I had hoped Helen would let me talk about positive things today. Like my baking spree last week which, resulted in 5 loaves of bread, 2 trays of pretzels, and several 3-layer cakes with decorations that would make Martha Stewart proud. Or how I stayed up until 3 AM because I was reading a really good book, not because I lacked the energy to move from couch to bed. I thought she might comment on my perfect red manicure, or the slightly precarious shoes that render me 5’11.5.” Instead, she wanted to talk about church. More precisely, the fact that I’ve not attended church since December.
I haven’t had some crisis of faith. In a way, it might be simpler if I had. Avoiding church because you don’t believe in it seems far more acceptable than skipping because you’re tired or anxious. Or because you simply don’t care. The first Sunday in January I was exhausted; the second, nursing a nasty cold; the third, exhausted once again. After that, it was easier to stay the course, than try reversing the momentum and spending my Sunday mornings in a crowd of hundreds.
‘Going to church’ may well be my least favorite aspect of being a Christian. I dare not voice this to my church-going friends, who speak earnestly of community and togetherness and profess that “you’re not really a Christian if you’re not part of a church.” Apart from one distinctly bad experience (mild-mannered pastor convicted of attempting to murder his fiancé – highly disturbing, to say the least) I have nothing concrete to blame for my unease. Most often, it’s just a lingering sense that church is not a place for people like me.
The greeting time that kicks off each service is all hugs and handshakes and happy conversations. I usually feel awkward, trapped, and completely overwhelmed, so I try to escape before anyone can confront me. On good days, I’ll use those ten minutes to wander around the halls or step outside for some air. On bad days, I’ll be in the bathroom, wishing I’d remembered the anti-nausea pills (to avoid causing concern) and simultaneously thankful I’d forgotten them (feeling sick is a universally convenient excuse).
The ideal well-adjusted churchgoer is supposed to attend weekly Bible study / discussion groups. I feel like the only poorly-adjusted one in the congregation, and I wish it were enough that I’d tried. I showed up a few times, and even brought contributions for the communal dinner. But eating in public tends to cause anxiety and then nausea, and not eating when everyone else is leads to the same. Worse, I’m afraid people will ask me how I am. I don’t have it in me to force a smile and say all is well, but I’m never quite brave enough to tell the truth.
I can never predict how people will react to depression. Some, like the acquaintance who slipped me Dr. DrugMan’s card and promised he was wonderful, have been immeasurably helpful. The person who said it would all go away if I just repented of ever having seen a Magic 8-Ball turned me off from all things church-related for a good two months. There have been some offers of prayer, and the occasional referral to a ‘Christian counsellor’ who believes psychology degrees are useless. I’m left with the sense that people don’t really know what to do with me. And since I lack the strength to reach out to them, I slowly drift away.
Something about the environment unsettles me, as well. When Helen asked me what made certain churches more comfortable, I immediately responded with “old buildings” and “services not in English.” We both laughed. As I tried to explain why these things were so attractive, it started to make sense. I don’t have a problem with guitar-toting worship leaders dressed in jeans or services held in the school auditorium, but the atmosphere is drastically different when you’re hearing an organ in a gloomy cathedral. Sometimes, I think the contemporary church focuses a little to much on ‘Jesus is our friend.’ Would He want to be mine? The only person I’ve spoken to in the last three weeks, save the grocery store cashier, is my psychologist. Friendship doesn’t mean very much to me right now. But a God who is lofty, mysterious, deserving of reverence and awe rather than a fist-bump, I can understand a bit better.
Worshipping in a foreign language emphasizes this for me: something about what I’m doing is different, more special, than everything else in life. That’s the only way to explain how a sermon in Mandarin Chinese, in which I understand perhaps one word in ten, seemed more meaningful to me than any of the English ones I’ve heard. That’s why I’m probably the only Baptist in the world who prefers to pray in Latin. I believe in a God who speaks all languages, a Bible that just happened to be written down in Hebrew and Greek so that it could be translated into other tongues. I know He speaks English, but I like to be reminded that his existence is far greater than any one language could capture.
My favorite church building is cold, dark, and hidden away in Europe somewhere. My choir was on a whirlwind 4-country tour one December, and we had a precious free afternoon to explore. This church had a sign on the door, something about being a quiet place to escape from the Christmas market frenzy in the town’s center. I was curious, and something made me brave enough to venture in. The late-afternoon light barely cut through the stained-glass windows, and the old stone arches disappeared up into blackness. A quiet cough or footstep would echo for several seconds, and the place felt altogether like a different world. There was a fancy baroque cathedral a few blocks away, but this dim, easy-to-miss sanctuary seemed fully inhabited by something holy.
Recent travels haven’t brought me back to Europe, and there are no ancient stone churches in my New England town. Church happens in a school auditorium, and we get cushioned seats with fold-up desks rather than hard wooden pews. I know the place doesn’t matter – I’ve gone to services in dorm rooms and under tarps at a refugee camp. Our fluorescent lights are just as good as candles and stained glass. Still, the reminder of the God I experienced in a place far from home is an encouragement: I believe that same God inhabits every place from whence we worship Him.