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Christmas Eve, 2013

I’ve forgotten what it is like to get my husband out the door to go to church. Is this what it is like to have children?

It has been six months since we last went to church. I’d figured he’d have time to work some of this out. I’ll find other church services and he says they are either too early or too far away or in a bad part of town. Or the place is too big – he’ll feel lost. The place is too small – we’ll stick out.

He says he wants to go to church, but when it comes to actually going to church he drags his feet.

I’m starting to understand why so many people who go to church are married women without their spouses.

It is embarrassing to me to go to church alone. We aren’t supposed to be “unequally yoked” after all. We are supposed to be on the same page. But the more excuses he comes up with and the more he drags his feet, the more I think I need to choose. Him, or God.

It isn’t fair. I use that phrase a lot. I’m tired of being the brave one and trying out new things. I don’t mean divorce. I mean going to church by myself.

I need church. I need community. I need order. Otherwise I drift away. Without making a regular time for God, I start to do my own thing and I’ve learned that my own thing isn’t that great.

I want to go with my husband. I want him to be excited about church. When I left our old church I told him that he could continue to go, and he hasn’t. He stays up late Saturday night and gets up late on Sunday morning.

I don’t think he knows what he wants.

We’d talked about going to church on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t a regular Sunday. It was special. Many people, if they attend church irregularly, will go on Christmas and Easter. It was important to me to do at least this.

I’d found a local church that met in a middle school gym. It seemed OK. Methodist – so it wasn’t Episcopal. I feel like I’ve burned my bridges with the Episcopal Church. Because it didn’t have a building yet, it met some of my requirements for church. I’m wary of churches that spend all their money on a building. Sure, they have a minister, so there is that, but the further away I get from the “normal” church service, the less likely I’m going to be able to get him to go with me.

Mid afternoon on Christmas Eve, I was preparing to go, and he wasn’t. I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t going to go. My whole Christmas plan started to crumble. I didn’t expect him to blow this off. He hadn’t said that he wasn’t going. I’d sent him email reminders. I’d told him about it. It wasn’t a last minute thing. It wasn’t a surprise. Christmas Eve is a given. Just like tax day, you know when it is going to happen.

He saw that this was important to me and he dropped everything and raced around, getting ready. It was a big ordeal. He was running late and a bit crazy. He doesn’t do well with last minute plan changes – even though it wasn’t. I started to wonder what was going on in his head. I started to notice the time ticking by and thinking that maybe I should just go on my own. I’d rather be alone and on time than with him and late, as usual. I’m really getting tired of being late.

Finally we left for the service. It was a quiet drive. And when I say quiet, I don’t mean peaceful. I mean that stony silence two people employ when they realize that whatever they say might cause a fight and a fight is the last thing they want.

Sometimes silence is golden. Sometimes silence is deadly.

We got there and I lost it. We were sitting in the car, in the cold, in the parking lot for the middle school which just happens to be the space for the church.

I sat there and I cried. I cried about loss. I feel like a person who got fired from her job of 20 years. I wasn’t at St. Philip’s for that long, but I was in the Episcopal Church for that long. I put a lot of effort into it for the last three years. I was an acolyte. I was a chalice bearer (you have to be licensed by the Bishop to do that). I trained the chalice bearers. I made the schedule. I trained the lectors. I took Communion to home bound members. I was training to be a deacon.

I was there every week, and one way or another I was serving every week.

I was starting a career with the church, and it was all over in a flash. I had the audacity to wonder out loud if we were doing church according to the way that Jesus meant, and I was stripped of my responsibilities. The priest got really angry at me. A story was invented as a cover. I don’t think anybody cared. A handful of people seemed to have noticed. I think that hurt the most.

All that time and all that work and it was as if nothing happened.

So I feel like someone who was laid off. I’ve been unemployed by church. I’ve gotten bit jobs here and there. (I’ve found alternative “church” experiences) It hasn’t paid the bills. (It hasn’t filled me up.) So now I’m searching for a new job/church and it is scary. I’m searching outside of my field, outside of my experience. (I’ve left the Episcopal Church and possibly church as we know it.)

And I’m scared and exhausted and tired.

I thought about just turning around and going back home. My face was a mess from crying. I wouldn’t know anybody. It will be weird. Church in a gym? How strange is that? Where’s the script? What do I do?

We were there already. I’d feel really bad if we skipped this. It wasn’t what I was used to but it was something. I steeled up my courage, cleaned off my face, and went in.

One advantage is that almost nobody knows me there. So a teary face wouldn’t be a big deal. And church is a place for the hurting. It is a hospital for the soul.

