“It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.”
— Woody Allen, from the film Annie Hall
(Trigger warning: This post is kind of spiritual-ish)
I’ve been thinking of quitting church.
Time out: I’ve mentioned before that I go to a Unitarian Universalist church, and promised to write more about it because, although it’s been around over five hundred years, a lot of people aren’t really sure what it is. Many of those people are UU’s, actually, which is part of our marketing problem. It boils down to this: we welcome everyone who comes in peace, we value freedom and work for social justice. If you want more details, you can go here, and maybe here.
I joined this church back when my boys were three and five years old, because not only did the modest building have a huge banner outside that read “Standing on the Side of Love”, (referring, then, to the fight against the ban on same sex marriage in California that was raging at the time), but they also had an old school playground with dangerous “retro” equipment, like one of those metal carrousel things where kids propel themselves around until they throw up or crash into the dirt. There were big wooden climbing structures full of splinters and the occasional black widow spider and a sandbox that needed a good sift, if you know what I mean.
“Can we play here?” My son, then five asked.
“I think it’s for the church people,” I answered, looking through the chainlink fence, woven through with jasmine.
“Let’s be church people,” he said. He was little. He had no idea how loaded a statement like that was to an expat from the bible belt, like myself.
Maybe it was the voice of an angel (probably not), but I just had a feeling that these could be my people. Raising kids these days can whip you into such a frenzy of hyper-vigilance, that it not only zaps the fun out of it, but it can make you a little nuts. The lure of this playground, with it’s promise of good natured hippies who weren’t afraid of gay people, lawsuits or cat poop, was enough to get me through the doors.
We found community.
We took part in traditions like Passover, where my non-Jewish husband had an unlikely star turn as The Burning Bush in the seder play, and a Christmas Eve service, where my son, age six, was welcomed into the pageant dressed as Spiderman because, “Who knows who really attended the birth of Jesus?” said all the happy UU’s.
We got involved. UU’s are nothing if not crazy for social justice, and the church gave me a place to learn more about issues I cared about and pitch in where I could.
My relationship with church was great,
until several years passed and then…
As my boys got older, life got busier, and weekends were especially precious real estate on the calendar. The church got a new minister that didn’t take, and when he left after a few rough years, it caused hurt feelings and a flurry of gossip that poisoned the positive vibe I’d loved so much in the beginning.
So I did something I’d never done and made an appointment with our minister. I needed to know: Is it possible to fall back in love, or had I let my relationship with church become stale, like a bad marriage, and was it time to pack up the kids and move on?
Talking to my minister was a lot like talking to a shrink. She asked questions, nodded and and listened with empathy, but mostly it was on me to suss it out.
“Maybe I just need a break,” I reasoned. “A spiritual sabbatical. That’s a thing, right?”
Again with the nodding. I tried to make my case.
“Then, when I come back, it will be a choice, not out of some, you know, obligation.”
We looked at each other. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get what I wanted. She listened, but I wasn’t going to get her stamp of approval for bailing out, and I wasn’t going to get a guilt trip about it either. Either of those would have given me the green light, but she wasn’t biting.
I went home confused.Why was it so hard to walk away?
I curate my life pretty carefully, picking and choosing what fits best, minimizing discomfort as much as possible. I shop at the grocery store I prefer, even though it’s not in my neighborhood and I have perfected my Starbucks order to a t. What can I say? I like things the way I like them.
Maybe it was the voice of an angel (it was), but I started to wonder if the problem wasn’t with church, but with me. If I did the work of showing up, even when I’d rather do something else, what might happen?
Which brings us to Easter Sunday.
My family and I woke up late, had toast and chocolate rabbits for breakfast, and made our way to church. All the familiar faces were there, and familiar songs were sung. As always, instead of eggs, we hid cans of food for the kids to find, to be donated to a local food bank, and participated in something called a Flower Communion. It was, in the words of David Byrne, same as it ever was.
But it felt different.
I hate to say it, but I think it had to do with faith.
It felt like a leap of faith to show up, because even though I’m going through a phase where that place is working my last nerve, there’s something I need there, even if I can’t name it. And as annoying as it can be to get my ass out of bed and serve a community that sometimes asks too much, it is working on my insides, changing me for the better.
So, I guess I’ll keep going because, hey—
I need the eggs.