Sunday, February 26, 2006

New beginnings?

If worship were just a matter between me and God there would be no need to go to church on Sunday. I could just settle into that comfortable chair in my bedroom and go to it. But I know that wouldn't be enough for me.

I like liturgy. I like the silence of Quaker worship, too; I value that emphasis on clearing everything else away to listen for what God might have to say to me. But as I realized a year ago when I started asking myself where I really belonged, I would miss formal liturgy very much if I worshiped only with the Friends. I appreciate the mindfulness of the looping trajectory through the liturgical seasons and the orderly consideration of Biblical texts. I like the music and I appreciate the eloquence of formal liturgical prayer.

So what should I be looking for in a church community? Nice people? People who share my beliefs? A place where the sign out front carries the name of the denomination I was raised in? None of those things strikes me as quite the right answer. Wherever I go, the people won't all be nice, they won't all share my beliefs, and even the church I attended as a child doesn't seem the same today as it was then. All I can say is that I'm looking for a place that "feels" right, though I know that feelings can't be the only basis for this decision.

I had a plan for today, but when I woke up, I didn't feel like going through with it. The plan was to go to bed early last night and get up early this morning (which I did). I was going to go to the 8 am service at a nearby Episcopal church, then head on to the 10:30 am service at the church I've been attending for the past year. I got out of bed in plenty of time but I had a hard time convincing myself to start getting ready, and as I result I almost missed the first church in this plan. I'm glad I didn't.

There are four Episcopal churches in my near vicinity, a surprisingly generous allotment considering how many Episcopal churches there are in total. I believe each fits into a slightly different place in the Anglican spectrum, though I can't say I fully understand the differences. A year ago I chose to check out the one that's farthest away, about a 15-minute drive from home. For eight years I had driven past it regularly on my way to my kids' school and I felt connected to it in some way I couldn't quite explain. There was a sign outside with a message that changed; often it was a short prayer that I made my own as I went by. I have to admit I wanted to know what it would be like to have a woman priest as presider. On the other hand, I wanted to stay away from the churches that are closer to home because my commitment was so tentative and I didn't want to meet anyone I knew in church, or be seen by anyone I knew going in.

Two things have been happening over the past year. The first is that I've felt more and more that I "belonged" to the church I was attending. The second is that I've realized the church in the next town over may be a better fit. I could make a list of things that seem right about it. For one thing, it looks and feels "churchier." Renewed in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement, as they say on their website, they seem closer to the Catholic side of things. They're rooted in my own geographical community, and I've come to see that as important. I admire the commitment to social justice that's reflected by the social programs that are located on church property.

This morning I woke up in plenty of time to get there, but I had a hard time convincing myself to get moving. I felt like being in the place that is most comfortable to me now, the 8:30 am service at the church down the road. I almost talked myself in going there, but finally I ordered myself not to let this opportunity go by. I'm not always up so early on a Sunday, and I wanted to see what if anything this other church would be doing for Lent.

Unlike the church down the road, this one could easily pass for a Catholic church. At 8 the sun was shining brightly through the stained glass, casting colorful shadows around the walls. It's pretty inside and it felt peaceful; even the faint scent of insecticide made it feel more like the churches I've prayed in all my life. There were only five of us in the congregation including myself, and they were a kind and welcoming group. The sermon was thoughtful, spoken from the heart rather than read, and overall it was a satisfying experience.

I decided to pass on the 10:30 service for a variety of reasons. I think maybe one of the lessons I've learned over the past year is that it's possible to find a place in a new community, that I don't need to feel tied to any church just because I've been there for a while and I recognize the people. (Here I'm thinking both of the Episcopal church down the road and the Catholic parish where I worshiped for 26 years.) I'll be eternally grateful to the people at the church where I've worshiped for the past year. They threw me a life preserver when I felt I was drowning. They took me in and treated me like one of their own at a time when I really needed that. Still, I think I'm right to suspect it isn't where I need to be in the long run.

And so it seemed fitting to show up at a new church on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, just as I did last year, open to whatever it might have to offer me, open to the possibility that this might be where I belong.

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