To Be Regular in Worship (Or Not)

In the middle of Advent, I joined a church.

It was important to me. I wanted to do it. I’m already a member of another church where I never get to attend worship, but I read their newsletter and pray for their ministry. We’ve moved too faraway for regular worship to be possible and I’ve wanted to find someplace to be known. I’ve wanted some place close by to belong. And so, I met with the pastor of my local United Church of Christ and expressed my desire to join this small tribe and waited until this day when it could finally happen. Even so, it felt strange.

It felt odd to stand in front of this lovely group of people and makes these promises I’ve so often asked others to make. Repeating baptismal vows should be so shaky. Not just for those who stand before the congregation to say they will, but for those seated and listening, it’s another chance as the church calendar changes and the birth of Christ comes to wonder if we’ve really done these things or if we need to promise to start anew.

To say again that I’m ready “to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best I am able.” It comes as a question. Or a series of questions to which I can’t help but stand a little taller each time I say “I will, with the help of God.”

Yes, I want to grow in this faith. Please help me grow. It’s why I’m doing this thing. It’s why I’m joining another church because I want to grow. Ore than that, I want my little girl to grow into this faith. It’s why I’m repeating these words. I want to be changed by this group of people in this place where we try together to celebrate Christ’s presence.

I want this. I’m ready for this. It’s why I pushed the pastor for a day to join but it feels a bit different the moment I stand there before all those people with my baby strapped to my stomach snoring soundly. It’s different and I’m not sure why.

I still get excited. I feel my chest soar and my back arch as I repeat these questions I’ve asked so many times of others. I remember all of them in that moment — every fourteen year old kid who sat in my office weeks before their Confirmation while we tried to figure out what these questions meant not just in the liturgy but for them at this moment, every one of the kids that couldn’t get onboard with these questions and refused to be confirmed much to dismay of their parents, every soul that came looking to serve and every broken heart that needed community. I knew every one of their stories when they answered those questions. I knew what had brought them to make these promises and why it was a big deal.

I also knew what scared them. I knew how many of them hadn’t been around church for awhile. They’d been hurt by the church somehow and they wanted to be sure that this congregation wasn’t going to repeat those wrongs. Maybe it was that that felt odd for me. Maybe I felt in that moment the weight of all of those worries add concerns. Maybe. But it seems it hit me most when that last question was posed. The one that asks if we will be regular in worship which I cannot quote correctly because I can’t even find my Book of Worship anywhere, yet I heard this question and I gulped. I wondered if I could answer it or if I should just sit back down in the back row.

It’s this question that has tripped up nearly everyone of whom I’ve helped to make these promises. It’s this question that I’ve interpreted again and again in each and every new member class. To every group of people at every church I’ve been careful with these words because I know that attendance in worship is changing. Though I would be there every Sunday as their pastor, I might only see these faithful people once or twice a week and that would still be considered regular. I never bemoaned them this, it’s just that I never imagined that I’d become one of them.

It hit me then. It has been more than a year since I’ve been anyone’s pastor. I’ve missed Sundays. I’ve slept in. I went to brunch before I’d had this baby in my arms. Now it was the question of whether or not I’d slept that night that decided my Sunday plans if I could even remember what day of the week it was. I wasn’t going to be a weekly worshipper. I was going to choose family time over church sometimes. Or I might simply choose not to drive the 40 minutes and go someplace closer. All of that interpreting I’d done for others on recognizing their own rhythms and staying attune to what their family needed to know the love of God was about me and my family.

It felt strange. Maybe it should always feel a little odd to make these promises, but it’d never felt this strange. All of the many times I’ve answered these questions before it felt radical. It felt like something was changing. Something g was shifting and that somehow, together, we were going to change things and it would be good. I’ve felt that each time I’ve stood beside others as they’ve made these promises with the waters of baptism glistening on their foreheads.

I’ve even felt it as I’ve flung water from evergreen sprigs into the pews full of bewildered people. The questions always seemed important. It felt like it was important to weigh each word and understand each enormous promise we were making. But, on that Sunday In Advent with my baby cuddled close to my heart, it didn’t feel like the questions mattered as much as my answers. All I know now is that it will be different. It will be different than it ever was before.

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A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.