I didn’t mean to become a Christian.
I was brought up as a good agnostic, daughter of an ex-Catholic and an ex-Anglican, both of whom had left the church in their teens. I had been inside churches for weddings and one or two funerals, and once with my Girl Guide troupe when I shockingly took communion despite not having been baptized (actually, in retrospect I think it a United Church, so it might have been okay after all!). I conveniently edited out my having received a Gideon’s bible some time in about 1985, in which I pledged my soul to Jesus, and advanced in my years dutifully shocked by the horrors committed in the name of religions, Christian and otherwise.
From the time I was a teen to my years as a progressive intellectual (self-diagnosed), I believed anything to do with Church was about as evil, exclusionary, and judgemental as it can come. I actually felt torn about supporting good works being done by church groups, simply because they were being done in the name of Christ.
Of course I had reason to be sceptical. But I had no idea that there were all sorts of Christians, and all sorts of churches. I never suspected I would find a church that I could join, let alone love.
I think it began with dental floss.
When I lived downtown Ottawa, when I started this blog in fact, I worked very hard to tighten up our finances so that I could afford to stay home. I paid a LOT of attention to grocery prices, and I was lucky to have a friend with a car who was generous enough to bring me to far-flung magical places like Food Basics and Costco. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t exciting.
One day at Food Basics, as we were loading our bags into our respective carts, my friend noticed a pack of dental floss that had been forgotten at the bottom of the cart. He checked his receipt: nope, they hadn’t charged him.
At this point I probably would have said to myself something like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. It’s only dental floss,” or more likely, “I’ll just pay for it next time I come,” and then forget all about it.
But my friend immediately took it back to the cashier and paid for it. The two of them chatted and laughed about it, and away we went. I was impressed and I told him so.
“I try to live a values-based life.”
Values. Not something I had thought very much about. I mean, I knew what values were, and I knew what many of my values were, but at that point I hadn’t thought carefully enough about my values to apply them to my small day-to-day interactions like this one. I knew to teach people decently, but beyond that I just hadn’t really thought about it.
A few weeks later, we were having another conversation, this time at the park by the swings. He was a stay-at-home dad, and our kids were close in age. We were talking about choosing that lifestyle, choosing to stay home despite the income hit, and he said something that got me right in the heart:
“St. Peter doesn’t look at how big your house is, when you get to the pearly gates.”
On that day, at a time when money was tight, the kids were burning me out, and I didn’t know many people who really understood, or whom I could count on for a word of support; when, if I expressed any doubt or stress, people were more than likely to tell me, “Why don’t you just put them in daycare and go back to work–it’s bound to be easier.” . . . On that day, his words brought tears to my eyes.
Not the idea of the spiritual reward at the end of an earthly life, but the idea that there was a doctrine of thought—a theology—that supported me in my choice to stay home instead of working, a choice that puzzled most members of my family, and which seemed at odds with much of our culture.
My friend said to me that day, “Colleen, I think your values are really in line with some of the main-line churches. I think you might really like it.”
I can’t really say what exactly had changed in my mind from the religious intolerance of my youth, but at that moment, I craved support, the kind of support that would see me through the next few years of being home with my kids. I wanted to find more people who chose their values over their net worth. I wanted to be with people who would think it was more than okay to choose being at home with kids over buying a home.
I was sceptical, but also open. And the next week I decided to go and see for myself.
The first church I walked into was impressive in its size, and probably in the CVs of its congregation, but the sermon didn’t light me up, and the music was lacklustre.
But the second church I entered . . . well, it took my breath away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d come on their feast day, and they were celebrating with a chamber orchestra joining the substantial sized choir, producing the biggest most glorious sound. Thinking back on this, it seems that God opened a door for me, and with that music, cracked open my heart. I sat in the back and wept the whole service.
It wasn’t hard to notice that this was a beautifully different kind of place. Their mission statement spoke of welcoming ALL people, and indeed there were people from many walks of life: people of all ages, abilities, gender expression, sexual orientation, economic status, colour, you name it. The people in the room were the living proof that this congregation practiced what was being preached.
After that first time, I had to go back. I started to attend every week, and after a couple of weeks of observing from the back row, I actually got up the nerve to approach the open table. I had never heard of such a thing, and I had to re-read the invitation several times: that Everyone is welcome to receive the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
It was again a hugely emotional experience—one of the most bittersweet humility—to take the bread, and the wine. Bitter because of what was inside me: a gate, a barrier between me and all that was spoken of, about the Spirit’s Love for all humanity, about God creating us all as beloved children.
But tear-blindingly sweet to take it and to allow the thought: This Is Also For Me.
And did I mention that it was a sung communion liturgy? And that the priest was a former professional singer? Oh, that music . . . I still miss that music.
Yet there was still so much a barrier inside of me, and I still felt so very separate from everyone else in that room. I yearned for Communion every week, and wept at the Anthem, but when reciting the Nicene Creed, and singing the traditional hymns, I gagged on the words that seemed part of an ancient judgemental and exclusionary script.
That changed a little bit a few weeks later when I timidly asked the young woman in charge of Christian Education, “So, does everyone here believe the same things? Does everyone else here believe everything they say and sing?”
“No, not really,” said this young, tattooed, completely cool and normal-looking girl, who wore a cross bravely front and centre:
“Everyone here is on their own journey.”
That metaphor: that overused and worn out metaphor of a journey . . . that metaphor was what let me in. I could sing and puzzle over the hymns. I could read and consider the Creed. I could take what lessons the Scripture readings held, and look for the useful wisdom in the sermon.
That was the beginning of my own journey.
That day with my friend at the swings, I wouldn’t have believed where my path would eventually take me. And I have no idea how far it will take me yet.
But I’ll save those stories for another day.