Sunday
Jan152012

« Get Thee to Church +10 »

I have to admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed as I embark upon some attempt to put down some thoughts on so many anniversary dates that are rolling around and evoking memories of 5-, 10-, and more such yearly intervals. One I'd be remiss to not reflect upon is my return to church life this time ten years ago. After a decade or so of nearly perfect non-attendance, all that reversed itself in the same weeks as it became apparent Kelli and I were finding ourselves a couple. It was a magical time, whether or not I believed in the magic in which I was immersed.

Continuing from the posts preceding this, after the New Year's events that brought Kelli and I into a relationship, it was barely a week into all that when I decided to head to church with her, and to show my face at a worship service for the first time since I don't know when. That is, if you exclude my quite regular attendance at Christmas, a service that I recall making an attempt to get to even during that otherwise distant period. Aside from that, for those years I just don't think I got to church except for attending my grandmother's memorial in June of 2001.

You see, for a long time I used to tell myself that there was no church but CCCPB, where I was essentially born and raised, and where I had some good experiences during my teen years. It would be wrong to characterize myself as a nice church boy, except maybe in my teen years, especially during a bright spell in 1988-1990. That my grandmother Virginia was a founding member might carry some weight, but I wasn't making such a claim because of that. I had a few other church experiences and never liked them much. I got in trouble or was just a distraction at other churches that the old man and Eda took me to in the late 70s/early 80s as Eda in particular was feeling a call in life to get some religion and therefore was experimenting with all sorts of stuff. CCCPB was at least a place I was linked to in a deep enough way to feel it was somewhat an extension of the family. Not so at a scattered bunch of other churches and services at whatever other congregations—Church of Christ, megachurch stuff, other things that now give me the creeps in their conservative and other aspects that can be offputting if you don't totally buy into it all. Usually, all the roads led back to CCCPB.

High School Era

In other journals I've told of my pastor Jerry Lawritson, who, even by the time I'd entered high school had turned my life around for the better. He and his associate pastor Judy Slaughter were my best advocates for me during my teens, particularly when I was there in church, affording them a chance to play such roles in my life. They both arrived on the scene in 1985-86 and so were among the first adults I trusted in those middle and high school years. My motives for getting to church were rather flimsy for a while. I was never a believer. While my grandmother Virginia was molding me to be pious, I never really subscribed to miracles and resurrection and all that. It was all fantasy stuff because, as these things go, it's not true until you live it. My cynical streak was already alive and well. For various reasons I went to church, but not to really get with God. Maybe I went to the summer vacation bible school for a week, but was fickle about going at other times. Maybe there was a special gathering, or maybe I just felt like going one week and not the other. I was a regular at summer picnics on the bay every Wednesday, but I tended to talk to adults and try to get into their world. I wasn't too deeply into my peer group; I didn't go to school with them for geographical reasons. Even at CCCPB I got into some trouble, being rather careless and a bit of a go-it-alone soul. But it was the church that persisted for me, and with Jerry and Judy's advocacy and their creation of cirriculum to support people of my age (most specifically the Shalom Group), I was shaped into something better than I started with. Despite her general agnostic and often antagonistic manner, I met Shelby Duncan in the midst of this period. I can't lie that in the very end of 1988 and for several weeks into 1989, my main motivation to get to church was to be around her. In those early days, seeing her on Christmas Day in 1988, or for a few weeks afterward was as much an encounter as I ever had with an angel, or as much as I knew about salvation. Of course, as loyal TAPKAE.com readers know, that all changed!

