For my 10th birthday, I asked for a personal organizer, and I’ve been obsessed with planning and recording the daily events of my life ever since. I logged everything through high school (lots of white out), college (post-its) and beyond (with a Filofax leather upgrade). These days I use apps to track when and what I eat, when I sleep and when I waste too much time on Instagram. I stream the same cardio fitness class four times a week. Every six weeks on Friday afternoons, I declare war on my gray wiry roots (it should be four or five, so you can infer who’s winning).
But there’s one time frame on my calendar that I’d rather not block out, or “check in” or announce at all, and that’s where I go and what I do on one particular weekend morning. I like to casually tell people I have plans, in only that allusive and hyper-mysterious way a 40-something mom of two boys can. But the truth is, I’m a closeted churchgoer, and that’s why I’m busy on Sunday morning.
When my boys invite friends for weekend sleepovers or join new sports teams, I know it’s just a matter of time before my Sunday morning activities get outed. Yes, we go to church but it’s crazy-liberal-focused-heavily-on-social-justice, I say all in one convincing breath. Very diverse, I add because that’s easily decoded liberal speak for there are plenty of LGBTQ+s and other minorities.) To be extra convincing, I sometimes add, I saw a nonconforming binary unicorn sitting in a pew just last Sunday, taking up a little too much room, but more than welcome nonetheless.
But let me not misrepresent the crowd. Unlike Kayne and Kim or Justin and that whole posse, my congregation isn’t exactly an instagrammable crowd. Also, I’m not sure I’d want to be photographed attending any church, even my own. I’m actually still pretty uncomfortable calling myself a Christian, especially in public. But look, I don’t have it in me (and I’m supremely unqualified) to defend the entire umbrella of any religion, so I’ll just call myself a semi-committed pew-warmer and leave it at that. If that’s a sin in your book, just know that I like a little grit in my religious conviction.
I grew up going to an Episcopal church with my grandma and mom. I’ve always thought of my denomination as Catholic Lite. We like much of the same pomp and circumstance but we also let women govern their own bodies. For a good while we were an active female trinity: a mother, a daughter and me, the holy rebellious child who would sneak downstairs to the kitchen basement and steal a donut before the service was over. Mom sang in the choir, Grandma served on Altar Guild and I was a proud altar girl, which meant I got to be up front and center during the liturgy. It was a particularly big deal at the time because the Church had ordained women could participate as altar servers in 1983, just a year or two before I arrived at my post.
The consistency of the weekly service anchored the chaotic mess unfolding at home. While Mom was riddled with mental disorders and emotional troubles, Grandma was trying to reconcile her notion of retirement against unexpectedly raising a granddaughter and a perpetually childish daughter. The church service comforted us because it told us all what to do and when. We all said the same words, sang the same hymns, bowed to the same cross. Grandpa stayed home because he needed the quiet. I asked him once if he believed in God, and he earnestly responded, “I’m trying.”
So after what I’ll generously refer to as a decades-long hiatus, my reasons for returning to church are pretty predictable. I missed belonging to something. I missed having to sit through something slightly uncomfortable and boring, the way one misses holding a plank right before swimsuit season. I yearned for the accountability check of showing up somewhere when I don’t want to without the promise of financial or personal gain. Like my grandfather, my good and loving husband mostly passes on attendance. But since our boys are now 12- and 8-years-old, we both agree the window is closing on teaching them how to sit somewhere quietly and respectfully for an hour. So I found an Episcopal church that still participates in the familiar ritual of my childhood, and we roll in as a new trio of representatives.
My fellow Episcopalian and author Brene Brown talks about going to church to pass the peace. It’s a time in the service she describes beautifully when everyone hugs or shakes hands and says, “peace be with you.” I have a similar moment, and like Brene’s, it’s an integral part of the service. It happens when the rector opens the liturgy by saying, “God dwells in you,” and the congregants answer, “also in you.” To me it says, remember the contribution you’re bringing here. There is just as much God in me as there is in you.
