I have been a spiritual person since teenagehood, choosing to believe that God has a place and a hand in my life, but I have never been a religious person. I can count the number of times I've been to church in my life without using my toes. I believe religions tend to twist God to their ends, or restrict God to the limits of their own worldview - even the well-meaning ones do this last, I believe - and I don't understand why people are content to hear about God through others, rather than experiencing God for themselves. A few years ago I met some devout and lovely Presbyterians who explained that church is a community built around God, rather than a channel for communing with God. The community aspects of church in their lives are just as important as the God aspects (I think, if I'm not putting words in their mouths). This certainly helped me understand church, but I still didn't think I could get beyond the ritualistic and the God's what I say he is and nothing else aspects of any given church in order to worship somewhere outside my head. (I often think of a Sunday School scene in the Simpsons, when the teacher, who has asked them to draw pictures, pauses by Ralph's desk and says "Ralph, Jesus did not have wheels." I say Jesus could have wheels if you wanted him to. He's Jesus, he's everything to everyone, right?)
I have read, all over the place, that church for people who don't like church is embodied in the Unitarian Universalist church, which is open to people of all faiths and not very traditionally churchy. I have been recommended to this church in the past, but I resisted it because I didn't see the point. I am happy with my faith in God as it stands, and I don't really want to add another to-do to my weekend. Especially not if it means dressing up in church clothes and listening to someone I don't know and don't necessarily trust talk about faith, which to me is a highly personal topic.
In the past couple of months, I have experienced big emotional upheaval. I have done a lot of thinking and a decent amount of what I guess you could call praying. (I don't really think of it that way, as it's not on my knees and it's not to Jesus.) I have been unsure of what the universe wants from me and for me, and I've felt shaken, uncertain that life has the order and logic that I had thought it had. Maybe it's all just chaos, and we're trying to make sense out of it because that's what human brains do, they try to find patterns in places where there really is no pattern.
I started thinking that maybe the way to feel solid ground under me again was to go to church, to see if something would happen, if a thunderclap would help me figure out what I was supposed to do or if there was just something in the sermon that would speak to me. Maybe there were seeds to be planted. Maybe there were people who could help. Who knew? I was reaching, deeply in need, and I figured that people who reach have found help in religion for many centuries; it might work for me, too.
There's a Unitarian Universalist church in Bowie, with a small congregation, and when I went online to read about it, I almost wept at the fineness of the seven UU principles. They believe in:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
- Justice, equality and compassion in human relations.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and society at large.
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice.
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.
At the rocky bottom of this worthlessness, a few weeks ago, I had something of an epiphany. Things turned around. I was humble and grateful for the turn of events, and I thought I really should go to church after all this happened; I owed at least one Sunday morning to my faith, I figured, because it had come through for me in the clutch. Atonement through church attendance is not a new idea, either.
So, last Sunday, I went. The people were so exceptionally friendly that I was scared into being even more shy. The service was more or less a church service, with songs, standing up and sitting down (this is my least favorite part of church; I always feel like I'm missing my cues), a "sermon", announcements, etc. The minister is a former Methodist, and she gave a talk about identity, through race and other markers, that I found very interesting indeed. She came up to me after service was over and asked me what had brought me there, and I thought, gosh, I could take all day telling you that - the crisis, the long-term belief in God but not religion, the atonement. So I said it was a very long story, complimented her on what she had to say, and escaped, despite congregants trying to entice me with coffee to stay and chat.
I was unnerved by how social the setting was. I don't know how to explain this better, because I know that none of these people meant me harm and were probably just happy to see new blood, happy to share their faith and their Sunday with me, but the strong and tightly knit community sense had the opposite of the intended effect. I wanted to flee.
I talked with Matt about this and thought about it some more, and I think that my spirituality is just not compatible with community. That seems really bad, when I give it thought, because it's just another area of my life where I'm shutting people out instead of networking like I'm supposed to, but the thing I like to do when I think of God is talk to God myself, write about God in my personal journal, read about God, think about God. As of yet I don't like to congregate with others around God, in part because I feel that they're likely to find me a heathen, but in part because my relationship with God is sacred to me, hard to explain and important and personal, and if I'm going to talk about it with you, you'd better set aside a few hours, because we're going to talk. It's not something I can chat about over coffee.
I feel frustrated that this avenue, too (I have tried others) strikes me on first impression as a dead end. I wanted to find a community that I trusted, and the only thing I found was, again, that my faith is singular and difficult to share. And that I'm an avoidant personality when other humans are perfectly lovely to me. Ultimately, I figured, this was a failed experiment, but it was well worth the time to see how UUs worship, and to know that there's always a welcome and nonjudgmental place for me and my lonely faith there.
But that is not where the story ends.
On Wednesday, I came home from teaching and found that a member of the UU congregation had left a loaf of homemade bread in a gift bag hanging from my doorknob, with a note saying that she hoped to see me again. Yesterday, I got a letter in the mail from the minister saying she had been glad I'd stopped by, and she'd handwritten a note on the printed letter saying that she wanted to hear my long story sometime.
I feel horribly guilty about these acts of kindness. I feel like I was a fearful, chilly jerk to those friendly people and they have given me kind gifts and attention in return. That woman made a loaf of bread and drove to my house to bring it to me. After Sunday, I wasn't sure if I was going to go back again - if I did, I thought, it'd be intermittent - but I almost feel like I have to now, and should give more to the collection baskets when I do.
Matt says no. He says they want me to come back, of course, because all churches want their congregations to grow, for both ulterior and good-hearted motives. He also says that it's like a date: just because a guy buys you dinner doesn't mean that you have to go on a second date with him. It's not an exchange of food for the promise of future companionship. You can choose to kiss him goodnight and go in your house and never see him again, and it's not unfair that he's paid for your dinner that one time. A date is a date, not a bargain.
I agree, but I also would always feel a tiny bit of guilt for letting him buy me dinner and giving him nothing in return. I don't feel the need to string someone along for the price of a steak, it's my time and my company and I can do what I want with it, but I would feel better about it if we could have split the cost of dinner. At least until I figure out if I want a second date, or I find out that he makes four times as much as me. That is impossible in this case; you don't split church. And that woman made a loaf of bread for me.
"They're just trying to get in your pants," Matt told me.
I think he's right. But I still feel guilt for my free dinner. Should I go back, even if I'm not sure I'll get anything out of it? Should I email the minister and tell her my long story? Should I send them a check to assuage my conscience?
God is mute on the subject. I'm stuck with my own reckoning.