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Last week I attended the ordination of a woman into the ministry of my chosen church. The event was at once sober and celebratory, the ceremony infused with tradition, the theological message progressive. Ultimately, it was about the struggle for faith, this woman’s difficult journey and her perseverance with the help and support of fellow believers.
Out here in the middle distance, the struggle for faith is constant, difficult and untidy. Some days I experience holiness in a gesture, in the dog’s eyes, in sound or witness or experience; and other days I think I’m kidding myself. I reach daily to discover what I believe, and every week I find solace and solidarity with a congregation that embraces uncertainty and inclusiveness. One may struggle with his or her beliefs about Christian doctrine in my church, or question organized religion in general. Still, we show up to find common purpose, to urge ourselves toward service, to soften the blows of this human journey, to worship the God of life.
Naturalist John Muir saw worship in the excitement of tree limbs, tossed about by the winds of an approaching storm. Mahatma Gandhi found it in the beauty of the moon or the wonder of a sunset. Buddhist dharma tells us that worship is reverence and humility and requires the silencing of delusions. In the church where I grew up, the church I rejected once its doctrines began to feel like impossible mandates, the worship service was a wild variety act of music and dramatic recitation, a cross that landed somewhere between Johnny Cash and Liberace.
I realize, the older I get, that being raised in that church formed who I am now — a seeker with flexibility who learned early on to worship with abandon, then forgot how.
Our Southern Baptist church in western Kentucky was founded in the mid-1950s by my grandfather and a small group of men who prayed together in a house for several years, then got a preacher and, finally, a building. I could cross my back yard, a narrow street and somebody else’s back yard and be in the parking lot of the church where my grandfather’s old yellow school bus stood, waiting to traverse the streets on the poor side of town every Sunday. I rode along, a willing assistant. The yellow bus pulled up to tiny houses that poured out large families, dressed in their Sunday best. Babies in stiff lace bonnets, snot-nosed boys, girls in patent leather shoes, pretty moms, shy dads with slicked-back hair, grandmothers clasping large purses and big Bibles in their ample laps. It didn’t occur to me that these people needed a ride because they didn’t have a car. The bus ride was a rollicking tour through our small town.
At church, worship was standing room only. Some Sundays, our preacher Brother Richard’s brother, Roger, appeared as the special guest musician. Brother Roger, a round man in a shiny suit and a pink silk tie, banged the piano keys like Jerry Lee Lewis, his seat rarely connecting with the bench. Or he would wheel in a huge, gleaming standing vibraphone and play it with jazzy intensity. We sang loud and often — anthems that raised the roof with rhythmic fervor, and a quiet invitational hymn, repeated as many times as it took for a parade of sinners to finally stumble forward to declare their faith or be prayed over.
Throughout the week, between Sunday services, my grandparents toiled constantly for the God they believed in — feeding a family whose daddy was in jail, seeing to it that a young man with no means of support finished high school, gathering clothing and delivering it to those who needed it. In retrospect, I can see that Mammaw and Grandaddy were poor themselves, but when I was a child, they seemed to me as magical and prolific in their ability to provide as Christ himself, feeding the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and a handful of small fish.
I lived outside the church for most of my adult life, believing it was hypocritical to show up for worship if I couldn’t, in good faith, sign a pledge that sacrificed my right to question. In the end, I found a church that didn’t make me sign that pledge.
I am awestruck by the singular devotion of my grandparents, the legend of their unwavering faith. Now I show up on Sundays and sing and pray and worship, my faith a mere shadow of theirs, the shadow of tree branches rustled by the wind, dancing in the grass below.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.