"That would be the perfect present," my Mama said as she hugged me goodbye after a visit. The present in question would be attending church with her and the rest of the family for Mother's Day. I looked at her and my Dad as they stood in the doorway and didn't say anything, only nodding and flashing a nervous, noncommittal smile as I walked to my car. As I drove off, I wasn't sure if warming a pew the next Sunday would be an act of selflessness, stupidity, or suicide.
Perhaps a little background is needed. Before my mother's invitation, the last time I'd entered a sanctuary was back in January, when I played my last Sunday service for a church I'd been working at as a musician for almost a decade. Leaving had not been easy; two months before that I I had to tell the pastor I was quitting, even though the youth choir was experiencing real growth for the first time in years and he and the director, who was also his wife, were offering me a raise.
I still remember feeling as if all the bones had evaporated out of my legs as we walked to the back of the church, and the half-confused, half-frustrated look on his face when I confessed to the doubts I'd been having for months and that it no longer felt right playing for them. I remember how my fingers were itching to dial the number to his cell phone so I could tell him I'd changed my mind, and to forget our conversation ever happened. The tears in the pastor's wife eyes, the audible gasps, and shocked looks on the congregation's faces when he announced my departure are still etched on my eyes and in my ears.
So started a familiar pattern: during the work week I'd feel calm and secure about my decision, and do a mental repeat of the reasons I was quitting both the job and church for good. But every time choir rehearsal and youth Sunday rolled around, a heady mix of emotions would come over me--fear I might be wrong, sadness and guilt at the thought of leaving them without a replacement, uncertainty about what I do with my Sundays or with my life, feeling stupid that I'd turned down a raise--and I'd fall apart. For a while I was confused, thinking all the new choir members and the church's general expansion were signs from God that I should reconsider. It took a while before it dawned on me it was really my love for music, and my ego, not God, that were drawing me back into the fold.
What made things even worse was everywhere I turned, everyone suddenly had an opening for a church musician, with some places offering full-time positions that paid three to four times what I was currently making. Saying no to all those opportunities--and to my inner money grubber--was hard, and made me feel even dumber for pushing away what could have been a lucrative side job. Finally January rolled around, and the pastor's wife, who convinced me to stay on for another month, asked me it my decision to go was final. I felt my insides constrict as I sighed, nodding and uttering a soft but firm "yes." Then she hugged me and that was that; no big speeches, dinners or, to my horror, a musical appreciation--all ideas the pastor had thrown out at me that I was too nice or scared to say no to--to send me off. I just collected my things and walked away.
The following months were spent trying to adjust to a new, post-Christian life: learning the joys of sleeping in, seeing a movie or taking a walk on Sunday mornings sans guilt, as well as the frustration of trying and failing, at least outside of online interaction, to find like-minded souls to share my experiences with. In March I checked off a big "To Do" by coming out (again) to my parents. Although they were not thrilled, both of them took it surprisingly well. Now just as my life had calmed down and I was slipping into a new normal, my mother dropped this bomb on me.
I was apprehensive about going. Of course I wanted to make her happy, and it was only one service. Why shouldn't she get what she wants on Mother's Day? But other scenarios nagged at me. What if going back and hearing the songs and sermons triggered all those old feelings? What if the pastor decided this was a “bash the gays" Sunday? Would I have to walk out and explain myself later? I weighed my options the whole week, then decided to go. I figured sitting through a service, especially one where the pastor and everyone would be bringing their A-game, would be a good way to see how far, or not far, I'd come in the non-belief department. I made it through the praise team's set just fine, clapping along and letting the lyrics float in one ear and out the other. During devotion I kept my head up and looked around the sanctuary, surprised at how easy it was to refrain from closing my eyes and saying “Amen.” Offering, or specifically the speech that came before it, caused some irritation, as I always saw that part of the service as an exercise in fear and emotional manipulation, even when I was a believer.
However, the sermon was the tricky part; in the past, no matter how much I'd could take apart the preacher's arguments, some small part of me always thought I wasn't "getting it," especially when everyone else began to stand up, scream, clap and run like they'd been injected with holy adrenaline. What hidden truths were they finding that I missed? "What are they hearing that I'm not?" I'd often ask myself. But as I sat there listening to his words, something in my mind shifted. I looked at the preacher not as an anointed vessel or a man of God with a divine word to deliver, but only as a man. So I treated him like I would any other public speaker, storing the parts of his speech that were practical, good advice in my mental bank and discarding the rest.
By the time the pastor called for all the mothers to go to their children and pray over them, I knew I was going to be alright. I realized my expectations, of both church and myself, had changed. I no longer felt like I had to praise His name like it was my last day on Earth, or glean some supernatural, life-changing revelation from the pastor. And I no longer expected church to provide those things. After she and the rest of the congregation recited a prayer in unison, my mother looked up at me, smiled, and said "I know you didn't say it. But someday you'll believe it." I smiled back, knowing that short of the Rapture taking place there was little to no chance I'd ever believe in God again. But that doesn't mean I won't be sitting in the back pew come Christmas.
To all my fellow nonbelievers, what are your reasons for accepting, or not accepting, religious family members' requests to go to church on holidays or special occasions?