We sat in the bleachers. It was full! Our old church would have dreamed of having that many people for a service. And there was going to be two services.

The service was pleasant. The pastor was funny and kind. He didn’t read from a script. There was Communion, and the words were familiar even though the execution of it wasn’t. I’m not used to Communion with real bread and grape juice, but beggars can’t be choosers you know.

At the end we all sang Silent Night in darkness and lit candles one by one, just like how I like. That never happened in the old church because the head of the altar guild hated dealing with real wax. Fake candles lit by batteries just don’t cut it, in my opinion. But then she is a control freak.

After the service we went to a friend’s house and had a simple supper of chili and cheese and watched a quietly wrong Christmas movie (Rare Exports). They aren’t Christian, but they wanted to share a bit of Christmas with us. It was a pleasant time.

On the way back we were driving by a Catholic Church and saw someone pulling into the lot. Midnight mass, anyone? Scott, raised Catholic, suggested it. I am used to midnight mass starting at 10:30 and ending at midnight, so since it was 11:45 pm I thought we had missed it. Nope. I checked their website using my phone and their service started at midnight. We debated it. It was last minute. We weren’t members. I am not Catholic. It was very late.

Oh. Why not? So we did a U turn and went. The place was packed. We found a seat towards the back. Nobody stopped is and asked if we were members, or even if we were Catholic.

We played along. There is no “Book of Common prayer” like there is in the Episcopal Church. They kind of expect you to know what you are doing. I think this is how they weed out fakers like us. There is a booklet in the pew, but it is hard to understand and it doesn’t have all the bits in it. Fortunately there have been some wording changes to the service so some of it is printed on a handy laminated card. Even the priest was referring to it. If the priest can, we can. We won’t stick out.

Then it came time for Communion. This church is arranged in a semi circle around the altar, so I was interested in watching how the flow of people went. I watched and figured it out and then it was time. Up we went, and the people in the pew next to us stepped aside – they weren’t participating. I was tempted to tell them how to fake being Catholic but then that would out me.

They hadn’t said anything about Communion at the beginning. Not who could, who couldn’t. It is written inside the front page of the booklet in the pew, but they hadn’t even referred to that. I went on the “don’t ask don’t tell” idea, just like when I was in college.

As I was walking up I was really excited. I was glad to take Communion earlier in the gym, but this felt more real to me. Plus, there was the added fear of being caught.

I’ve taken Communion in a Catholic Church before, for many years. I had a friend who swapped out churches with me every other week. One week we’d go to mine, one week to hers. We stopped going when she admitted that she thought I shouldn’t take Communion in her church because I wasn’t Catholic. We stopped being friends then too.

I was in line before Scott, and I put out my hands together, palms up, right over left. The lay minister held up this cube of bread and said the words “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven” and put the cube in my hands. I looked at it. So weird. Dense. Not a wafer at all. An actual chunk of bread. Thick and dark and perfectly cut. It was the size of a die.

I popped it in my mouth and walked towards the chalice bearer. She looked a little foreboding. I thought I wasn’t clear yet. Maybe I was still going to get busted. Plus, I was still dealing with the odd texture of the bread.

Some churches ask you to dip (instinct) the bread/wafer, and some are OK if you sip from the chalice. I saw everybody sip and that is what I prefer. I got to her and looked in the chalice. Red wine. Good choice. Some use white because it is easier on the altar guild if there is a spill. But white ruins the symbolism. This was a paler red. Maybe it was watered down? The lights caught the hammered gold on the chalice. It was quite beautiful and it was all I wanted.

I don’t miss church. I do miss Communion.

In that moment I was allowed to commune. I passed. I faked it.

And in reality, I shouldn’t have to fake it. Jesus didn’t make any such rules. I’ve already written about it and I doubt there will be any change. But you never know. This Francis is a pretty progressive pope.

When it was all over we went out and greeted the priest. I hugged him and wished him a merry Christmas.

I think it has to be hard to be an unmarried priest. To have to work on Christmas and then have to go home to an empty house sounds very sad. Again, this is not a rule Jesus made up. He didn’t even want people to be ordained. We are all ministers.

So we had Christmas, even though it wasn’t what we were used to. Mary and Joseph didn’t expect to become parents like they did either. Alone, in a barn, away from home and help, they welcomed Jesus into the world and into their lives. I think this is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about what we expect, but what we allow. It is about being open to whatever God wants us to experience. God knows what we need far better than what we do. Our job is just to get out of the way and let it happen.

God bless us, every one.

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