embrace the mystery.

A couple of Sundays ago, on the way home from the Lutheran Church we've been attending, Josh said something about joining up. And I said, whoooooa there pardner, isn't that just a bit hasty? I mean, I like the Lutherans and all, and these specific ones are swell, but I'm not sure I'm ready to put my name on the books. I dunno, I just don't feel Lutheran, you know?

It was the only church we'd tried. Josh picked it because it was the closest Lutheran church to our house, and you like what you know. I know, because I had already eyed a tiny Methodist church a couple miles out in the country. We'd talked about getting back into a church habit for a while. We'd both grown up in faithful families, and we missed church. Drifting back to your childhood faith in your late twenties is maybe cliche, but here we are.

I personally was intrigued by the Unitarians. I wanted to give them a try, just to see what the service was like. My only impression of them was that they were a place for people whose beliefs didn't seem to fit into any of the approved boxes. I wonder how many people in the pews of other churches have personal beliefs that are different, even at odds, with the messages being preached to them every week. The Unitarians seemed to be embracing that: "Hey, there's lots of ways to think about these questions, and frankly, it's impossible to know, but let's get together, sing songs, and talk about how to be good people." Josh did not trust the Unitarians ("They're not even Christians." "Some of them probably are, and I bet most of them are down with Jesus."), but was willing to try out a service. But we never did, because the only church is twenty minutes away. So I guess if you asked how interested I was in the Unitarians, the answer is less than twenty minutes.

But the Episcopal church was only five minutes away, closer than the Lutherans even. So I said, hey, let's give them a whirl. And Josh said okay, because he trusts the Episcopalians.

It's funny searching for a church together, because we each have different ideas of what we want out of it. He grew up with a few different traditions - first Baptist, then Lutheran, with a dash of Catholic school thrown in. He likes high church, with lots of rituals and candles and robes. I grew up in the archetypical old country church, a Methodist community that was constantly on the verge of dying out with its elderly members. I like small churches, with strong connections between members. Neither of us can abide contemporary music.

The Episcopal church was smallish, with traditional music - so far, so good. And their service? Well, Josh referred to it as "really high church." A good Lutheran would come to the Episcopal church and say that they liked it, but that there was kind of a lot of ritual. There is a procession coming in and one going out. There are lots of opportunities to sing, even if you're not in the choir. There is a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and a excerpt from the New Testament. And then, there is a reading from the Gospel. The two acolytes and an altar boy have a mini parade down the middle aisle, leading a priest carrying a book. They stop halfway between the front and the back, and the priest reads a little good news.

I'm not actually sure if the guy was a priest. They had four people in robes up front. I think they all had different titles, which confuses the heck out of me because I don't know the difference between a priest and a rector and a vicar. In my low church tradition, we had a preacher and that was it.

The first time I experienced high church, I was confused and frustrated the whole time. I always felt half a step behind, even though everything was listed in the program. I guess I've been to enough of these services to be able to follow it, but it has still mostly felt...empty. Rote. Like I was following a script. But at the Episcopal church, I sorta got it, and I honestly can't say if the difference was in the church or in me. Maybe I had enough of a feel for the flow that I was able to actually pay attention to it rather than fumble to keep up the whole time. But it didn't feel empty and rote, it was solemn and reverant. Maybe my problem with high church was that it hadn't been high enough. Or maybe I just really wanted to like the Episcopalians.

The sermon blew my mind. I grew up with well-meaning but not particularly insightful or inspired sermons. Small country churches are really more about the good salt-of-the-earth people in the pews, because they can't afford a good orator up front. The Lutherans, despite being a larger city church, were similar - solid messages, but not something you'd go home and discuss further. However, because of all their liturgy, the message was generally brief. The Episcopal priest spoke from the aisle, using no notes. He started with a story from the Kabbalah. And he talked about not interpretting the Old Testament literally.

I looked around, waiting for the angry mob to form. Obviously, my experience with Christianity has been very limited. I knew there were some who read the Bible as symbolic, but I figured they were isolated sects who lived off the grid and shunned outsiders. I was used to places where if you called the Bible's literal truth into question, ladies would start fainting.

The priest talked about the specific story of God raining manna from heaven. He said we should not think of this as literal bread falling from the sky. Nor should we try to explain it by saying that there was a certain type of flowering bush that produced something similar to what is described. After eliminating those two options ("supernatural literalism" and "historical realism"), he ended the message. I waited. If it's not A, and it's not B, then there must be a C. The preacher is supposed to tell you the C! But if there was one, he didn't mention it. At first, I thought it was a glaring oversight, but then I decided that was the point. The church was not telling me what to believe. They had addressed a couple of interpretations and outlined the downfalls with them, but then they left the rest of it to me. They embrace the mystery, and I really, really like that.

Mind blown.

The Episcopalians may be vague on their interpretations of Old Testament miracles, but they are emphatic about loving Jesus. They have Communion every single Sunday. It's right there on the front page of the bulletin, under the church's name - "Eucharist-centered worship." While I teased Josh about how often the Lutherans communed ("You know, the way the Methodists do it, they don't have to do it again for months. Much more efficient."), I've accepted that some people really like the holy meal.

The Lutherans intinct, which is a fancy word for dipping the bread into the wine and then eating it. Growing up, we got little shot glasses of grape juice at the Methodist church. The Episcopalians share the cup. You have the option to intinct, or you can forego the wine altogether. We took a when-in-Rome attitude. I think I've used a communal cup maybe once before, but I've never had the priest hold the cup up to me as I knelt. I felt profoundly humbled by it, and once again, I felt like I was being introduced to a whole new Christianity. Are the Episcopalians different or am I?

As we left, Josh said we could start going there instead of continuing to court the Lutherans. I was relieved, after feeling like I'd dragged him there when he was all ready to get his Lutheran card stamped and sign up for a retreat at Lutheridge (or was it Lutherock?). So. Episcopalians! Who knew?

*Note: When I talk about big groups of people like "the Methodists" or "the Lutherans," I am speaking about the specific congregations that I am familiar with. There is great variety even within denominations, because it's a big world.

No comments: