Friday, July 23, 2010


I stopped going to church around the time I turned fourteen, and returned just a few months after my thirty-second birthday. Both the stopping and the restarting came shortly after events that could easily be misinterpreted.

June 3, 1983 was my last day of eighth grade, and was also the day my father laid down on the floor to watch television and died of a completely unexpected heart attack. My fourteenth birthday came six weeks later to the day, and, near as I can recall, I stopped attending church that very week. But it would be far too tidy to explain my decision as anger against God. Goes the conventional account, if my father, whom I loved very much, could be torn away from me like that, then I wanted nothing to do with God. Simple set piece in a thousand novels and screenplays. The problem is, it wasn't that way at all: I still gave God all my loyalty and called myself a Christian. What I couldn't stand was church.

I'd been warned that churches don't handle grief very well. I was braced for the fact that they'd be supportive for about two to four weeks, show up with casseroles, keep us company around the clock, and then they would decide we'd grieved long enough, and vanish. Actually, the vanishing wasn't so bad; we were sick of having a full house, and the thought of one more casserole was enough to squelch my appetite. But what was awful was the way they treated us when we did see them.

Comforting, it seems to me, is a very context-specific skill. People tend to be surprisingly good at it when they're actually, physically in attendance at a funeral, or paying a condolence call to the home of someone who's suffered a loss. Where people aren't good at it is anywhere else. Catch them at the grocery store, at school, or, worst of all, in the hallways of the church, and they're like fish out of water. They're absolutely terrified that anything they do or say will cause you to burst out crying, which will immediately make the universe explode. That's precisely what happened next: people I'd known all my life from church took unmistakably to avoiding us. I wouldn't say we were ostracized or shunned, because there was no sense of hostility or disapproval; worse, people tried to make it look casual, or accidental, as though they just hadn't seen us, which was far, far worse because it was such a glaring, if wordless, lie. I weathered this for a couple of weeks, until one Sunday morning, as we headed home, my mother turned around from the driver's seat of the car and asked a question I never, ever thought she'd ask.

"Do you want to keep going to church?"

Until then, it had simply never been open to discussion. There was nothing optional about attending church. But she'd seen what we'd seen, and even if she had the strength to take it, she wasn't about to let it happen to her sons. All three of us stopped going to church. She started back within the year, and my brother returned to regular church attendance, I gather, when his soon-to-be wife conveyed to him that she would only marry a churchgoing man. For me, it took a bit longer.

During my entire time as a debater and debate coach, I didn't take seriously the idea of joining a church. When you're on the road as many weekends as I was, it's virtually impossible to put down roots at a church. If you only show up every third or fourth Sunday, then each time you go, you have to keep reminding people what your name is. I simply didn't bother. Then, for about two years after I walked away from debate, I was still too occupied with decompression, with getting used to a humane rhythm of life and a bit of self-care to think about giving up Sundays for Christian fellowship. And, I suppose, at the back of my mind I was still nursing old resentments.

The other date that's easy to misunderstand is the day I first went to the church I wound up joining: September 23, 2001. Twelve days after September 11th.

No, I didn't start back to church because September 11th put the fear of God in me. Nothing like that. Even though I've been a Baptist all my life, most of my extended family is Methodist, and with one cousin in particular I used to have a good running bout of mutual teasing about the denominational gap. She moved out to East Texas and joined a Methodist church, but eventually grew disenchanted with it and moved her membership to the local Baptist church. You'd better believe I let her know how good it felt to finally, once and for all, claim victory over the Methodists. A year or so later, she made a mid-summer move to the town where I lived, and called me up one day saying she'd found the church she planned to join, and was I interested in visiting it?

I walked through the front door, and within five seconds I knew I belonged back.

I visited a few more times before I joined, but I've never had any doubts since about whether I belong in a church, in fellowship, in Bible study and teaching, and in service. I remember what my life was like during my unchurched period, and I don't want it back. I remember that my faith was a fact, a single facet of the totality of me, but still something thin and insubstantial and completely unsatisfying. The reality of belonging to a church, of working within it, giving to it, clinging to it as it goes through its ups and downs, is extremely powerful. I'm better with it and weaker without it.

So it's not as simple as quitting church because of a death, and it's not as simple as coming back to church because of a shocking event. An outsider who didn't have all the facts could note the timing and feel very convinced of the cause-effect relationship, but that outsider would stray far from the truth simply due to taking the interpretive path of least resistance.

I remind myself of this when I see sloppy scholarship, much of which consists of the kind of easy-path "reasoning" described here. In all human activity, and particularly in the traumatic human experiences that work enduring changes, there will nearly always be more to learn, more to explain, than just stringing together each event with the nearest plausible and easily-explained antecedent. But if I had a nickel for every time I saw exactly that kind of ramshackle work lauded as groundbreaking, my church could pay off the mortgage with just one month of my tithe.

No comments: