Dear Wyatt, Luke and Wynn,
Why We Go To Church
We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the time light, the eternal truth that is with God. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
Sunday mornings, my husband, Noé, and I hear a single refrain from our three teenagers. This refrain echoes from under the covers, over breakfast, and in the car as we drive to worship, “Why do we go to church?” When the kids aren’t home, Noé says this, just so it will feel like a Sunday for us. Again and again, Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn ask amidst great sighs and downtrodden looks.
My own memories of church revolve around giggling in the pews with my friend, Mico. We sat, listened, and tried to muffle our laughter. I remember the pastor’s hand on my head as I was confirmed. I don’t remember what he said about me, but that it seemed pretty good and made Mom and Dad cry. I remember that I wanted to be that person he’d just described. Throughout college and my early 20s, my relationship with church placed me firmly among what my dad calls, “C and E Christians,” attending only at Christmas and Easter. Then, Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn were born, everything changed and life has centered on creating a nest for them. We attended both Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches in California. I was drawn to both. The first time I attended worship with a newborn Wyatt and wondered about breast feeding in church, my dear friend Lynn said, “Dawn, God knows what breasts are for.”
My journey with our church in Santa Fe is especially poignant for me, as there was a time I swore that I would never set foot within the sanctuary again. It is because of that journey that this community means so very much to me.
The kids’ and my life within the church has two chapters—with a five-year gap in between them. When the kids were very young, our family was involved with the church. The kids scampered up and down the center aisle and played under the altar between services. Then, the tectonic plates of life shifted and sent all of us tumbling. A place that had once been a place of sanctuary and community became a place laced with pain. Churches are composed of humanity – in all of our glory and imperfections. Over the next few years, a lot of humanity happened under the wooden and carved roof. The experience became increasingly painful until I decided the only thing to do was leave. Sunday mornings yawned open into deep emptiness and a sense of free fall replaced the sense of community that had been so foundational in the kids’ and my lives. I felt the loss acutely. I tried a couple of other church communities, but nothing felt right. Nothing felt like home.
A couple of years later I did return to a worship service at the church. I wept throughout. Not small, dainty, evocative tears, but huge, wracking mascara-running sobs. The kind you can’t stop. I went through every tissue in Dad’s pockets, before he leaned over and whispered, “You didn’t tell me that I needed to bring a towel.”
A bright light during this time, I was asked to teach the course, “Reclaiming the Divine Feminine.” The deep relationships formed with my co-teachers, students, and the divine feminine across the globe throughout history opened within me veins of connection, gave language to experiences I felt, but had no words for, and has forever influenced how I understand and walk through this world.
Another few of years passed. I avoided driving by the sanctuary for the feelings it reignited. The rhythm of church and our community there faded into history for the kids, becoming hazy impressions and disconnected memories. I developed new rhythms for Sundays, ran miles along the trails, and tried to shush and ignore the whisper of longing for a community of faith for the kids and me. I missed the people. I missed the ritual and rhythm grounding us. I missed our advocacy for social justice and equal rights for all, irregardless of gender, sexual orientation, country of birth, or mother tongue. I missed our celebration of each individual’s uniqueness. I missed our prayers for family, friends, and what was happening around the world. I missed Sage with her walker decorated festively for each season, flowers for spring, pumpkins for fall, and twinkling lights for the winter. I missed watching the changing of the seasons through the windows.
When Noé and I met, I shared brief shards of my experiences, the reasons I’d left. As a Catholic, he had all kinds of questions about Protestants. We shared our gratitude for the rhythms, heritage, and connection we’d experienced in church with our families. His father’s rosary hung in a place of honor over his mother’s Lady of Guadalupe in his home. “For me,” he said, “church is how we treat people every day. Worship on Sundays is a focus on goodness that we can spread out through the week.” I touched lightly on what the church had meant to me, and even more lightly on what it might be like to return. Years had passed. The glorious and imperfect composition of all of our humanity had shifted. Perhaps we might try.
Noé and I went to church. I loaded my purse and stuffed Noé’s pockets with tissue. On the drive there, Noé imitated me peeking up over the pew during the service. He acted out how he would tamp out the fires coming up around his feet when he entered as a Catholic. It was a relief to laugh. Terrified, I insisted we sit in the back pew. I looked out the high windows to the branches outside. Oh, how I missed that. I loved to watch the branches move through the seasons against the shifting sky and light. I took in the first buds of spring, a long-awaited slight cast of green, the full leaves of summer, moving into the yellows and reds of fall, and winter’s stark outlines of snow. On certain days in the year, a shaft of light pours down into one of the pews, setting the dust motes and whoever is sitting there aglow. I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in that shaft of light a few times, it follows the seasons. I lifted my face, closed my eyes, and drank in the light. After the service, person-after-person came and hugged me and welcomed Noé with open arms. When we left that day, I cried again. But these were tears of healing and wonder at the kindness shown to us. It felt like coming home.
So much of our relationship with our church community, have been leaps of faith. Earlier that year, Wyatt, Noé, and I met with the reverend to learn more about confirmation classes. Wyatt approached this as an arachnophobic might approach a tarantula. We listed as the pastor spoke about confirmation, what it represented, and what would be involved in the classes.
