It All Looked Ordinary Enough
There isn't much to say about my spiritual journey in my 20s, since I wasn't making one. I went to college -- three of them, in fact, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- and never set foot in a chapel or took a course in religious studies. I got married in a church, that little brick Methodist church of my childhood, but only because a tornado and torrential rains wiped out our plans for an outdoor wedding. We had invited the Methodist minister to officiate, but only because we were very young and had no idea what else to do. (There are a lot of "buts" in this story. That's what happens when you are too young to do the things you are doing.) Given our complete lack of belief in anything, the minister was probably a mistake. I was certainly surprised when he incorporated religious elements into the wedding! I suppose we should have asked a judge, but (!) we were too young and inexperienced to recognize that. We went back to the midwest for graduate school and we went to work.
Something was nagging at me, though. All those years in religious schools had taught me that my life was supposed to be one of service to others. As a child of the 60s, I did, like many of my law school classmates, have some vague and ill-defined ideas about using the law as a tool for social action, but it turned out that those kinds of jobs were few and far between, especially where I live. So I ended up in the corporate world, wearing elegant suits and making good money, taking regular business trips and eating in nice restaurants. And always, always, wondering whether I wasn't supposed to be doing something -- well, something more substantial with my life.
One day when I was in my late twenties, completely out of the blue, I told my husband that I thought that we should find a church. He was agreeable, and suggested that we check out a Methodist church a few blocks away. I was fine with that idea. The building had tremendous appeal -- it's built on the plan of a 13th century French cathedral, and, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a sucker for a cathedral.
It also offered a safe trial -- the services were broadcast on weekly cable, so we didn't even have to go near the place to check it out! We liked what we saw -- great music and erudite preaching -- and so off we went, walking on a cold and sunny January morning down a narrow pathway that ran through the several residential blocks between our house and the church. We had not articulated why, but three months later we were members of a large mainline United Methodist congregation.
I've been giving a lot of thought to the way I in which found myself back in church. I almost hesitate to write about it, since it wasn't a path that followed any of the "rules" and since, in my cluelessness, I clearly violated standards and procedures held dear by many people. After witnessing some of the outrage expressed when a "professed nonbeliever" joined a church in Texas a year or two ago, I'm a little leery of offering up another variant on the nonorthodox journey, authentic though it may be. My grandmother once told me that her father, a longtime trustee of his local Methodist church, never became one of its official members. There were a few tennants of belief that he found too incredible to subscribe to, and so he didn't ~ a man of unwavering integrity. As far as I can tell, many people become actual professed members of churches on the basis of far shakier foundations of belief or experience than the one on which he judged himself unworthy. Me, for instance.
Well, as I said, my husband and I weren't particularly focused on prescribed methods (how ironic that we chose the Methodist church) or belief systems. They say that most people go to church because someone issues an invitation. No one invited us. (Well, one of my senior colleagues did. He suggested that we would enjoy his Presbyterian church, since among its membership were numbered several hundred lawyers. It was difficult for me to imagine anything much less appealing than spending Sunday mornings with hundreds of lawyers, and I did have some idea that the professional status of its members should not be the foundation for one's involvement with a church. So we went once, and we went out to lunch at the "club" afterward with him and his wife, and thereby concluded what was evidently a business obligation.)
Once we got to the church we ended up joining, no one rushed to "acclimate" us. I was baptized as an adult, with no sense of the claims I was asserting beyond the recognition that I had no sense of them. The minister, sensitive to my feelings of awkwardness, asked me if I would prefer a private baptismal ceremony, to which I acceded with great relief. What late-twenty-something wants to be baptized in front of 400 people? A few days after that conversation, I called him to tell him that I'd changed my mind. "I don't really understand what I'm doing," I said. "But I think it's something I should do in public. I think I'm making a statement." I suppose that in that moment the relief was his. A few weeks later, we joined the church with my having no real concept of what "joining a church" meant. My husband had grown up in and done the whole Methodist church thing -- baptism, Sunday School children's choir, confirmation, youth group -- and then departed the church at the same time he departed for college. If anything about church "stuck," he hadn't revealed it to me. And me? All those years of education and mass and church and music? They came in more than handy later, when they turned out to have significance beyond my wildest imaginings, but at the time I actually joined a church, I wasn't thinking about them, and had spent barely any time in a typical church environment. ("Hogwarts," as one of my commenters has identified the places in which I spent my adolescence, is hardly typical.)
When I joined that neighborhood United Methodist church, it appeared on the surface that I was engaging in something of a suburban rite of passage -- everyone wore nice clothes, everyone appreciated the quality of the music and the preaching, lots of people were willing to participate in various forms of service to the community ~ but those who were experiencing a significant change of interior orientation as a consequence of church membership were awfully quiet about it. I was quiet, too, when it began to happen to me.
On occasion I am somewhat critical of the membership process followed by mainline Protestant churches. "Challenging" is seldom an applicable adjective. But then I remember my own experience, and I can't fail to acknowledge that, had the membership bar been more than a few inches off the ground, I would have fled faster than the speed of light.
My conclusion? When the Holy Spirit moves, It moves. The Holy Spirit doesn't wait around for us to catch on and isn't burdened by human expectations or processes. It may well lead us by an unexpected process into institutions and relationships that surprise us. In my personal experience, the Holy Spirit is a rather unwieldy force. But that experience was still far in the future.