Old Time Religion; Life & Death, Too Close Together.

I’ve been to church a few times since the last post.

A friend of mine invited me to come to Unity Church of Portland, and I went twice; once with her and once without. It is a lovely non-denominational church that emphasizes spirit over any concept of “god”. They talk about “wisdom teachers” such as Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed and the “wisdom texts” they gave to the world. People were very nice to me both times, both as a stranger and as someone introduced by a congregant. There was nothing in the sermon that made me feel particularly out of place in my beliefs. I came home and told my husband that it was very nice, and wandered off with a distracted, unsettled look on my face.

Yesterday I went to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland. Also very nice. Even less about deity – although interestingly they used the word “religion” substantially more than either sermon at Unity, despite the fact that there was less “religious” vocabulary used. They lit a chalice, gonged a Buddhist prayer bell, sang the Quaker hymn “’Tis A Gift To Be Simple”. Several parts of the service had to do with social justice and action, which was refreshing. A very, very white quartet got up and sang a Kenyan feast song. They were all classically trained and had some chops, and were clearly very, very white. The audience – entirely white and primarily over 50 – gently bobbed their heads. I noticed several people falling asleep. When I got home I listened to a recent Glide service in which Pastor Karen Oliveto had everyone dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.

Sigh.

I know that comparing is a wasteful activity, a fool’s game. I was very conscious of that as I sat and listened. I told myself to stop comparing, dammit, and just experience what IS instead of what ISN’T. I tried really, really hard… But hang on a sec. Let me take a moment to let you in on where I’m at, because it’s relevant.

Last week I had a miscarriage.

Now that is a god-awful word if I ever heard one. Like I dropped it perhaps, tripped on uneven pavement and it just – whoops! – flew out of where I was carrying it. Or the phrase “miscarriage of justice” comes to mind. A terrible flub, a travesty perpetrated by an inept and corrupt authority. I don’t know which is worse. Although at the very early stage at which I miscarried the other term for it is a “chemical pregnancy”, which is most decidedly worse than “miscarriage”. As though it were just a fluke of chemistry rather than a heartbreaking end to the confirmed fruition of years of hope and dreaming. However you put it, it freaking sucks.

Yesterday morning when I stepped into the sanctuary, I could really have used a little breakdown space.

Here’s the thing that really struck me as I sat listening to the smooth, un-jarring and un-challenging material of the service: There needs to be a little violence. I know that’s a strange word to use, but it was the one that kept coming to me. I remembered the almost combative physical force of the 100+ voices of the Glide Ensemble; the challenging, questioning, all-fired-up preaching that invited shouts of recognition and urging from the congregation; the confrontation of all my own biases and inhumane discomforts that was the result of standing in a room full of such vastly different individuals who all agree to lift each other up every Sunday, free of charge. All of that stuff – that life-changing, shell-shattering stuff that takes hold of your grief and shakes it like a bone rattle in your chest, makes room for the watershed and strips you bare so that the total stranger standing next to you knows you, sees you, recognizes himself in you and gives you the extra hands you need to keep clinging to the side of the cliff – all of that good, good stuff is, let’s face it, a little violent.

It’s old time religion, y’all. When I think about “old time religion” I think of the wrath of God, the smiting of the wicked, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth. There are times in our lives when our grief so outstrips our capacity to compass it that the only thing that truly reflects our insides is violence. And if we’re lucky we can find that essential violence in a threshing drumbeat or a spine-breaking harmony by a hundred voices. There are ever so many ways of finding death and destruction unfettered, ungrounded, unloved, unmended. What we need is a way of earthing the lightening bolts and feeling the thunder without dying in flames.

So I wanted a little old time religion this Sunday. Unfortunately, what I got was unmoored floaty new-wave complacency.

Next week we’re going to follow the music. Maybe the music is the key. The question is this: will I be able to hear the music and feel welcomed knowing that my atheism is looked upon there as a failure, a deficit, a dearth? How alien will I feel, how much will I have to hide? I don’t know the answer. I only know I haven’t found it yet.

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