Two Sundays in the Bible Belt means Two Sundays in Church. The Directory of options for my parent's town in Texas (population: 35,000) is three pages long. Although my church attendance has been spotty over the last several months, most lately with excessive travel as an easy excuse, the truth is my absence has been driven by spiritual turmoil that I have neither been able to identify or suppress. Living at home now, Church attendance is not optional. Thankfully, denomination (to a point) is.
My first choice was Mesa Community Church .It is an AMIA plant, and after attending Rez in Wheaton for so many years, I thought I would at least feel at home. I drove to Austin and was immediately welcomed by the requisite door greeter: “Have we met? We are *so* glad you are here!” I put on my game face and dove into the small milieu in the foyer of the Middle School where they meet. There were trendy, colorful handouts, a free worship CD by their band, nametags. I was heartily greeted by everyone I accidentally made eye contact with (“Have we met? We are *so* glad you’re here!") When I made it to the cafeteria where ten huge squares of black fabric had been set up which framed easels of painted scriptures and creeds, I realized Mesa was not what I was looking for.
I have to admit at this point that I had chosen Mesa over the other Austin AMIA church for a single reason: Based on the website, it looked bigger. I was craving a quiet place where I could slip in and face whatever turmoil arose. Where I could walk out, if I needed some space, without being noticed. I sought an AMIA church because I was craving the familiar space that Liturgy creates to do that. There were fifty or so chairs set up in the tiny space those black fabric squares create. The church was very small. There was no subtle way out. And there wasn’t liturgy (although I will also admit I have been spoiled by my sporadic attendance with the Orthodox.)
I must pause here and say that Mesa was an exceptional church. I felt welcomed by everyone I came into contact with, including the pastor (greeter-lines notwithstanding.) What they have done with their limited space and informational materials was unexpected for a congregation so small. The worship was easy to follow, albeit short on the “old school” church practices I normally associate with Anglicanism. I highly recommend a visit in the unlikely event that any of the evangelical kilt who reads this lives in the Austin area.
However, as expected, as soon as I walked in the door the now familiar turmoil hit me like a brick. I spent the service fighting back tears and frustration (again: source unknown.) I sat through the service detached from the worship, the sermon, even (loathe to admit it) communion. I was fighting this now-familiar blindfolded battle, trying to remain straight-faced until I could leave.
The next week, I played it safe and went to the St. Mark’s Episcopal in my parent’s town. I had been there on previous trips, before The Controversy made national headlines. I know that their early service is a mellow affair where I could sit in the back, mouth the liturgy, and kneel (or leave) if I needed to without causing undue concern. And it was. The liturgy was exactly the space I needed. Although I didn’t pay much attention to the sermon, and didn’t know most of the songs, I spent the service focusing, searching … even praying, as unfamiliar an activity as that has become. There were robes and guitar music. Bells and kneeling and the lighting of candles for intentions (I love this terminology, and was delighted to find a non-Catholic church that uses it.) A man with MS sat beside me and explained in his wispy voice how communion is taken, so I would know what to do.
And now I come to the question of interpretation:
According to the Conservative Christian Right (as represented in this case by my Dr.Dobson Loving, Jerry Falwell’s School Attending, Anti-Gay Protesting, Overseas Evangelism Supporting, Anti-Immigration Voting, World Magazine Reading family) my presence at an Episcopal church was questionable if not outright Dangerous For My Soul. Because I am in a quagmire of spirituality a present, the fact that I experienced no turmoil while there would indicate to Them that the Spirit of Conviction, which should be pulling me (driving me?) to Christ was not present. My anxiety at Mesa was caused by that very presence, and I should continue to attend that place of discomfort until I am brought back into Right Relationship With God (whatever the hell that means.)
According to me, as the protagonist of this blog, my presence at the Episcopal church was the best thing (spiritually) that has happened in a formal setting (meaning: epiphanies in moonlit canyons not counted) in a very long time. Yet if I follow the reasoning of the Evangelicals, here, I get stuck. I do not think that there is anything “wrong” with Mesa, or that my presence there was somehow negative or detrimental, as would follow if Evangelical and Mainline churches were spiritually at odds with one another. I have a hard time stomaching this one. Granted, I am left with one more personal reason to avoid anything resembling contemporary evangelical worship. Yet I have no qualms recommending it to somebody who might find otherwise (although I would be martyred for the liberals before recommending some other churches that come to mind.)
(TO BE CONTINUED ... )