You grow up going to church with your family or maybe you don’t. You attend college (most likely one loosely affiliated with a denomination), and the chapel services, ministries, and dining common conversations become your new church. Then, for a brief stint, you stop going to any church, just to prove that it’s your choice. Some of your friends form “house churches,” where they sit in a circle and sing songs and drink unblessed wine. You attend a more “traditional” church in town most weekends, though you probably don’t become a member (what’s the point—you’re only here for four years), or bother too much with getting to know anyone who isn’t also twenty-something.
Then you graduate and stick around town for a few years, attending that same church every so often, but again, you’re moving on soon, best to not get too involved. Then you move, probably for graduate school because that’s what all your friends with English degrees from a liberal arts college are doing, and start all over again in a new town and a new church.
You hunt around for a while, constantly afraid that you’re buying into the “consumer mentality” your Christian Doctrine professor warned you about: You can’t shop for churches like you shop for auto insurance! Yes, of course you agree, but you also know that you have a list of requirements, and is it your fault if they’re not being met? This one won’t work—too many young people with kids, which annoys you for a reason you can’t articulate or justify. This one doesn’t meet your gender-equality standards; this one is too liturgical, that one not enough. Another professor’s voice comes to mind: You have to forgive to get the gift. Yes, but what’s forgivable? And what, simply, is not? Churches have split over smaller offences than these.
You miss your old church and despair that you will never find another as good as that one, just like you’ll never find friends like the ones you had back then. Then it hits you: this is the first time you’ve ever really had to make this decision for yourself. All your life you’ve been corralled, directed, accounted for in some way or another. Now you’re in a new place where no one really knows or cares to know “how your spiritual walk is going.” Granted, a “Christianese” question like this normally makes your skin crawl, but now you kind of miss being asked it, just a bit.
You’re tired of looking, of thinking, and take the summer off, because you’re in grad school dammit, and you deserve a break!
When summer’s over you realize that something needs to change, but now you only have two years left before you move again, to who knows where, at which point you’ll have to start this horrific process all over again. What’s the point? Why chat with the grocery clerk? Why get to know your students when you’ll probably never see them again? Why wash when tomorrow will soil? Why invest in a church when you know you’ll be leaving?
If you’re smart, you might pray about it, but you’re stubborn, so you won’t. Instead you pout and you wallow until you are so miserable and anxious that now something really, really has to change. And that something is you. You make a new list. You can either:
a) Give up church altogether
b) Go back to the one that was comfortable but just didn’t feel right
c) Heed Annie Dillard’s words—that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives—and write down all of the moments that have added up to you being here, a twenty-something who feels awfully close to thirty-something, and imagine your life if you had spent that time with your arms wrapped firmly around yourself, protected and enclosed. How much easier it would have been to curl in upon yourself, the gesture: a fist. Then try imagining your life as the opposite gesture: an arm outstretched toward the beloved, always reaching, never grasping—that unending extension, the soft underside of your arm, your torso, exposed. You’re still afraid of loss, of leaving a part of yourself behind with every city, every church, every person that you’ve “invested in.” Now, strike the word investment from your vocabulary and remember the first time you saw the Sistine Chapel, how God reaches and Adam reaches—their fingers just barley touching, and replace the word “invest” with “extend” and reread what you’ve just written: How can you extend yourself to a church when you know you’ll be leaving? Now this sentence is a question of service rather than gain and you will try to live your entire life through the corrected lens of its truth.
d) none of the aboveYou choose C. You extend yourself.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.