Last night, for the first time in many years, I went to church for a Christmas Eve service. It was to a church I once went to regularly, just up the street from my house. It was a church that I had served, doing “good deeds” by hanging bulletin boards and helping in Sunday School classes. But, it was to a church where I had also decided to stop going.
An old story
When my youngest was born, I asked to have him baptized in this church. It was a church in the denomination of Christain faith that I had been baptized. And, my other two sons had also been baptized but in New York State. To avoid a third, long trip back to the church where my sister and I had joined as adults, I asked the pastor if I could have my youngest baptized in this local church where I had regularly attended and served but not joined. Unfortunately, the answer I was given came with a caveat; I could have him baptized if I formally joined this congregation! I was shocked. My oldest son was baptized at 6 weeks of age in the church in which I grew up and was married. My second or middle son was baptized in the same denomination of the protestant Christain faith, but in the church my sister and I had joined back in Buffalo, New York. Yes, I was a formal member of both of these congregations. However, I felt that to put the caveat of joining this congregation on the baptism of my child was akin to holding me and my faith hostage. Naturally, I declined. We’d go back to Buffalo for yet another baptism and I would worry about finding another church home after the ceremony was done.
The trips back to Buffalo for the baptisms did come with some benefits. I have to admit this. Both my younger sons were baptized into our faith with their cousins in joint ceremonies. My sister’s children were both born within months or weeks of our youngest boys and this made an opportunity for some unique family moments with our parents. They were conveniently able to be present in a church for the baptisms that they had attended with us for Christmas Eve gatherings when we lived in Buffalo.
The experience of having a contingency put on our youngest’s baptism into a faith in which we already belonged with the exception of being part of the local parish, set me on a journey to find a new place to worship in Wisconsin.
I spent years on this journey, many of them while my boys were very young. But, they all attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, sometimes with me leading the group and/or lesson. Confirmation classes in this same faith were regularly attended by all three.
But, in the end, my search left me lacking. I had faith. I know I did and still do. But, the institutionalization of religion was leaving me cold in our mid-western home. I do believe part of it was that as regular churchgoers in my own childhood I had exposure to gifted pastors whose sermons always recharged me and had application for everyday life, as well as music from gifted musicians from the Eastman School of Music in New York State, I was searching for something extremely hard to find. So, finally, when I realized I was not going to find it, I gave up. Let me be clear, I gave up on finding a church home but not on my faith!
I tried to provide the spiritual lessons my children needed by exposing them all to organized religion. But, it proved harder than I ever thought it would be. A community to which I had contributed refused a request to baptize my child when I belonged to the larger denomination! I have never understood this, except in very negative ways. If we are all children of God, then any opportunity for the baptism of an infant should be graciously granted. Right?! Well, right or not, this is how I felt.
I was a nurse, I have actually performed the right of baptism at least once when I worked in the neonatal intensive care unit (also in Buffalo). I believe anyone can receive this gift. Being a contributing member of a congregation should have been good enough, but not even necessary. It wasn’t.
Last night, I returned to the church (which is also now up the road from where I live), for a Christmas Eve Service. Many friends attend this church. I attended this church with my young family, who are now grown. My oldest son, the child of mine who attended Sunday School at this church, wanted to attend a Christmas Eve service last night. Since becoming an adult, he has chosen a different faith – one similar to my own – but a better fit for him. I am fine with that, knowing I provided a base for his decision making and introduction to our benevolent God. But, in deciding where to go, the church up the road made sense.
It was a lovely service. I felt at peace being back in God’s house, among friends I both knew and loved. It also helped that it was not overly crowded and no one approached us in an attempt to have us continue to attend or join. We were as anonymous as possible, and for me, that was important. It is not that I do not want to recognize and receive those I know at church. But, more that I go to church, or would like to attend church, for my own spiritual well being, not to be part of the religious or congregational “community.” I have other communities to which I belong that bring me social satisfaction and opportunities for service.
Finding a Community
I am not unusual. Most of us choose the communities to which we belong. We choose where to live. We choose where to send our children to school. We choose our faith. So, we can also choose how we worship. Finding a good fit has always been part of worship for me.
But, finding my faith? It has never, ever been a problem. I have a relationship with God. And, whether that takes place in a church, on a hike, or while sitting on my couch, it works. Faith is a gift of hope. Any possible way humans can obtain that gift is something to be celebrated – whether it is Christmas Eve, just another Sunday, or any other day.