“What do you think, Wyatt?” the pastor asked.
“I just don’t see God doing anything anymore. In all the stories we read from the Bible, there are all of these major events,” Wyatt said. “I know my mom says God is grace and love and compassion,” here I believe he actually rolled his eyes, “But, I just don’t see that God’s done anything since the Bible was written.” The pastor listened as Wyatt detailed over the next several minutes all of the reasons why he did not believe there was a Christian god. God is present in the listening.
Not long after, Wyatt was invited to participate with an organization as a student ambassador and travel throughout the UK. The cost of the trip was far beyond our means. Something deep inside me told me that this trip was exponentially important for my oldest son who struggled to find his place in the world and with himself.
“Wyatt, we will do this somehow,” I said. “You have to step up to the plate for this to work.”
Wyatt spoke to our congregation with poise, humor, and maturity about his fascination with the legends and history of the UK, how he would present on what he learned when he returned, and said that we would be making homemade apple pies to sell to raise money. This young man who just weeks before asked if he could speak with me alone in his room, and told me how the kids at school made fun of him, because he read so much, they called him names, and he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life. “Wyatt, you’re fifteen. There’s time.” My words fell unheard to the floor.
Now, he stood talking, smiling, open – and the congregation responded. Our family baked dozens of pies and the church community donated generously toward making Wyatt’s dream a reality. Noé and I had just married. Through this experience, our new family gathered together around making pies for months, each with our own area of specialization, the Wyatt and Luke peeled, Noé and Wynn made the crust, I added sugar, spices, and butter and did the baking. Through this foundation of a common goal, our family talked, worked side-by-side, and we became a whole. I realized this one evening as we started, the boys busy peeling and talking, and Wynn called to Noé, “Where’s my partner? We’ve got to make the crust!” The congregation took a leap of faith and kindled the best of Wyatt to spark and burn.
Leaps of faith sparkle throughout Luke’s relationship with our church community. Noé proposed and Luke wanted to be ring bearer, we dubbed him Lord of the Rings. Two weeks before Noé and I married, 13-year-old Luke said, “Mom, I want to speak at your wedding.”
“Wonderful. Do you know what you’re going to say?”
“Do you want to tell me what you’re going to say?”
Through my mind, “13-years-old, his mom’s getting married, not really sure what he thinks about all of this, and he doesn’t want to tell me what he’s going to say…”
I told my parents and the reverend what was happening and decided to trust Luke, as did the reverend. A leap of faith.
“And now on behalf of the family,” the reverend announced during the ceremony, “Luke would like to say a few words.” As the moment drew close, there were at least two sets of white-knuckled hands at the wedding, the bride and groom and the bride’s parents.
“When I first met Noé,” Luke stepped forward, the Dia de los Muertos pillow with the rings held in both hands, “I didn’t like him very much. I thought he was too loud and talked too much.” I don’t think I breathed at that point. I looked at Noé’s family gathered for the wedding. All eyes were now in rapt attention on Luke. “Then, I discovered that I could talk with Noé about anything,” Luke continued, “and he really listened and heard me. I’ve never seen my mom so happy. Noé loves her like a husband should, and he loves my brother, sister, and me the way a dad should.”
The very best of Luke shone through.
I would never have guessed how the church would highlight Wynn’s gifts. After Wynn was born, she screamed for four years. Not normal baby crying, not fussiness, not temporary. Four. Years. Straight. Wynn. Screamed. She resisted eye contact, and turned her body stiff as a board when in the stroller. People heard us coming for miles. When friends came over they walked in the front door and looked immediately at the floor, “Don’t make eye contact.” If you ask Wyatt and Luke now what they remember about her as a baby, they say, “She screamed all the time.” At four-years-old, Wynn started pre-school, promptly quit speaking, and refused to say a word in school for the next several months.
We returned to church, and when we stood to sing a hymn, and beside me this voice, this angel’s voice, lifted. I turned to see who was singing, and was stunned to discover that the word rhythm appeared to match Wynn’s mouth. I leaned in closer, peeking out from under my eyelids (Don’t make eye contact). A friend once described Wynn’s screaming, “It’s like her spirit is way too big for her tiny body and she is pissed off.” In the years we’d been away, Wynn’s voice had grown into that huge, magnificent spirit.
In each instance, we didn’t know how any of that was going to turn out, we trusted, the church trusted, and the kids rose to the occasion, became their very best selves. The seas did not part, no bushes burned, and no doves returned with sprigs of an olive branch. God isn’t just big booming acts. “I take the Bible far too seriously,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle, “to take it literally.” God is in the small daily ways we take care of each other, believe in each other, and stand up for what is just and good. God isn’t about answers. God is about wrestling with important questions, surrounding yourself with people who uplift, and all those small daily acts of beauty, of doing what we can to make the world a better place.
Now Noe’s father’s rosary hangs on his mother’s Lady of Guadalupe in our bedroom, as we dress to attend our Presbyterian church. Both are home to us. It’s like dual citizenship. I believe in a God big enough for all.
That, Wyatt, Luke, and Wynn is why we go to church.
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