Yesterday was a watershed: It was the first time something I’ve written has been preached from the pulpit. Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor at the First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor used my most recent post about finding a smartphone on the playground in her sermon, “Life Together Welcoming.” The whole sermon is worth listening to. The section where Growing Sideways appears begins at 8:45.
Sunday’s cameo also provides a chance to write a little about church. Caroline, Jay, Wally, and I have been attending services at First Baptist regularly for the last three months. It feels somewhat momentous. Both Caroline and I had minor religious experiences as children: My family had gone semi-regularly to a Congregational Church until I was about nine and Caroline had attended Unitarian services with her parents into her early teens. But nothing since then.
I haven’t written about our time in church for several reasons: I didn’t trust that we’d keep going; I don’t have a lot of experience writing about religion in a personal context; and I would have had a hard time pinning down exactly why religion has grabbed me more now than in the past. Those three reasons still apply but I’ve decided to share some thoughts anyway- partly to clarify my own thinking and partly because I think that the act of approaching a new church can seem daunting, especially if, like me, you don’t have a long history of religious engagement. Given that, it seems like the kind of experience worth sharing.
Fourteen months ago on our drive out to Ann Arbor Caroline and I talked about finding a church in our new town. Our motives were fairly practical. It seemed like a good way to meet people in a place where we didn’t know anyone, and we knew we wanted to give Jay and Wally some exposure to faith early in their lives. Still, it took us almost a year to actually get out the door together on a Sunday morning
We chose the First Baptist Church because, as it happened, both of our nannies went there (it was a coincidence that our first nanny went there; when she left in May she put us in touch with a young woman she knew through the church youth group who has been taking care of the boys since then). We liked them both a lot and so thought maybe we’d like the other members of the church as well. I couldn’t say why we decided to go for the first time on the particular mid-July weekend that we did. We felt self-conscious, of course, on our first visit: late to stand when it was time to stand, hesitant to sit when it was time to sit, and needing to read hymns and prayers from the program that everyone else knew by heart. But there were pleasures, too, even on that first visit: the music was beautiful, the people were warm, the sermon was smart, challenging, and useful.
So we went back, and after we’d been going for a month or two, Paul Duke, Stacey’s husband and co-pastor, drew me in close as I was shaking his hand on the way out of church and asked if Caroline and I might be available for lunch one day soon.
We agreed to the lunch but were nervous about it. We figured Paul and Stacey planned to ask about membership which we weren’t ready for. The night before the lunch Caroline and I got our talking points in order: There was a good chance we’d be leaving Ann Arbor in a year so the timing didn’t seem right to join a church; we liked First Baptist a lot but had no attachment to the Baptist denomination as such; and lastly and, to us most consequentially, we weren’t exactly sure that we believed in God.
So we were prepared to hold our ground at lunch but as it turned out there was no need. The conversation was easy and friendly. Caroline and I talked about ourselves, asked them questions about how they’d come to Ann Arbor and where they saw their church going, and waded into some of the theological questions I’d been gathering as I’d listened to them preach. Finally, after our plates had been cleared, I ventured that I felt out of place in church because I didn’t know what I believed about God. Their replies, which were thoughtful and generous, made it clear that there is room for a range of visions of God and degrees of belief in their church.
It’s still too early to know what all this is going to add up to. For now I can say that church has come to feel like a comfortable part of our weekly routine. I look forward on Sunday mornings to the quiet in the pews that precedes the service, and to the first notes of the organ when the prelude plays, and to the sight of Jay running up to the altar for children’s worship, where he always tries to wedge his way in right next to Sue Ellen who leads the kids in prayer. I don’t yet see myself as a churchgoer and the Bible still feels funny in my hands. But it’s undeniably exhilarating to be doing something new.