And then in August 1990, some young girl named Kelli came to the church with her mom Kay and started in on all sorts of church life like they had been there all along. Kelli was only 14 then but had an old soul to her, and even though she had been gone for seven years in Florida, she knew people at church from before that when she and mama Kay were there in Kelli's earliest years. Kay reported that she was my Sunday school teacher back then. I didn't remember such a thing, but they both joined in on the church life and since Kelli was not particularly part of the familiar faces in the youth group, I took to her a bit more, and with less prejudice. She had an outgoing manner about her, and was pretty intense for that age. And she was willing to talk to me after I professed a love for Jethro Tull—something so notable it was worthy of telling at our wedding as part of the back story. Our church musical cliques were pretty much divided along the lines of the two major radio stations playing classic cock rock or alternative rock. KGB played the former and 91X the latter. It seemed never the twain would meet. Most of the church kids were listening to 91X and could be found gathering around the Cure, Depeche Mode, Morrisey, et al. When Kelli arrived and was talking about Bob Dylan, CSNY, and other old acts, I felt safe to talk Tull with her. During our time in the Shalom Group (a covenantal, highly personal small group mostly comprised of high school age group with some adults including Jerry and Judy), Kelli and I got to know each other at some level. It paved the way for our later conversations outside of church during the dark and silent years during the 90s.

I had an intense spell of church life from late June 1989 and into early 1991. I took part in all the activities I could, given my school schedule and age. I was consulted during the summer of 1989 about what I thought could be done for those of us in high school. Those ideas helped shape the Shalom Group. I went to Jerry's class on Martin Buber and pretended to understand it. More than anything it was a chance to be among seemingly responsible adults who egged me on in positive ways. I was the first 16 year old deacon, probably because of some shared effort to help me move toward a place of responsibility and investment in the community. The Deacons there are the body that take responsibility for the spiritual care there, usually visiting people and making calls and otherwise supplying the spiritual needs of the congregation. I was honored and took on the role but left the board after about eight months when I returned to school for my senior year, but also as I was facing my first experience with depression and the confusion that goes with that. The Shalom Group was founded to aid in navigating the Scylla and Charibdys of that age, and in there I would have opened up in the way I thought I could, as did the others. Maybe I sold myself short, but compared to others' stories, I felt like I was living a tame life, so maybe I missed the chance to really let the group do its magic. My mounting depression during the summer of 1990 was something that went under-reported. So it was years later in 2003 when I smiled my way through painful weeks, trying to look the part of being well adjusted and happy while at church. Church is supposed to make people happy, isn't it?

In the earlier days, I never much liked being in church worship service. Being a teen, we had our Sunday school group prior to the service, so we were in the sanctuary with the rest of the folks. But we usually sat in our little row, together. I was sort of in the null space between two worlds for much of that time. I neither identified with my peers (I fancied them more hip than I) nor did I really understand the nature of the worship service. Jerry's sermons would challenge people three times my age and more, so I was doomed as a teen. What did I know about his favorite topics and personalities? I was far, far, from learning anything about (and certainly absorbing) Wiesel, Heschel, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Buber, Einstein, and others who for him embodied the resisting power of the gospel in that century. All along, Jerry was pointing the way at a cross section of figures who brought a human image into the most inhumane circumstances of the 19th/20th centuries. His sermons were unabashedly challenging. Still are. I knew he was different. But I didn't appreciate that from his sermons, or his special event lectures he'd do once a year. I sort of tolerated being in worship but I loved being a student at his side. I'd be seen to lurk near him to sort of absorb whatever I could of what he said, or more selfishly, any praise he'd heap upon me. In some ways he was father like to me in ways my old man never could be, and as my 2003 experience at Halcyon showed, to accomplish that, he had to put my old man in his place directly sometimes. Jerry went to bat for me a lot of times. I never forgot that.

