A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
-“Church Going” by Philip Larkin
I have no idea what Philip Larkin is talking about here. Actually, I didn’t read the whole poem, I just entered “Church” into poetry search engine and this came up and looked good and there you go. I do know that Larkin was a vain, petty, unpleasant little man, as am I, so the words fit the following post in spirit if not in theme.
About a year ago I told my wife that we should try to look for a church. Our kids–ten, seven, four—were of an age that they should be exposed to some semblance of organized religion and young enough that they would benefit from the Sunday programs.
Seventy weeks later, we got it together to get up, dressed, and into the car in time to get to a service.
A little background. I was raised in a religious family and in a fundamentalist church. My wife was not, and was encouraged to try out different religions—to visit churches and go with friends. This is a point of contention, in that my wife still connotes church with fellowship and social gathering, and I believe church to be a place where the word of God penetrates your brain, skewers your soul, and leaves a two foot hole coming out your ass. Church is not about love or friendship. It’s about being intimidated by a very real, very powerful, very DISAPPOINTED God, who loves his flock in the same way I loved all the ants in my ant farm.
I will never be good enough, and that’s why there is a Jesus.
Still, I haven’t been to church for ten years, so anything is better than nothing, right? Actually, no. That’s the definition of a lukewarm Christian, and I learned long ago that nothing disgusts Jesus like a lukewarm Christian.
But if I have to reconcile myself that Christ sees me as vomit (“I will spew you out of my mouth” Revelation 3:16), it’s better than listening to my daughter refer to the Christmas crèche as “the baby in the barn” or only using words like “Jesus” and “Heaven” and “Religion” in our house when a pet dies. My sister had to explain to her daughter that though Jesus rose from the dead, he was neither a zombie nor a vampire, so I can count my blessings, but still, when asked by a friend if her family went to church, my oldest said that she “prefers to have Sunday free.”
Something must be done.
The morning started as all church mornings start, with screaming at our children to “Hurry the fuck up and get in the car because we’re fucking late!” My middle daughter wouldn’t brush her hair. My son did not want to wear a shirt. My oldest was pissed that she couldn’t wear those shoes with that dress. Using the Lord’s name in vain is a sin, without question, but I’m sure I used it quite a few times that morning, if only in my head.
The church, Presbyterian, was friendly and beautiful inside, as that goes. Afterwards, when I was talking to my father, I mentioned we went to church, and when he asked where, I said “the local Presbyterian church.” He got a bit quieter. “How was the pastor?” he asked.
The pastORS are a husband and wife team. I did not tell my father that. I imagine that he will read this and give me a call.
In truth, it pulled me up short as well. I’ve spent the last decade believing myself to be progressive and liberal, but when faced with a female minister, I immediately shifted into a reactionary, fundamentalist place (“therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing” Ephesians 5:24; “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober…” Timothy 3:2). Before you judge me, I’d like to report that the feeling and thoughts I had gave me a bit of the all-overs and I spent a good portion of the service trying to sort them out. Am I a sexist or a traditionalist? Are these conservative tendencies a product of a latent faith and trust in the written word of God or am I a self-deluding, hypocritical pig, content with the continued oppression of women in the workforce?
I was tired, so rather than really get to the bottom of my reaction I just decided that I was both. Oh well. If you can’t be forgiven for your shortcomings in a church, then you’re shit-outta-luck.
Still, my initial discomfort soon gave rise to a simmering, insecure, petty twitch all through the service. I discerned that the lady behind us, and her full-throated, vainglorious, operatic wail during the hymns, was a vain and trifling woman there for her own glory rather than the Lord’s. I watched as the congregation gave the offering, dismissing each proffered bill as laughably, sinfully stingy. “If that’s ten percent of your take home, asshole, then you must make about six bucks a week. Have fun at the Nike factory this week.”
I silently mocked the sermon, dismissing the choice—Song of Solomon—as middlebrow and obvious. Let’s go to church and learn to love each other. How novel. I could’ve learned this shit on Wonder Pets.
And then there was communion. At first my wife and I panicked. My two oldest were still there (my son ditched halfway to go and eat cookies and drink lemonade at Sunday School–he’s the only one who’s pumped to go to back) and had never received communion before, and I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for visitors. In the church I was raised in, Lord’s Supper was for members. If you weren’t part of the church and wanted to partake they hustled your ass out like management at a Teamster meeting.
But it seemed ill-advised to try and explain to the girls why they couldn’t eat a little bread or drink a little juice, so we just rolled with it.
A couple of observations: First, I am ashamed to admit that when I realized that we were going to participate in Communion, my initial thought was how the bread and juice would affect my carb-free diet. That thought actually occurred to me. Can you imagine the first Last Supper (weird oxymoron there) and Thomas asking Jesus if he could just have another slice of mutton and some water? “I’ll pretend, dude. Gotta thing about my glycemic index.”
The second observation was when they were passing the bread around. At my old church, they either cut up a loaf of Wonder Bread into hacked-up shreds (it looked like they just fed a loaf into a wood chipper) or they gave out these tiny, white, unleavened rectangles you had to soak in the juice to even bite into. One of those and a slingshot and you could kill a deer. This church had at least three kinds of bread—if pressed, I’d have to identify them as rye, French, and was that pumpernickel?–beautifully cut and arranged. It was like Jesus was a chicken and we had the choice of light and dark meat. That’s gross, but again, the thought totally came up.
The juice was just juice, served in those church-approved shot glasses, but like the bread, the congregation threw it back immediately after receiving it. No “This is my body, broken for you,” no prayer. It was like getting communion in a drive-thru.
As we were walking out, my middle daughter turned to my wife and I and said, “It doesn’t seem like we’re the churchgoing kind of people, you know?”
I know, babe. I know.
But we’re going back until we get it right.