Although I dropped in and out of church services in the years that followed, mostly for the music, my queasiness about Easter turned into a large stone planted squarely in front of the tomb. The stone had begun to edge across the entrance back in elementary school when the wife of the new director of Christian Education informed my brother and me that our best friends, brother and sister from a Jewish family, were destined for hell; it edged further during the pastoral prayers of sermon length that prayed for victory in war; and it finally rolled all the way shut from years of academic study of history, anthropology, and law. God, in my mind, was always present, but that Jesus dude was… well, totally beyond my comprehension. He was a man and, like my brother, the only Son, and, while he may have been a very nice guy, helpful to many (though not so nice to his mother, sometimes), he just wasn’t someone I could embrace as my Friend.
How I eventually came to find Him through the Eucharist is a story I may tell someday. For now, let me share something that is very dear to me, a passage from Kathleen Norris’s book Dakota. It vividly describes what I experienced when I first worked up the courage to return to churchgoing after years of absence:
“When some ten years later I began going to church again because I felt I needed to, I wasn’t prepared for the pain. The services felt like word bombardment – agony for a poet – and often exhausted me so much I’d have to sleep for three or more hours afterward. Doctrinal language slammed many a door in my face, and I became frustrated when I couldn’t glimpse the Word behind the words. Ironically, it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out. Sometimes I’d give up, deciding that I just wasn’t religious. This elicited an interesting comment from a pastor friend who said, ‘I don’t know too many people who are so serious about religion that they can’t even go to church.’”
“Even as I exemplified the pain and anger of a feminist looking warily at a religion that has so often used a male savior to keep women in their place, I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation. Their well-worn Bibles said to me, ‘there is more here than you know,’ and made me take more seriously the religion that caused by grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used that its spine broke. I also began, slowly, to make sense of our gathering together on Sunday morning, recognizing, however dimly, that church is to be participated in, not consumed. The point is not what one gets out of it, but the worship of God; the service takes place both because of and despite the needs, strengths, and frailties of the people present. How else could it be? Now, on the occasions when I am able to actually worship in church, I am deeply grateful.”
-- Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993) (pp. 94-95)
Like Norris, I struggled mightily with all the church words, which in my youth used to go over the top of my head, but as an adult filled my eyes and ears and seemed to threaten the safety of my over-educated reason. For me it was an old Lutheran pastor who told me with some amusement that I was first person he had ever received into the church who had asked to read both Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms. Of course I never read them all, and finally just let go of my all too reluctant will to understand. Over time, I, too, learned by doing and spending time with those women and their well-worn Bibles. Thank God for their patience with me and the mysteries of Word and sacrament that later came to me as an Episcopalian.