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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Why I go to Church

Jim and I broke up over a year ago, and in my aggressive attempt to be okay, I made myself list all the reasons why I, Kate Hooks, was better off without him. I was very proud of myself upon creation of this list, and did all but publish the eleven reasons in the City Paper. I read it to my friends, re-read it to myself, hung it on my fridge etc. One of the most compelling and real reasons at the time, was that Jim didn't inspire me to be a better person. I underlined that reason and buried it deep inside me - right between the left ventricle of my heart and my internal moral high ground. At the time I was more than a little bit certain that my predilection for beer and my irrational irritation with the string bikini clan at my gym was not caused by my own character flaws, but by Jim. Like I said, my attempt to be okay was somewhat aggressive.

I told my friend, Taylor, about my epiphany. I was so matter-of-fact, so wise and so completely non-judgmental as I relayed my most recent revelations to Taylor; I explained that Jim would be an excellent person for someone, but clearly not for me. I had grandiose plans to be a fabulously selfless individual and do regular physical therapy exercises and eat healthily and start a righteous revolution to improve city schools, inspire urban youth etc. My diatribe culminated with the exclamatory statement:

"See, Taylor, Jim wasn't inspiring me to do these things. He didn't make me want to be better at anything! He obviously wasn't the one..."

There was dead air on the phone for a second, and then my agnostic friend (who, incidentally, I met through Jim) responded:

"Kate, you're Christian. Shouldn't Jesus inspire you to be a better person?"

It was seriously such an innocent question. I could tell that Taylor was genuinely curious; he wanted to understand my quirky walk of faith a little better. But I still wanted to reach through the phone and lodge my cuticle scissors into his ear. I hate it so much when other people are right. I felt like I did when I was six and carved my name into the back of my dad's (new) car and got caught. I was so blatantly wrong and defenseless and six years-old, that I couldn't even offer an explanation. More than twenty years later, I found myself in the same predicament. But Taylor was on the phone this time, and I felt reason # 4 in my quest to be okay dislodge itself from my left ventricle along with my internal moral high ground.

Naturally, I stammered through a weak response to Taylor, and changed the subject.

The thing is - and this is the God's honest truth - as recently as a year ago, Jesus was just some esoteric concept to me. Jesus was someone I grew up with and actively rejected during my high school years. He was someone I ignored in college, and was angry with after getting MS. He let me down. Not only had he let me down, I wondered how anyone could watch the news on a somewhat regular basis and attempt to explain Jesus as a benevolent, loving and living God? The world seemed like a giant, mortally wounded mess.

Six years ago, though, despite this mortally wounded world, I started to think about Him a lot more often; I prayed to Him at night, talked to Him in my car, wrote about Him in my journal, and even started a non-committal tour of Baltimore churches. I slowly let go of my high school-inspired rejection of God, and (even more slowly) of my MS-inspired anger. It was like plucking in-grown hairs, though: almost impossible. Because my anger and resentment and cynicism were as deeply embedded in my personality as my thankfully resilient sense of humor. I pried and prayed and dug and scraped and waited until the answers started peeking through cracks in my calloused skin. The answers came in all shapes and sizes and some came much, much later than I'd hoped for. Eventually, though, I found pieces of myself, and the pieces - not to gloat -were beautiful! They were raw pieces of hope and courage and honesty and faith that were much stronger and enduring than their resentful and angry predecessors.

Like I said, though, this was a slow process. For a while I'd think I was fine and centered and very deep, and then I'd realize that a piece of anger was still hanging around, preventing me from solving my internal rubix cube. I think this is why I was waiting for a person to inspire me. I wanted some faith-filled hero-type to swoop down and rearrange my inside bits until I was all grace and courage and strength. This hero would naturally manifest himself as my boyfriend and - along with his supernatural capacities - would help me with my laundry and would clean my kitchen for me without even asking. With expectations like these, it is glaringly obvious that Jim was a disastrous disappointment. I guess it's also obvious why Jesus remained an esoteric concept who I purported to believe in, but who I neither knew intimately nor aspired to please. Sure, Jesus was responsible for the good pieces inside of me, but I wanted a person to bring these pieces to the surface permanently. Jim didn't do it, my friends didn't do it, my family didn't do it, and even the half-dozen churches I'd visited fell short.

And then, through another friend who I met via Jim, I found New Song. This concrete-constructed building is so un-church-like that it makes the bare-walled Quaker building I attended look elaborate. There are no stained glass windows, or wooden pews. There are no tiled mosaics of Jesus and Mary, or marble bird baths filled with holy water or intimidating "stations of the cross". It's just a hastily constructed cream-colored concrete building in the heart of Baltimore's most "mortally wounded" neighborhood. There are broken cars in the parking lot with their hoods permanently opened, cracks in the pavement in the sidewalk outside and occasional empty bags of UTZ potato chips floating by in the adjacent gutter. But when I went into the church last summer, it was the first time in my 27 years that God was literally palpable.

For me, God is Jesus, but no matter who or what God is to you - even if you don't believe in Him at all - I think you'd feel this too. In fact, I'm positive. There are kids who come without their parents, and Lord the kids are gorgeous! There is this incredibly diverse body of people who are commonly united in a struggle for something. Mostly it's just the struggle to be okay; to recover from their own lives or addictions or loss, but inside this church the struggle to heal is collective, which - in my opinion - makes it so much easier to do. There are a lot of people in the church whose hurt runs deep enough to give even the best scuba divers the bends, and there are others who wade through occasional mud puddles, but inside the building everyone is united in hope and perseverance and - not to sound too cheesy - love. It is seriously the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful thing I have ever seen.

It is inside the walls of this church that I felt Jesus nudging me - ever so slightly - to be a better person. It was the first time in my life that a church-inspired nudge wasn't accompanied by an undertone of guilt. There are no hell, fire and damnation sermons about fixing your life at New Song, just a constant reminder that Jesus loves us all so much, and that the most radical thing we can do in return is to be honest and true to ourselves and to give as much as we can to the people around us in need. The pastor's adopted daughter even gets this. A few weeks ago I cried myself through the two-hour worship service (a hormone-inspired melt-down of sorts), and resorted to paper towels to keep the mess of myself relatively contained. After the service, as I deconstructed my wheelchair to put it into my trunk, she sauntered over to me.

"Miss Kate, why were you cryin' so much?"

I told her that I really didn't know. Just that I was a little sad sometimes.

Her dimpled brown cheeks and warm eyes looked up at me, and her eight-year-old self sheepishly uttered,

"Well, I love you."

(Which of course made me cry again.)

So I guess Taylor was right: I shouldn't want to be a better person for my boyfriend. I shouldn't wait for a hero-type to enter my life and spoon-feed me perseverance and patience and selflessness. Instead I should feed myself (with Jesus' help) and share everything I can with the people at New Song who silently hold me up - week after week.

There are times when Old Angry Kate bubbles to the surface and I feel myself internally lamenting the bikini girls who get in my way at the gym, or I say bad words to no one in particular when my wheelchair breaks at inopportune times. (Both of which happened just yesterday, in fact.) What I finally understand, though, is that I am forgiven and loved in spite of these things. And even when I feel forsaken and forgotten by Jesus himself, I am never really alone in this mortally wounded world.

Which is exactly why I go to church.