But in the back of my mind, I held close a memory of my first spiritual encounter, an encounter that took place during my young kindergarten years, believe it or not. My father had a dear, elderly employee named Claire who lovingly took me to her house to make chocolate pudding and re-arrange her furniture and just plain visit. And she loved to take me to Mass. It was on one of these visits to her church that I had a powerful first encounter with God, sitting up in the balcony and looking down on the reverent service below. I’m not sure what God said but I remember for a brief moment that a curtain opened, revealing that He was real and present. Then the curtain closed, and I didn’t hear from him again for another fifteen years or so.
It didn’t help that the minister of my childhood church let me down when my parents sent me to see him one day after school for counseling after an episode in my life involving police, drugs, alcohol, and the reading of rights. Oh, and I was just 13. Wisely, the adults thought these might be troubling signs and that the minister might be able to talk some sense into me. When he drove me home several hours later, my mother came out to the car to meet me and there I was sitting on the passenger side of the backseat, trying to get as far away from him as possible. Obviously we didn’t bond during our meeting. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with church after that – or him. He failed to be a grace-filled voice calling me “to” something rather than pushing me away.
When I did hear God speak again in my early twenties, I found myself most comfortable in churches that looked and behaved nothing like that church of my youth. If they met in a school or a warehouse, excellent. If the pastor wept because he so deeply believed his message, good. If they had humorous parking lot signs, no robes or pre-written prayers, all the better.
Then one day recently my husband and I found ourselves looking for a church close to home. Our friends coaxed us to visit an Anglican church down the street. We visited, and I kept saying, “Too much like the church of my youth.” And we’d leave and go somewhere else until our friends would ask us to visit again, a little more insistently, sometimes with tears in their own eyes as they described how meaningful this place had become in their lives. Finally their sincerity lured us back.
And we’ve come back each week for a while now, even though I cringe a bit over the robes and formality, while finding the prayers and the life of the church to be anything but dead. I also have discovered as this brain ages, I appreciate someone else writing the prayers, allowing me to read along and agree. And I agree. I find that same Spirit who spoke to my kindergarten self speaks to me in this place with the same message. And He’s been watching me all along.
One Sunday recently, the children returned at the end of the service from their children’s program and joined hands, running through the sanctuary to the closing song, playing Crack the Whip throughout the sanctuary, before the smiles of the adults. I loved the beautiful blend of reference and order, freedom and joy. I hope they felt wooed by God in that place, even if He’s silent for a time in years to come. And I hope the memory of those wooing moments remain as the years tumble over them.
How is that I’ve come full circle, returning to a place I said I’d never go? When I ran away from my early church because “all those formalities shouldn’t matter,” I looked for places where jeans and casual dress made everyone feel welcomed no one feel excluded. I remind myself once again that all those externals shouldn’t matter here either, as long as God shows up. If it’s good enough for Him, which it is, it’s good enough for me. And as I’ve aged and faded, I’ve found myself needing the quiet, contemplative and ordered service, my brain requiring more of those moments. So if you come to visit some Sunday, I’m the person sitting in the way back, a place similar to that balcony from my childhood, but now you’ll find me with tears in my eyes most Sundays, wooed once again by the sweetness of it all.