Saturday, January 3, 2009

Vermont, Part I

I grew up going to church every Sunday. The church was small - not the building itself - but the membership. During its peak (the one while I was alive at least), an average Sunday saw something around 75 members.

My whole family was very involved. My dad was the assistant pastor, which basically meant that he led some prayers and preached a few sermons every year. He helped with the youth and vacation bible school and led the adult sunday school class. Both of my parents were in the choir, and my mom and aunt often did special music on holidays. I went to sunday school and then to youth group (I think there were 3 of us), and when I was 12 or so I joined the choir (since there weren't enough young people for a youth choir). My sister ran around with the other young kids. A lot of women had apparently decided to have children at the same time because there were a bunch of kids her age.

We had potlucks about once a month. There were annual church retreats which involved camping, hiking, and singing songs around a fire. There were friendships and families. I knew everyone. I loved church and all of the people there. It was like seeing all of your best friends, including multiple sets of grandparents, every Sunday.

I felt very spiritual, very close to God.

We moved away - out of the city. We started off driving back in on Thursday nights for choir practice and then on Sundays for church, but it got to be too much. Slowly we quit going, and we started going to the big Methodist church with lots and lots of members and a youth program and a youth choir and several childrens choirs and more than one service every Sunday. There was lots to do for all of us. We made friends and found our niche in the giant membership. It wasn't the same.

Our old church began losing members. Some of it had begun before we left - people moving out of the city and into the suburbs or small towns, like us. Some people died. It wasn't the same when we went back to visit. It felt somehow like we didn't fit anymore. We were simply visitors.

I went to college and quit going to church. I was angry with the conservative sermons at the big church in our small town and couldn't seem to care enough to get up to go while I was at school. I missed it, but nothing else felt right. And then I came out and didn't know whether church had anything to offer me anymore.

Once I moved up to DC for graduate school, I started going to a Unitarian church and thought I'd found a home. I made friends and got to know some folks. But still, it didn't fit.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was about that beautiful church I grew up in that felt so amazing - what was I actually looking for? Was it something that only existed for me because I was a child? Because I hadn't really seen the world?

This year on New Years Day I sat in a rocking chair in front of a fire in a beautiful house in Burlington. There were about 15 of us singing - Indigo Girls, Simon & Garfunkel, Dar Williams, children's songs, campfire songs, some religious, some not. The guitar was being passed around, and one girl was playing the fiddle. One guy sang a gorgeous song that he wrote as all of us melted from the beauty of it. I remembered sitting on those hard pews during a sing-a-long at my home church next to all of the people who meant so much to me - watching my mom and dad lead us in song - dad playing the guitar, mom singing. My favorite was Fill My Cup - "Oh fill my cup. Fill my cup, let it overflow. Oh fill my cup. Fill my cup, let it overflow. Oh fill my cup. Fill my cup, let it overflow. Let it overflow with love."

Sitting in the rocking chair in Burlington, tears streaming down my face, I was overflowing in this space that seemed to pulse with warm energy, with the presence of a loving community.

A loving community.
Which, to me, feels like basking in the presence of God.


PT-LawMom said...

This is a very, very beautiful post. I went to a small ecumenical church in DC started by the guy who runs Sojourners magazine and who wrote a book called God's Politics: Why the Right is Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it. Sojourners is focused on social justice. We had a small but wonderful group and my child was baptised there along with the man's son and another woman's son. They have since disbanded, I believe, but I think community worship like that is a great way to get back to the roots of what community and faith are supposed to be about.

Andrew said...

I've been meaning to comment on this post for a few weeks now, but I haven't had the chance to sit in one spot long enough to write it out!

I loved the post. It struck home for me - really close to home. I wonder if you would have had the same experience even if you didn't move away - and move on.

My experience has been that we tend to veer away from the church, as we grew up to understand and appreciate it, at some point during our lives. This could be during our teenage years, our young adult years, or even later. Eventually, we are able to fill the void that is left by the absence of spiritual fulfillment - usually by reconnecting with our faith on a different level. It seems as if it is almost like a rite of spiritual passage: Go out into the wilderness and then if you return, you will understand better.

I generalize by saying "we" because when I experienced a religious disconnect a few years ago, I spent time talking to a lot of people about it - because it bothered me that I felt the way I did. I took comfort knowing that I wasn't alone in that experience.

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