Cracks in the Wall: 1991-92

In early 1991 though I was fading. I was quite enjoying my senior year at school. In fact, it was the only year I actually enjoyed. So I dared to live in that world instead of church. I was getting to know my German classmate Stephan Rau. Despite going to Madison, he lived some miles away, and so during that 1990-91 period, our best shot at spending time together outside of school was over the weekends. In early 1991, feeling a call to some new adventure and feeling like time was a-wastin', I opted for hanging out with him for much of the remainder of the school year. The resulting distance from church got a little testy for me. I started to see it more objectively after that intense year and a half period and got more touchy and contrarian at anything on the weeks I did visit, even when I didn't need to be. But after graduation Steve left and it was back to regular life during the summer. Upon my return to school, this time at Mesa College, I found myself relenting and falling back into church life somewhat. It never felt so important to me as it did in 11th grade but I soldiered on for a while. Eventually I let my work life at Subway get in the way. The late Saturday nights and the early Sunday mornings clashed long enough to break down whatever drive I did have to participate in church life. In March 1992, Judy had a party upon her departure to serve another church and after that, it was never the same and I didn't make it a priority to get to church. I do recall meeting with Jerry in the period surrounding the Subway crisis in the spring, seeking some counsel. Starting up a relationship with Melissa in the middle of that year, and getting to Europe for the summer was more stuff to keep me at a distance. Finally, I don't think I had anything going on at church after early 1993. But the future was laid out for me when, during the breakup phase with Melissa, I called upon Jerry for some perspective, and around the same time I was talking to Kelli like we were old friends even by then. Church life was done.

Time off for Bad Behavior

The intervening years were dotted with Kelli encounters that sometimes kept me in touch with what was going on. I was rather stunned to hear a couple of key families—Calabrese and Prince—had both divorced during the 90s. Both were key parts of what made church seem thriving for so long. Kids from each family were Kelli's best friends and our peers in Shalom. One friend got into some trouble with some cult. Daniel was selling drugs and eventually was murdered in 2001. (I had told Kelli about a chance run in with him as I was selling my CD in 1998. He paid me all I asked but I reported to her that he whipped out an astounding wad of cash to pay me my $10.) Kelli's tales were titillating. I must have told her about dark times, and she told me of hers too. Considering we weren't exactly first-call friends for daily life, we were ready to pick up and be quite available to each other after some prolonged spells. We worked on a recording in 1998-99. She was gone for a couple years to school in Oakland. I got way depressed a time or two because of girls or family life. Life happened. Even though she reported to me something about the dark side of church, I was intrigued but not dissuaded from eventually getting back there...someday.

2001

Then, as I've reported many times here, when she returned in 2001, we got closer during a period when life's challenge was mounting. Sister Chris reported molestation. Grandma Virginia died. Daniel's murder hit both Kelli and I but was particularly jarring for her; Daniel was like a brother to her in a lot of ways. September 11 happened and changed how I saw the world. I helped Kelli move house. Parties involved alcohol. Family disaster. Holidays. The pace was picking up and moving us closer together. Life's pathos was becoming more overwhelming for me, while after those couple college years at Mills, Kelli was also morphing too. Having attended Christmas service just a week before our big date on January 1, followed by a warm and inviting party afterward at Cheryl's house (one of the divorcees mentioned above), I felt like the church family was where I needed to be. (It didn't hurt to discover that the former organist, Connie, was mother of a drummer I had worked with during the dark years and had come to like: Cliff Almond.) You gotta understand that CCCPB, being a more liberal church, was a place that was inclined to like their wine. Kelli has held them to task on other occasions when that was inappropriate (around the kids at official engagements), but the adults? Oh, watch out! Anyhow, that party helped me feel comfortable again as I was reminded of a chemistry and conviviality that I was sorely lacking and was never able to find elsewhere. (As long as elsewhere was in my world of audio jobs and a social circle that basically had a 50% overlap with many of the people I worked around.) That there was some wine flowing wasn't cause for concern. It made the place more real. Being in Jerry's universe again held promise.

Return of the Prodigal Son, Return of Wonder

So just a couple weeks after that Christmas Eve party, I went to church with Kelli. I don't recall making any big pronouncement in advance, not even to Kelli. I was testing the waters. It was a sunny day. I was welcomed. People asked how I was. They missed me. In a lot of ways it seemed like I finally reached the oasis after years of going it alone in the desert. After five years of being without a partner, and perhaps nine or ten years of being out of church, that life was getting old. And then, almost at once, both of those were reversed in almost a single gesture. After family breakdown, death, and growing existential angst, it was time for answers to come from beyond my own mind. A year after Shelby was driven from the scene, I was feeling like if I went to church, I wouldn't need to hear her agnostic and doubting voice like I did back in the early days. Seeing a return to church as some admission it was time to grow up, I was beginning to entertain how I'd contribute in my way. Of course, it concerned how I might install a sound system. But that was far off. Reconnection was the order of the day. I also felt that maybe after some time I might finally understand something about Jerry's preaching!

