're going to discuss it, won't you have to confess to all these people at church the fact that you stole a glance at that 16 year old waitress's chest, and that you sat on your couch and rolled your eyes at a Sally Struthers commercial yesterday, and that you honestly thought about skipping church today just so you wouldn't have to face Jack Branson's cloying friendliness?

Not only do people not want to hear about these things, they're none of these people's business. How I'm doing with God is a matter that's generally between me and God. And sometimes my Christian friends will ask about how I'm doing spiritually, and sometimes I'll discuss it. But I don't talk about it all the time because it's so dang all-encompassing -- it would entail discussing literally everything that's going on in my life -- and because it's so specific -- it involves only God and me. And also because nobody wants to hear it, and I don't want to tell it.

But then again, I could just be making excuses.

-- Comish

2:02 PM  
Blogger SoW said...

your last paragraph sums it very well and conveys a message that is not often expressed

9:08 PM  
Blogger lmha said...

I'm going to pretend you didn't just insult me by saying that spending 17 years in Texas will automatically render one's religious leanings to the "strict" side. I've been living in Texas for 32 years, and I think I could safely fall into your last paragraph's "preferable" cateogry, even though I have attended church on and off over my life.

Needless Texas-slam aside (did I ever tell you the story about how the coat check at MoMA KNEW I wasn't a New Yorker simply because I SMILED?!) I think your point about the missing discussion is generally well-taken. EXCEPT that what you were attending was for the sole purpose of socializing, not philosophizing. I'd think you were more on the money had you attended an event that was supposed to be an in-depth conversation. What, are religious people not supposed to chat? Are they supposed to go around in long, brown robes and sandals, heavy tablets in hand, bemoaning the moral state of humanity? I can philosophize, bemoan, do charity work, and contemplate with the best of them. No reason I can't do those things over a cup of coffee and a donut.

And before I forget to say this, YOU were an ALTAR BOY?

Finally, as a mother who will undoubtedly be walking a mile in your mother's shoes in a few years, why you gotta be like that? Can't you just go to church with your mother once a friggin' decade and take her to lunch and pretend to appreciate it? Just give the woman the chance to believe that whether you accept her faith on face-value or not, that it in some small way helped put you on the path of choosing good over evil, right over wrong. And if you're lucky, she'll put in a good word for you with the man upstairs.

11:15 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

To start, YES, I was an ALTAR BOY. (If you're surprised, think of how I feel!)

It wasn't a Texas-slam as much as a church-heavy-state slam, so I can't fully take it back. Those mega-churches down there are hideous, I'm sorry, and they're everywhere. I've been through many, many states where that's not the case.

As for me and mom, thanks for the advice, but it's not needed. I manage to make her feel loved, thanked, and respected for raising me well, I think, while freely exercising my right to disagree with her -- as adults -- about religion.

1:34 AM  

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