An unexpected thing happened on my way to help women find spiritual pathways.
My own pathway led me straight back into a place I thought I’d figured out and filed away under, not for me.
I went back to church.
I went back because I was led there.
It was a decision as guided by spirit, as mystical an experience, as any I’ve known.
One morning, sitting on my back steps with my cup of coffee, I prayed that I would meet the spiritual teacher I needed, and the answer that came was specific and direct. A nagging thought that would not let me go.
Except for Christmas Eve and Easter (and the fact that I prayed the rosary- yes, it’s sort of complicated), I’d been politely stepped to the side of organized religion for a long time, but I never split from the church. There was no drama. I just stopped going and instead explored other practices for communing with God.
I have never been a part of a church that wasn’t welcoming to people of all sexual orientations, genders, races, social stature.
I’ve never been a member of a church that preached damnation or taught me that I was born bad.
My own personal experience with religion has never been damaging, but I have seen damaging religion my whole life.
I have felt the crippling energy of fear that rises around extremism and literalism.
And away from religion, I let newspaper headlines and internet memes and other people’s stories inform the way I saw religion.
I developed a skewed, one-sided, frankly wrong idea about what church is and what it does, what the people who are the church do and as a result, I thought that I knew it just wasn’t my thing.
But my guidance was clear and insistent. So I followed it and I went to church.
Not just any church, but a specific place on a specific day, and what I heard was a powerful sermon about Mary Magdalene. (Now you know that I have a thing about Mary Magdalene. And this was a good sermon. Like, good.)
My mouth fell open, literally.
And so did my heart.
But I am stubborn, so I didn’t go back right away. I listened to the church’s sermon’s online. I really listened. And through that listening, I began to feel myself diving deeper into my faith and asking questions.
Last November, steeped in my own darkness, feeling halfway broken, I decided that I would go to church every Sunday during Advent.
I would go, I promised myself, and see what happened.
So I did.
And what happened was, I didn’t stop going.
And here I am now where I never thought I’d be, a member of a church where I am fully seen, known, and accepted. (Actual me, not some false version of me with the woo-woo parts hidden.)
What I find in my church is community, but not the one I would have built on my own. I’m in community with people I may never have met otherwise. We don’t necessarily share the same outlook, the same political views, the same anything…except for one thing.
And every week, we sit at the table together. And we practice love.
Sometimes it’s difficult and challenging.
And sometimes it’s miraculous.
I don’t speak for my parish, its clergy, or the people sitting in the pew next to me.
In fact, sometimes I feel like what’s happening inside that church and in each of our hearts is so deeply personal it’s impossible to wrap words around it.
When I hear people talk about what they dislike about Christianity, I always think, Well yeah, I dislike that, too. But none of those things I hear bear any resemblance to what I’ve experienced at my church.
I have seen people damaged by religion. I have seen religion used as an excuse for self-hatred, a weapon of self-mutilization, as an excuse to condemn. But you know what? I’ve seen the new age, self-help, and spiritual-but-not-religious ideologies used in exactly the same way.
I’ve seen people wield concepts like the law of attraction and karma as whips of self-flagellation and excuses to ignore the pain and suffering of others.
No one has the corner on greed and corruption.
Non-theists and theists alike do ugly things.
It happens everywhere.
And you simply can’t make assumptions about any group or organization or system…or faith.
I’ve never been afraid of God.
I’ve many times been afraid of people.
And I was so afraid of being judged by the churched, I became judgmental.
I thought I had it all figured out.
It turns out, I love theology. I’m, in fact, obsessed with it. It’s complex and hard and soul-gaspingly beautiful.
I love to listen to theologians discuss the Bible and pull it apart and look at it from all sides. Not the Bible as a rule-book, but as poetry and metaphor – a deeper, different sort of truth.
I love to be around those who are devoted and fiercely, faithfully, smart. Those who are skeptical and questioning and honest.
It turns out, I am a heavy-duty ritual person. I need the tradition of the Episcopal church; I need the powerful mystery of the Eucharist; the alchemy of praying out loud, together.
It turns out, I’m a person who needs liturgy and sacraments.
Can I love the teachings of Jesus, believe in the divinity of Christ, and still be open to the other things I believe in, still honor other paths and other ways of knowing?
I’ve heard Spirit speak my name. I’ve met God everywhere, because God is everywhere.
I’m still the me.
But am I changed?
You have no idea.
Some days, I feel like my skin has been peeled back and all of my insides exposed and rearranged.
During Holy Week last year, I wanted to call up my church and ask, Am I supposed to feel like I’m dying?
Of course, I knew the answer.
We always feel like we’re dying right before we’re born.
This journey for me is about expansion, not containment.
Every Sunday I listen to words I’ve heard so many times, words I thought I understood and realize, I didn’t understand them at all.
Church challenges me and breaks me open.
Episcopalians pray with our whole bodies. We also take action in the community, helping to feed and cloth and shelter those in need.
Because my church does this so well, I can see where I want to be better at it.
I recently heard someone describe the church I attend as a “thinking person’s church” and I’ve certainly found that to be true.
The level of intelligence and discussion that goes on in the small groups that meet at my church is truly impressive.
Sometimes it feels like a school.
It also feels like magic.
My heart sweeps when the procession comes down the aisle. The ritual of High Church is a doorway that allows me to access holiness and sacred truth an communion with God in a way that I honestly can’t explain.
Some people will tell you that the church I love is dying.
I don’t believe it.
They will tell you that young people find the liturgy too confining.
I don’t buy it.
I see young people at my church every week. Sitting next to old people. All of us there, doing something together that is complicated and layered and beautiful and important.
Each week our priest bestows on us a blessing that ends with, May God take your hearts and set them on fire.
That, I suppose, is what I was looking for one year ago on a dark and cold November night when I opened ever so slightly to the idea that maybe my loneliness and searching could be acknowledged, if not soothed, by walking up the street and kneeling in a pew in front of an altar during the season of Advent, when the world waits for and welcomes light.
And I suppose that is what has happened and continues to happen to me, each week, my heart set on fire.
My church teaches love. Not the easy, syrupy kind. Not a flimsy sort of love that turns into meanness if you flip it around. Real love. The kind that is difficult and deep – nearly impossible- and all about what you are doing in the world.
Wherever I am each week, I take that to church and lay it on the altar. Whatever I am, I take it and leave it there: My sadness, my confusion, my anger, my joy, my desire, my awe, my questions. All of it. It’s all wanted, all accepted, all taken, all seen.
This past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. I sat through the service with a lump in my throat.
It’s been a year since I walked into the sanctuary looking for a home.
Next Sunday, First Advent, I will walk into that same sanctuary knowing that it is my home.
I am astonished.