In those early weeks and months, Kelli and I probably were fooling no one as we both arrived around the same time, and both with equally wet hair, but for a while we were not yet able to admit that we were a couple, if we knew it ourselves! Still, there was something so right feeling, so proper about how this was unfolding. I had a feeling that I was floating above life, as if in a dream. This went on for much of 2002, it seemed. It seemed too good to be true. Yet, it wasn't that we were all romantic, doing that dating stuff that you'd do if you had just met. We had already established a rootedness from all those years of church and friendship that followed. It was definitely fate-filled. It had some kind of pre-ordained feeling about it. Life was just developing organically, it seemed.

I went to church the next week. After that, we drove down to the tidepools in Point Loma. I'd never been there. This was all new to me. It was most likely January 13th—still very much a winter day, but it was a Santa Ana day here where it is warm, sunny, and clear as the desert air is basically swept backward over to the ocean. The sun was low in the clear sky (barring only the layer of smog that settles near sea level in a brown coat during a Santa Ana). The clouds were thin and wispy. The water was exciting as it crashed the cliffs at the boundary between the terrestrial world and the world of Neptune. There was a feeling of newness. It was like I had new eyes to see the world. And it was beautiful again. Kelli might be a pretty serious student or activist or now clergy person, but don't be fooled! She has a goofy, childlike streak in her too, and frankly it's infectious. She is in touch with a joy that I remembered was that of childhood. And it was already dawning on me in those first couple weeks that the part of me that had forgotten about that kind of wonder and joy was only in a freeze. It wasn't lost forever. It was ready to come back, and as we were looking at the tidepools, it was an apophatic spiritual experience to sense that I could reconnect with that part of me that seemed so lost. That realization stifled words and demanded my presence. Maybe this is why Kelli and I almost never trade letters to each other. I did try to write letter to Kelli in the early years. It was rarely doable in the same way that one can't catch lightning in a bottle. When people sort through all my stuff, don't look for letters addressed to Kelli. So far, there are hardly a few that exist.

Fitting in: 2002-2007

Returning to church that January was the start of a nearly unbroken period of church attendance for just over five years at CCCPB. Right away I realized it was not the same place. We weren't the kids anymore. Our peers were gone and visited only when in town. A couple key families were gone, or after divorces, there was just one partner still regularly attending. A few activities from the old days remained, but it was different as everyone was ten years older and for the most part, there weren't too many new faces. The congregation was smaller by a noticable number. Sure, it wasn't going to be the same. I did meet up with a couple folks who were new and found that it was easier to relate to them as a young adult rather than as a teen. A couple of them are still guests at our house today. For all the rest of the time I stayed there until five years ago, I felt that that dynamic was at work. I felt like I was somehow in my grandmother's shadow. Or that I'd always be the teen kid there. I did make effort to contribute my time primarily. The biggest time donation was recording the audio every week, starting around Thanksgiving 2002. It kept me coming all the time, and listening. And since I found that Jerry was far more understandable now that I was an adult who was hungry, hungry, and hungry again, it was never really work to get to church to hear him and record him. I rebuilt the church website twice (that was testy because the woman who did the work before had some big insecurity issues). I aided the sound system's design and installation, and ran it for six months before it and all the other "work" drove me nuts, as I was shifting into a place where I needed to establish personal relations at church, not be doing unpaid technical and media work. But for about four and a half of the five years I was there, it was a good place for me. I never seemed to connect with it like when I was a teen, but it did give Kelli a new family to interact with together. Of course, that was highlighted at our wedding, as we tied the knot, perhaps the first couple of our sort there.

