Monday, September 13, 2010

Back In The Habit

Yesterday I attended a Sunday morning church service for the first time in my adult life.  

I grew up on church the way other kids grew up on Ovaltine.  My family and I went there so often I used to think we actually lived at the church, and just occasionally went to this other building where we slept and bathed and argued over who suffered a worse death--Quint from Jaws (bitten in half by a shark) or those Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (faces melted/exploding heads). 

Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night, youth group, retreats, bible studies, family name it, I did it.  Episcopal, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, Evangelical Free (still trying to figure out what that one was, exactly....I used to think it was like, Free church to all Evangelicals...or maybe it was more like Pepsi Free...the No Calorie church...).  I've attended all sorts of religious functions; my best friends in school were Baha'i, Jewish, Half-Jewish, Catholic, Mormon.  I've been to Bar Mitzvah's, confirmation parties, Baha'i parades.  I've sampled everything from communion wine to Manischewitz to little shot-glasses full of grape juice, matzo to challah bread to wafers.  I've been confirmed, saved, baptized twice (once the full-on, slammed dunked in a baptism tank).  I've confessed a myriad of sins, memorized an untold number of Bible verses, I've played shepherds, angels, Mary, and once a sheep in Nativity plays, attended sunrise services and midnight masses.  I've even been to St. Peter's square and caught a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI on a Jumbo-tron.    
Getting a shout-out from The Pope

So for the past ten years or so, I'd taken a break from church.  Not deliberately, really.  I just kind of fell out of the habit (no pun intended).  I still prayed, reflected, thanked God every day for all that I have, and cracked open the Bible every once in a while.  But I stayed away from official, structured, hour-long services with singing and shouts of Amen, for no particular reason other than I never bothered finding a church once I moved out of my parents' house.  I wasn't even sure what kind of church I would attend when I became an official church-goer again.  Being the denominational mutt that I am, I kinda just wanted to go, do my thing and leave.  I used to get the sweats during the part of the church service where we had to turn and shake the hand of the people around us, thinking, what if no one shakes my hand? I'll feel like such an idiot just standing here, waiting for someone to come to me.  Maybe I should make the first move.  But what if I get rejected?  It was almost as brutal as the start up of a slow song at a middle school dance--the panic factor was the same, but in church I didn't have a dark corner of the cafeteria to retreat to.

I never really paid attention during the actual sermon, either.  I tell ya, you want to stop time for a nine-year-old, make her sit through a sermon. During the minutes between 11:30 and 12:00 on a Sunday morning, time stood still.  On the occasion that my older sister deigned to sit beside me in the pew, we played hangman, MASH and tick-tac-toe on every blank space of the church bulletin.  The pew shook with our stifled laughter as she drew caricatures of the pastor, the choir, and some of the more cartoonish members of the congregation, until our mother pinched us in disapproval or our father frowned down his nose, his mouth threatening but his eyes full of suppressed amusement.  

On Sunday evenings our father would come up with quizzes about the sermon and print them out. My siblings and I sat at the kitchen table trying desperately to remember scraps of the pastor's monologue and answer as many questions as possible, out of fear that we would either have to sit next to our parents in church for the next twenty years, or be damned to hell for all eternity (at the time we weren't sure which was worse).  Luckily this ritual only lasted a few months. I guess our father grew tired of watching us bomb quiz after quiz, and instead retreated to his computer den, probably praying for our souls as he used his dial-up modem to converse with band directors, Trekkies, and other nerds who were online back in the late 80's.

As I got older, sermons were less of a chance for me to admire my sister's artistic talents and more of a chance for me to hold hands with my boyfriend beneath the Bible we were pretending to study.  I attended a colossal church at that time, and my boyfriend and I would perch high up in the balcony, overlooking the hundreds below, my parents probably unable to make out my face from the fifty stories beneath me where they sat with the choir. Sermons were definitely more bearable when I had someone's sweaty hand to hold.

So anyway, now that we've got kids, Jeff and I decided we were overdue to start taking them to church.  I put Elsa in one of the two dresses she has that fits, got Rollie looking all dapper (until he started wiping his nose with his shirt), blow-dried my hair for the first time in three years, and we were off.

We dropped Rollie off at his Sunday school class, and he strode right in like he owned the place, not even batting an eye when I told him I'd get him in an hour.  I guess preschool has really built up his, a lot...normally I wouldn't use the word 'cocky' to describe my son, but he has definitely developed a swagger in the last few weeks.

Poor Elsa was a slightly different story.  The church had this pager system, so after I signed her in, I was issued a pager in case of an emergency.  "Don't worry," the lady working in the nursery told me. "We hardly ever have to page a mom."

Jeff and I almost made it through the opening hymn when our pager buzzed and flashed like a table at Friday's had just opened up.  I grabbed it and hurried down the aisle, convinced Elsa was having a panic attack in my absence.  

And she was.

"She's been crying since you left," the lady told me apologetically. "I tried to distract her but she's just so upset."

I held Elsa to me, her body twitching, her breath hitching, her cheeks red and streaked and wet. Man, for a little shit who runs away from me when we're at the grocery store, she sure is attached to me now.  I sat with her and watched her warm up enough to methodically remove and insert a pacifier into another little girl's mouth, and then I sneaked away, pausing outside Rollie's classroom long enough to see him busily assembling something out of tape and Q-tips.

The pager didn't go off again until about three-quarters of the way through the sermon. A sermon I was actually paying attention to. A sermon I was actually enjoying. Sure it took me an embarrassingly long time to leaf through my Bible for the book of Daniel, sure Jeff and I searched frantically through our wallets for a few crumpled dollar bills as the offering plate passed by, sure we had to lip-sync our way through the songs because we'd never heard of any of them, but was just nice to be back at church, learning about God as I sat beside my husband and held his hand beneath a dusty Bible.

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