That’s my moment, and it recently found me in the most unexpected place and time.
But let me get this out of the way first: I lost my mom to breast cancer a decade ago, and my grandma survived it twice. If self-fulfilling prophecies are a religion, my fear of getting cancer is the altar to which I’ve denounced and prayed. I commune regularly with mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs. Last April, I found out I have something called atypia, which is neither cancer, nor not cancer. It is a case of cells behaving abnormally and suspiciously enough to undergo a surgical biopsy. I told almost no one. No need to beckon a congregation, I figured.
Except one afternoon as I’m on my way to carpool, Fear with a capital F seeps in and tells me this whole upcoming surgery is actually a B.F.D. People with normal breasts don’t have surgeries, it hissed. This radical realization overcame me. I couldn’t shake it. Was I going to become a cancer patient? Go through chemo and radiation? Lose all my hair? My livelihood? My other more well-behaved boob?
So I revert back to the self-taught prayer of my childhood, which has little to do with formality or tradition. Please, I pray, I need a sign. Please, I say out loud, my desperation filling the vents through the dashboard. Cars can be a very effective confessional, I’ve found.
I continue my afternoon tour of drop-offs and pick-ups, distracting myself with a fresh intake of work emails at every pit stop. I pull up to the parking lot next to soccer field and wave to my younger son. He grabs his water bottle and runs over, almost tripping over feet that are disproportionately big for the rest of his growing body. He opens the car door and greets me with, a “Hi mama.”
And then “God Dwells in You,” he says.
Water rushes to the corners of my eyes. They are the first to recognize my Sign.
“God dwells in you too, buddy,” I respond in a tone that is way too casual. As in, bless you, thank you, or excuse me, sorry, after you. That kind of polite exchange.
This is a child who, in between an excessive amount of bathroom breaks, spends most of the church service drawing on the back of receipts he finds tucked in my wallet. How could he know those words? Is he becoming a closeted churchgoer too? Stunned, I circle out of the parking lot and start firing normal afternoon questions. Did you play midfield? Remember to tie your shoe? Hungry?
Once we get home, I head straight to the bathroom. While I’m taking off my makeup, I let it sink in as I hold my watery-eyed stare in the mirror. God dwells in me. Exquisitely, consistently, absolutely. Not you’re going to be okay, or the results are benign. My Sign doesn’t offer me any reassurance or promise for the future. This is an entirely Present Moment experience.
It’s taken me awhile and a spotty church-going attendance record to realize that’s the whole point. I’m not going to church to get God at all. I’m going to church to be still so that all that’s within me can surface. And I know I can find it on a hike, in a hot bath or a hip hop dance class, but I like to see the other people witnessing the God that dwells in them too. As in those pants look great on you. That God fits you like a glove.
A few weeks after my sign arrived, I went onto have the surgery. The results were ultimately benign. I still got a But with five years of a drug that reduces the occurrence of cancer but induces insomnia and early menopause, and back to my six month cycle of mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs. I know I got off easy.
A few weekends later, my husband took the boys on a ski weekend, so I went to church by myself. Again, I’m trying to be casual here, but the truth is I debated about whether or not to go up until the point where I made myself 10 minutes late. I walked in just before the sermon, given on this particular Sunday by Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, author of “Ferguson and Faith.” She spoke of the events not so long ago where high school students wearing MAGA hats taunted a peaceful Native American protester. She professed that didn’t know how to explain to her kids why fifth graders are held to a higher standard than the president of the United States. Her exasperation comforted me.
During the closing procession, we sang “This Little Light of Mine.” My shaky and off-tune voice rose to join in the moving stanza, “Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine …” Tears announced the presence of my Sign again. God is here, ready to meet me anytime, any place. No scheduling required.
I dried my eyes and left the church, standing in the greeting line on the way out to meet Dr. Francis. I thanked her and told her I don’t know what to tell my kids either. She took my hand and nodded her head. It’s all the answer I need.
See you next Sunday.