Year of Sundays

Westminster Presbyterian Church

When I picked my kids up from their dad’s house on Thursday after work, the first thing out of my seven-year-old son’s mouth was, “Hey Mom, how many days left till we get to go to church again?”

Not how many days until we HAVE to go to church, but until we GET to go.

Be still my heart.

Last week was rough, comment-wise, and hearing Alex’s enthusiasm renewed my own. I stayed up into the wee hours that night writing about Buddha while Joel instant-messaged me the entire time: ARE WE THERE YET? (Just to keep it interesting, we try not to read one another’s posts until we’ve both finished a first draft.) (Unless, of course, you click the wrong button and EVERYONE sees your first draft.)

Enthusiasm aside, we didn’t end up picking a church to attend until nearly midnight on Saturday. Even then, we picked it solely because it was on the PDX Jazz festival’s website.

Jazz AND church? Win!

Westminster Presbyterian went out of its way to make a good first impression. Before we even entered the church proper, which has the kind of wood paneling and stained glass that’s magnificent enough to make you think twice about your refusal to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, we were each handed a program for the service. Joel and I got the adult programs and each kid got a different program based on their age, which later struck me as especially wonderful considering that most of this particular congregation (at least on jazz day, which happens on a quarterly basis) was white-haired and over fifty. The kids easily settled into the pew and set to work on their coloring pages.

It's not indoctrination until she can read, right?

Then the music started and my heart skipped a beat. Or three. I happen to have a love affair with the trumpet. It does something to my squishy middle parts that makes me put my hand over my chest. It also tends to make me miss my daddy, who was raised as a Christian Scientist and rejected the church when he joined the navy as a young man. He made a solemn vow never to return again – a vow that extended to raising his children without the iron boot of God’s grace. The sound of that high school trumpeter, though, so bright and balmy and full of wist – one note is all it would take to get my dad’s ass back in a church pew. I wish he had been there with us to share the beauty of Westminster because there was plenty to go around.

In fact, my only complaint about the church was the beginning, where the parishioners all stood up and agreed that they were terrible, awful sinners and that only God could forgive them. Well, that and the reverend’s speaking voice. Every time she spoke, I had to look twice to make sure Tina Fey wasn’t up there doing a pitch perfect impression of a female Presbyterian minister. Her voice was almost creepy in its reverence, but the longer I listened the more I realized she wasn’t actually mocking herself. She just talks that way.

Fortunately, I was over it by the time she called the children up to the front of the church. Alex must have been listening, too, because before either Joel or I could say a word to him, he bolted out of the pew and headed for the pulpit.

(God I love that kid and his complete inability to be afraid of anything. Ever. May his fearlessness live long and prosper.)

The children’s sermon was about loving people you really don’t want to love, that the very people we are least inclined to reach out to are the ones who most need it. It’s easy to love your friends – those people love you back – but it’s a lot harder to love your enemies. The reverend asked the children if any of them had ever been made to feel left out by friends or ostracized and Alex immediately shared a story about how some kid decided not to be his friend even though he didn’t do ANYTHING wrong.

(Nothing warms the cockles of my angsty agnostic soul more than the sound of a hundred happy people laughing at/along with my kid.)

Not only did the good reverend reassure those kids that we need to reach out to those who most need god’s love, but HOT DAMN, she asked, “What should we do when something is really really hard?”

Alex (without raising his hand), spoke the words I feel like I have tattooed across my chest: “JUST DO IT.” (A universal version of my personal SAY YES policy.) (I always say yes unless I have a damn good reason to say no.)

The good reverend laughed and said, “That’s a popular sentiment around these parts.” (Portland is Nike’s world headquarters.) And again, the entire congregation laughed along with my kid. Damn, that child is a keeper. I promise to stop joking about selling him on Ebay.

But the children’s sermon didn’t fall on deaf ears. Not at all. It had me thinking even more about last week’s comment debacle and something a friend said:

“One of the best ways to overcome stereotypical thinking is to actually spend time with people that aren’t like [you].”

Because isn’t that EXACTLY what this project is all about? Isn’t that exactly what happened to me at the AMEZ church? Then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’ve done that my whole life. Not out of some wise master plan to root out stereotyping and broaden my thinking, but because I don’t have a choice. Intellectually speaking, I don’t actually fit in ANYWHERE. Reserve a table for me and the rest of the formerly obese, gun-toting, pro-gay-rights, republican-voting, bisexual, erotica-writing professional financial planners who aren’t sure if they believe in God or abortion and I promise you – it’ll be a party of one. The truth is, I like it this way. A little variety makes for great blog fodder.

When Alex came trotting back down the aisle to rejoin our motley crew, I felt a tug on my shoulder from the pew behind us, and turned around to find my friend Sharla, who I haven’t seen in ages. She recognized Alex and then realized the freakishly blond lady sitting with him must obviously be me. What a lovely coincidence, to land in the pew next to a friend! And not just ANY friend, either, but a friend whose religious views have always fascinated and inspired me. Sharla comes from a group of friends I adore, but often feel outside of because they are my exact ideological opposite. They’re liberal and Christian. I’m conservative and agnostic.

But here’s the thing – we are all women with a deep capacity for love and acceptance and we respect each other in spite of our differences. Sharla and her friends are the kind of Christian women who make me wish I could find faith, or at least understand it a whole lot better.

So as I sat there listening to the rest of the sermon, I found myself thinking about Rose. I wondered if she has any friends who vote Republican. It’s too bad we never got to meet in person because maybe I could’ve popped that cherry for her. Or at least shattered a stereotype the same way having friends like Sharla shattered everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a Christian woman. The magic is that these friends didn’t open my mind up to Christianity by preaching it to me; they did it simply by being their bad ass selves while our children played together.

I wish I still had that chance with Rose. Instead of hashing out our ideological differences via the comments section, we could’ve done it over dinner and wine and laughter. I bet I would have been more open to hearing her message that way – through friendship.

We’ve been going to church for less than two months now and while I’m no closer to believing in God or finding a religion to call my own, I am learning from every single sermon. So far the lesson is simple: LISTEN.

*Name that tune and I’ll love you for life.

[Additional photos of the church, including a few shots of their amazing, hand-stitched pew cushions can be found here.]

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