As I drove Highway 128 from Mendocino to Santa Rosa, towering redwoods flanked me for most of the journey. These old, gorgeous, distinguished trees were like nothing I had ever witnessed growing up in Kansas. Otherworldly, maybe even a little sinister.
I had been in Mendocino for a friend’s wedding, and now it was Sunday. More than a little hungover, I headed home. My two dogs, Lucy and Mandy, in the passenger seats, were my docile navigators.
On NPR, I discovered a Julia Sweeney audio cast, what I came to know as her one woman show, Letting Go of God. She spoke of a spiritual quest that she’d embarked upon that ultimately led to her embracing and accepting her own atheism. She talked about Biblical inconsistencies, other religions, Deepak Chopra. For some reason, probably because I was surrounded by the most majestic trees I’d ever seen, her thoughts on Jesus (cruelly? rashly?) condemning that fruitless fig tree have stuck with me in the decade since that day. I mean, DID that fig tree really have to die?
It might sound strange, but that drive ended up being a sort of spiritual experience. I was surrounded by beauty, my two dogs curled up next to me, it was Sunday morning, and I was listening to this woman’s compelling story about her complicated relationship with faith. It made me feel less alone about my own complicated relationship with faith, and God, and Jesus.
Two Sundays ago, I joined the church that I have been attending for the last few months. Not a rash decision, it was something I had planned. On that Sunday, about 15 of us, old, young and in between, stood in front of the congregation and were introduced as new members. I tried to stand up straight, look proud, but also humble. I wore a tie.
That morning, when I woke up, my first thought was, do I really want to do this? Am I ready to do this? Shouldn’t I wait until I’ve become a better person or a better Christian before I join a church again? I really do cuss a lot when I’m driving. And I’m a gossip. Also, I border on self-righteousness.
But while a part of me said, “Take the day off, gets some donuts and go to the beach.” Another, louder voice, told me to go forward. There would always be questions, weaknesses, doubts, but why not explore those worries within the parameters of church, and church’s membership.
On that Sunday, as I was sitting in the pew, in the second row, cordoned off for the new members, the minister told an anecdote about an atheist who attends our church, who after each Sunday’s service, shakes the minister’s hand and says, “I’m glad you haven’t given up on me.” I thought about that long ago drive, and the Julia Sweeney audio cast.
As I sat there, listening to the minister’s sermon, reflecting on that memory, it hit me, that all along, even in the decades that I avoided church, felt completely detached from God, that church and God had still been a part of me. Always.
I loved church when I was little and I loved it as a teenager in youth group and I loved it in Bible college and, certainly, in my short time as a youth minister, I loved trying to help others to love church.
And then I left the church, and I thought I’d left it permanently.
Of course, I kind of knew that I had this fixation on church and religious themes. I still loved Amy Grant.
Sometimes I read my old blogs. For three years now, I’ve written so much about God and Christianity and church it seems obvious, in hindsight, that it was all, always, leading up to this return.
Is it possible to come home to somewhere you’ve missed for decades only to find that you never left at all? That you only thought you left?
I’ll tell you what the big surprise in all of this is, it feels as if God has been saying to me, “Not only have I been here all along, but you have been here too.” And not that I even know exactly what the “here” is.
Not that I was always faithful or always pure or always kind, maybe not that I’m even any of those things now. But God and faith and Jesus and Church are still a part of me, of who I am. Always have been, and fight it or not, always will be.