I came back to church only willing to roll with the questions. I knew the world got to be far more challenging a place in September 2001. But my world was already overwhelming. It's not like I got there and ran up to the altar and prostrated myself. No. I'm not so expressive. But returning made the way safe to plug away at the big issues. It gave me a lens for seeing things anew. I was introduced to the people and the stories that spoke to my situation. Jerry was a personal hero a few times over, but particularly during my Halcyon stay and for a couple years following that when he directly helped me get to ongoing therapy. Such was his personal commitment. During that period, instead of working according to my faulty plan of suicide, where he would be the pastor to say a few words over me before a final rest, he was the pastor who presided at my wedding not quite a year after that, and who knew in a very real way what a victory that was. All the more victorious that I'd marry a nice church girl who he'd also participated in forming at so many levels, and who he has since seen to ordination at that same altar.

Bittersweet Realizations

I used to say that CCCPB was the only church for me. Not so. It might be more right to say that it was right for me to land back there. For years I avoided any church the best I could. Most of my encounters with church were doing sound for slick, high budget megachurches or other evangelical groups that rubbed me the wrong way with their theology and smarm (and still do). I was unable to understand religion. It was all jibberish. At least I didn't let those more conservative churches provide the interpretations about all this. I held out until I was able to return to CCCPB where I could finally learn at least the academic parts in a more responsible manner with interpreters that helped bring out the messages not of condemnation but of liberation. My church at CCCPB was a community—dysfunctional as Kelli reported, and more so as I spent my time there—but one that I could relate to. And one where at least a couple people were true allies. The theology is bold and daring. It's liberating. But it isn't a warm and fuzzy place. Unfortunately, while the congregation has a liberal theology that I totally dig for myriad reasons, there isn't a framework like the Shalom Group to connect people now. I've been gone for five years, and hearing directly from Jerry that such a group would not happen there in 2006 was a deal breaker. That's when it started to feel less a fit. It coincided with the matter of how to recognize my tech/media contributions, and when I got ideas from my newfound friendship with Lee Van Ham, but if I knew there was a community life, or a close encounter group like Shalom, I might have stuck it out longer. For me, that is more important than the details of any theology. Why Jerry was led to tell me there'd be no such group is still a tragic mystery to me. Okay, he knows people at another level. But he knew what it meant to have Shalom Group before. I felt let down. And since, I've seen all sorts of other inexplicable things as I watch from a distance but otherwise know what's going on through Kelli and others. It makes me sad. And sometimes I feel like I abandoned the ship. Maybe I should have been bailing some water too? I don't know. I know I made my contribution of time and felt at the end of it wasn't sure what was accomplished. These days I watch from afar and see how the things I used to contribute are all neglected at best (the audio system is woefully underused, and the recording archive is a shadow of what I kept) and reverted at worst. (The website is dismally bad now compared to what I left behind.) I've been back for some special services, usually related to Kelli preaching or during the period surrounding her ordination. I did get back to CCCPB for Christmas a few weeks ago. The sermon was good, as ever. But the congregation was thin and just a shadow of what it was before. Still, upon going outside for a candlelight singing of Silent Night in the chilly winter air, I did get a bit of emotion as that still to me is an essential part of Christmas, and was so during the dark years. I did get a feeling of it all being good at some level. All good maybe, but not all for me.

After 2007

These days my faith walk is mainly done in the context of Mission Hills UCC, but is shaped in a big way by two other major forces: Jubilee Economics and Richard Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation. Taken together, they reflect a range of concerns both practical and abstract, with areas of individual work and community life; with a chance to examine a man's place in the cosmos and in the human economy on Earth, but even more so to realize the connection between them. Justice is a thread that runs through all this. I even get to do audio and web work for JEM since that part of me seems to be a persistent and vital part of what I bring to these things. As I think of that early time ten years ago, particularly at the tidepools, it makes sense that a moment like that was a very spiritual one, and one that now I have MHUCC, JEM, and CAC to help me interpret as such, and to see how such times are what life is really all about: seeing and feeling connection at a mystical level. And moreso, each in its own way helps cultivate the soil where such encounters might take place. I didn't sense a lot of that at CCCPB. At least not within official functions and even in worship. There is a lot of good information there, but as Richard Rohr cautions, good religion is about transformation. Still, I can't slight Jerry for introducing me to figures who I have not really even begun to appreciate at a deep level: Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, King; Tillich, Wiesel, Solzhenitsyn, and several others who in Jerry's telling have made real the honest human struggles in our age. It's not that Jerry didn't teach the Bible; he showed how wonder and grace is alive in the world, even in the gulags and the concentration camps—those being the examples of the radical resistance that show the true cost of discipleship for those who would be followers of truth. (I often think he was talking over the heads of the congregation.) 

