4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
We went to church this weekend.
On the one hand, it’s no shocker. It was Easter, and I get after it when it comes to Christian holidays. I was raised Lutheran in a house that desperately craved the emblems of familial love and the dependable consistency that comes with celebrating holidays. Growing up we never missed a Sunday of church and we certainly never missed a holiday.
Easter and Christmas of course, were the best. Even Good Friday night service, the one where the altar boys or girls would silently extinguish the only candles lighting the whole church until only one remained. A hush would fall over the pews and then the pastor would talk about the nailing of Jesus to the cross, slam the Bible closed and then reach out to extinguish the last light. We would exit the church and drive home and go up to bed in absolute silence.
That service was so amazing in part because it was the perfect foil to the service two days later; baskets of yellow daffodils, Easter bonnets, a booming organ filling the church with a resounding JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN TODA-AY, HA-A-A-A-A-LAY-A-LU-U-YAH. And then we would greet each other with a boastful, “HE IS RISEN!” and then “HE IS RISEN INDEED!”
Somewhere along the way between that childhood church on the highway in New Jersey and here, I stopped going to church. It trickled away during late night conversations in college about women’s rights and diversity, and then emptied out as I worked at a school where monks, some good, some not so much, haunted the hillsides in their black, billowing robes.
I think the trickling away began though, with a conversation with my sweet, funny uncle when I was about eight, when I said that Adam and Eve couldn’t possibly be real, that it was only a parable, and that there was no way little pagan babies in Africa would go to hell when they died. He replied that if I put a crack in my faith like that then the whole thing would collapse into sin. By the time I was married, mostly only the secular vestiges of my childhood religion remained, just candy canes, jelly beans and an occasional murmured prayer in the dark of night.
But something about the proximity of the little interfaith chapel on the hill and the Easter egg hunt that follows, and my girls’ desire to wear the hand-me-down taffeta Easter dresses that my sister’s girls faithfully wore to service every week, well it all made going to church feel like the thing to do.
And so we scurried up the hill, along the gravel at the edge of the road, leaning in against the bitter wind sweeping off the ocean. We were greeted at the doors by a man in a comically large bowtie, and he handed each of the kids a daffodil to put in the green wooden cross that was apparently made by Barbara in the choir’s first husband, Lou.
In this tiny chapel, about the size of my childhood living room and dining room combined, we sat on wooden pews as old as the stone bridge granting access to this little island, and people shared their good news and bad, about the Johnsons’ old dog who just died, about Betty who came in the wheelchair last year, using the new wheelchair lift for the first and last time as the anniversary of her death is next week, about grown children and grandchildren visiting from far away, about Louise’s cancer and Samuel’s illness. People nodded and shared, layering one call for prayer over another.
This was all lead by the visiting pastor with the 80’s NPR voice and the 70’s waist-length braid and velvet, tie-dyed shawl. She stumbled through her heartfelt sermon showing us the thirteen pages she’d written and then she never read any of it. She pointed out Hugh in the fifth row, and talked about how the two of them had spent hours parsing the meaning of God over the last few days.
She said she didn’t know if she believed all the words of the Bible, that some people thought Jesus and God were the same thing, but some thought they were different, that to some God was the boss and Jesus was just a teacher, that some people used the Bible to support prejudices they had. She invoked Indiana and gay rights and the dinosaurs. On Easter!
Holy cow! As I listened to this house of cards collapse, I kept looking around, eager to see Barbara or Hugh or Betty’s widowed husband stand up, or wag a finger or shake a head or something. My recently departed Uncle was watching from heaven and having a conniption, I could feel it. I kept waiting for the huge metaphorical shepherd’s hook, held by the octogenarians who sang in the choir, to tug her right out from behind her little pulpit.
She was saying that she didn’t know.
And to be honest, the whole thing was a bit disorganized, a bit of a ramble about the week she’d had, how she’d tried to convince Hugh to find a different Pastor, about her conversations with people on the island over coffee at the General Store, about how her brother had passed away on Wednesday, about how she had been raised a Catholic. It was a muddle. It was a mess. I felt for her.
Over the heads of my four kids I whispered to my husband, “The sermon has good bones. But it’s like a guy from that show, My 600 lb. Life.”
Good bones under 600 lbs. of overwrought flesh are awfully hard to access. Even by gastric bypass surgeons, apparently, and especially by a group of twice-a-year interfaith Christians on a windy island in Maine on Easter Sunday (plus a handful of kids jacked up on Cadbury Cream Eggs.)
But I have to say, I was moved to tears. I was moved by the humanity of it all, and about how we all sat together and witnessed this hot mess of a sermon, these heartfelt calls to prayer, the heaving efforts of the gray-haired choir. I was moved by her not knowing.
Because I don’t know. And I think I thought that was a shame, literally shameful.
She’d begun her not-a-sermon asking if anyone wanted to volunteer what Easter meant to them. Only poor Hugh saved her, saying that Easter means that he doesn’t have to worry anymore. That through the sacrifice of God and his son Jesus, he is saved.
Later that night we asked my seven-year-old son what Easter meant to him, and he said it was about Jesus dying on the cross and then rising, and that it was about family being together.
I wish I had the courage to raise my hand in this chapel I’ve only attended on Easter for the last three years, in front of Lou and Barbara, my Uncle’s ghost and the NPR pastor.
I would have said that I mostly don’t know, but I’d guess that Easter is about love and family, it is about rebirth and the possibility of forgiveness, it is about the hope that we can fix things and the chance to try. And for now, that is enough.