There are a few big steps that mark the growth of every relationship - a first kiss, saying I love you, meeting her parents, taking care of each other when sick. With each of these milestones, my girlfriend and I have grown closer, have gained interesting insight into our histories and have become all the more blissful.
A few Sundays ago, she and I crossed one of these such milestones, one that I had never even thought about - she went to church with me.
I love being a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and there is a good chance that I will one day be an active minister in the denomination. For me, spending a Sunday at nearly any PC(USA) church is the most normal and comfortable situation that I can be placed in. I know the routine. I know the hymns. I know the answers to the questions that old church ladies ask before they even think of the questions themselves. I can fairly easily make any Presbyterian church my “home” for the morning.
This level of comfort, however, leads one, in many ways, to not pay attention to the weirder (and funnier) elements that pass you by as normal. This rang especially true in bringing, for the first time, the girl I love to the church I grew up in.
I was raised in a small, rural PC(USA) church in East Tennessee, never more than twenty or so members strong in my lifetime. We’ve had numerous great ministers throughout the years - ones who have come and gone as retirement and other opportunities have called them. Our current pastor is a semi-retired, African-American cradle Presbyterian. He’s one of the most interesting and intelligent people I’ve yet met - ties to the Civil Rights movement, military service, a long preaching career and a writer of both children’s books and local biographies in his spare time. His ministry style is one that reflects this long life of learning in many ways. It’s both carefully reasoned and passionately exuberant, socially minded and Christocentric. Presbyterians sometimes (myself very much included) get uncomfortable with letting the Holy Spirit take charge, as it were, but not this man - worship is an interactive performance, an unrehearsed, unscripted stage play of the Word of God in action.
My girlfriend grew up Catholic, and, in hindsight, I fully understand that my home church was not the best introduction to “Presbyterianism” writ large.
She waded through a mix of poorly unison corporate readings, hymns sung very quietly and the stifled joking of my family camped out in the back pew. She handled, with utter social grace, such “interesting” (read, hilarious) moments as being referred to as a “blessed, beautiful bouquet,” and the “pretty lady on Jordan’s arm” in our church announcements section of worship and a prayer respectively. There is still, after a twenty minute explanation over coffee, an open offer for her to copy-edit our minister’s upcoming book for him.
These were all meant, of course, in the most endearing fashion possible, but, being the constantly diligent boyfriend I am, I had forgotten to warn her of our minister’s particular brand of impromptu complimenting and instant familiarity with everyone…so, needless to say, a mildly terrifying experience.
This was markedly strange, uncomfortable territory for her and particularly eye-opening for me. I can’t thank her enough for her unrelenting support and love (despite me being a weird Protestant) as we contemplate both our life together, her interest in journalism and my potential call to the ministry. This career isn’t one that affects just me. Church folk want the significant others of pastors as a package deal, in many ways.
The Sunday that she and I shared together has shown me huge points in which my own style of ministry will be different from the people I consider, in many ways, to have been my mentors. Points that I knew were integral to how I understand this vocational path, but that I probably would never have noticed were in subtle difference to my pastoral models, had it not been for experiencing this service through her view.
What did I learn?
- Prayers about the “dreadful weight of our sins” make me uncomfortable (and a lot of other similar liturgical things make me uncomfortable.)
- Gender-inclusive language will factor heavily into how I preach.
- I want to sing hymns loudly, but reserve the academic, contemplative hallmark of Presbyterian sermon writing.
- Theology devoid of connection to politics, to economics, to human suffering feels vapid and useless.
- People need to be challenged - have their prejudices and biases confronted from the pulpit.
- Social engagement is crucial to a Church that means anything for the world.
- Having someone who loves you to hold your hand makes any worship service more enjoyable.
I finish writing this in a coffee shop downtown, waiting on her to finish her day at her PR internship. Tonight we’ll see Shakespeare on an open-air stage and begin a weekend of celebrating her 22nd birthday. I only hope that I can show her just how important and wonderful she really is.
Her thoughtfulness and patience as I begin my studies at Union mean the world to me and I can’t state enough just how much her support will be crucial to my entire learning about God-talk enterprise.
To put it in the most heartfelt way I can:
I love you, Mary.