CCCPB's weak point has been that there isn't a church structure to keep people connected at the level like I now find at MHUCC. In 2006, I desperately needed that. After almost a year out of church in 2007, I needed the community of a good church, just so I could be a human again. Not a favorite son of the congregation. Not a webmaster or audio man. Just a human who was grasping at some big questions of existence. Mission Hills slowly became that for me as I warmed to that congregation. I had to get over my old idea that there was no church for me but CCCPB. In one of those God upsets that life deals to a guy like me with a cocky attitude like that, I found that CCCPB was but a stepping stone to a far richer life in a church setting. When blood family and my first church family were all things I felt I had lost, Mission Hills started me on a road to seeing it another way. It isn't perfect but there are a great many layers to it that help keep things in perspective. I've gotten to know a range of people in different contexts. I've mostly stayed clear of technical involvements. I've concentrated on relationships, which for me is where it's at. In that regard I've been both giver and receiver, both as a pew sitter/small group participant and in some capacity of leadership on the Christian Education commission and as facilitator for the young adults group. While Kelli appears at young adults gatherings, and sometimes at worship and other occasions, she is still rooted to CCCPB and causes me to shake my head at her persistence there. It's family to her. I count Mission Hills as family for me now. Even a couple weeks ago Scott preached on the family of water being stronger than the family of blood. Kelli and I live a somewhat divided church life now. But for her to let me be at MHUCC with an all new setting has been good. I've had a chance to relate to church on my own terms for the first time ever. I'm not going because it's my family's church. And I'm not going because my wife is the pastor. I'm not going for the sake of momentum, or association, or even coercion. I rather like it that way. At MHUCC people are connected. There is information but there is transformation too. It just feels right. It feels right because I am free to go there and be authentic and present far more than I felt able at CCCPB. On days when I hurt, I can say so. On days when I am happy, I might be glowing and ready to just sit down with anyone and trade stories. This is all stuff I wasn't able to do easily at CCCPB. I wasn't that person there. Or I felt like I had to be the guy who finished the recording before talking to people. And then half of them had left. 

The last decade has been quite a transformational one. I was just on the threshold of realizing things had to change back in 2002. At that time, I had no idea that Kelli felt called to ministry. I didn't know she'd go to seminary and get into ministry work, or that I'd read a few books of hers and develop my own parallel knowledge of some of the same things, or that I'd be swept up like I was. In some ways, early 2002 was a birthday. It wasn't just a 28th birthday. In some ways it was a rebirth day. And as you can see, it was just one of a chain of such times. I've had even more rebirthdays: emerging from Halcyon in September 2003 was one. Wedding day was another. Maybe even getting evicted was another, though it was agonizing and prolonged labor. And again I'd say that that devilish December 14, 2006 was one more still. They keep coming. The soul keeps having chances to be reinvented anew; to see the world with new lenses just like that day at the tidepools with Kelli. A decade ago I would have thought it jibberish if someone told me this story. How soon could my doubting Thomas side come up to challenge it all. Yet the cracks in that wall got bigger and bigger until the facade burst and collapsed with the help of a mix of personal and national tragedy, family loss, economic downturn, an old friend morphing into a bride, and the shimmering sun and waves at the tidepools that day. It isn't that God started working in my life that time ten years ago. I just was ready to admit that was the case all along. And that it was easier to fall into the river and go with it than to fight it. In actual water terms, I can't swim to save my life. Not so different in the God river, but then again, in the God river, one doesn't save one's own life.

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