by Nicole Sheets
I grew up in a church that prized certainty. Faith, I was told, was based on facts, not feelings. If you knew that Christ had come into your heart and “saved” you, then you were saved, even if you didn’t feel that way.
Some years later, it was a revelation to me that questions can be an act of devotion. Questions weren’t just a challenge to Mrs. Jordan during Sunday school, as she affixed a paper Jesus to the flannelgraph board. Questions mean that you care enough about something to take a second look, that you’re open to a new answer rather than just a well worn conclusion.
Questions helped me realize that facts weren’t the underpinning of my spiritual life. I didn’t become a Christian by reasoning my way into God’s love. Indeed, love sometimes drove me to do things that were against all reason.
One of the most piercing questions in the entire Bible is one we hear today: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus speaks from the cross. The question reveals that Jesus is alone, even though he’s surrounded by crowds who’ve called for his crucifixion, a couple of thieves, and his mom.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? About this haunting question I have some questions. I think about the timing of Jesus’s words. He has been betrayed by a disciple, interrogated by Pontius Pilate, fitted with a crown of thorns, mocked, whipped, subjected to unspeakable physical suffering. Has Jesus felt the presence of God through all of that, only to lose that presence so near the end?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
What does it mean for Jesus to be forsaken? If Jesus and God are one, then could they really be estranged from one another, any more than I could try to ignore my own thoughts or memories? Was division and unity something that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit could turn on and off like a switch?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Was the resurrection a forgone conclusion, a hope that Jesus could cling to in these darkest hours, a buffer against his total abandonment? Or was Jesus, at least in this anguished moment, much like us: Able to see where the road has brought him, but unsure of its end?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus quotes Psalm 22, in which David both affirms the Lord’s praiseworthiness and pleads to be heard. I had a very King James childhood, and the opening words of the Psalm ring out best that way:
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.”
Who has not cried out in the daytime or in the night and feared that no one was listening?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Are we reminded that Jesus knows the pain of being turned away by someone he loves?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Do we feel the ache of Christ’s words, and the heavy silence after?
Nicole Sheets is the web editor for Rock & Sling and the editor of the forthcoming online anthology How To Pack For Church Camp.
Crown of thorns image is from here.
143 Pages, $18
Wave Books, 2014
A woman sings “Hey Jude” with a voice like weeping willow branches in warm wind. I am ten years old: still new on this earth. I am with my parents in a parking garage after a Mariners game. The woman’s voice echoes past concrete pillars and falls like rain on the concrete floors. The Mariners lost, but this woman makes beauty ex chaos, ex sadness.
I like The Pedestrians because Rachel Zucker is not afraid to be vulnerable. I suppose this is inherent to the kind of poetry people say she writes—confessional—but Zucker’s poems hit me with a force that others’ have not. She names and confronts different and difficult facets of what it is to be in relationship with the self and with intimate others. For instance, this prose (poem? prose-poem?) in the first half of the book, Fables (a book unto itself within The Pedestrians), speaks volumes about the speaker’s relationship with her husband:
…but stopped, knowing from his face that she’d made a mistake.
“What are you waiting for?” he snarled.
He had a snake tongue then. She saw it slip back into his mouth and felt the sting of his fangs, the poison of his disappointment. It was always there like the creek behind the house—sometimes inaudible, sometimes burbling through the quiet nights—always, no matter how dry the season: a carved-out trench where nothing good could grow.
Zucker names the dysfunction in the speaker’s marriage, even as she includes a poem about the speaker wanting to be touched by her husband in the same way he delightedly tickles one of their sons. Zucker is vast enough to contain multitudes, to “be filled with hatred for the husband she love[s] so dearly.” In “pedestrian” the speaker wonders why she doesn’t live “in Maine or have more children or fewer” or how she feels about her “parents or poetry.” Zucker is confessional—honest—in that she bears witness to the deep ambivalence that marks our lives. We choose; in choosing, we exclude a world of possibilities; Zucker’s poems are fraught with that weight. Sometimes it’s bearable, and the narrator of the fables sits, “thinking of what it mean[s] to be alive in one location instead of another, at one moment of time instead of another, to be one kind of animal rather than another.” But other times the speaker “listen[s] to the muffled sound of that kind of thinking while she make[s] a clicking noise on her keyboard.” Let he or she who has never dissociated throw the first stone.
And now the earth is wet, the windows bleared with rain so the headlights blur on I-5. I pretend to be asleep in the warm car. My parents speak softly in the front. In the left lane, another SUV paces us: inside, a mother, a father, and their son. His nose is too big for my taste but I imagine trading places with him, having his maybe perfect life because mine, I feel, is full of ruin and disappointment. I wish to start all over with what I know now. I wish to become a baby and do it all over again. If you had given me a chance to begin my life again in that moment, if you had given me a chance to flee the depression I had no name for, I would have taken it. Would have erased my story.
Zucker’s work, though often unpunctuated, retains a sense of narrative. Our brains process experience, make memories, in terms of story; we perceive sight and imagination almost exactly the same. I found myself thankful that Zucker’s poems were knowable as stories—everyday, pedestrian—and as a series of pieces in a broader story, each speaking to the others. Take, for instance, the last two poems of the collection, “resort dream” and “_ _ _.” In the former, a war breaks out in the country where the speaker is a tourist. She escapes with a plane-full of other people, but the plane crashes. The stewards misdirect people to the wrong exits because not everyone can get out alive. The speaker comes across a man pushing a stroller and, having found out the stewards’ scheme, points the man to the “real exit.” The speaker sees that the man’s baby is disfigured but realizes she doesn’t care. “I don’t care about anything or anyone,” Zucker concludes. “That’s why we will sur- / vive. I have never been so powerful.” Aside from the dramatic tension between “resort dream” and the conclusion of Fables, where the speaker realizes “There [is] no going away” from her loved ones, no way not to care”—“resort dream” has an internal dialogue with the following (and last) poem, “_ _ _.” It addresses the reader directly and demands that we consider the nature of the author-reader relationship:
I’d run at you
with readied spear but
the spears are rungs
in a metal fence spiked
against settling birds
my mind is made up
of you what would you
have of me?
The demand is clear, and the complete reversal of power is striking. Tension and ambivalence lurk in the gulf between the speaker’s sense of power and her complete dependence on the reader: “my mind is made up / of you,” Zucker writes in a flourish of line break and syntax. She doesn’t just confront the necessity of our presence—she’s also asks us to consider the danger of relationship. The “mind” of Zucker that we encounter here is made up of us—we could get it all wrong. Violence and pain are real and likely. Just as Zucker lets us in on real relational difficulties between her and her family, so she invites us to move toward relationship with herself. What else should poetry do?
My therapist tells me, It sounds like you had very little self inside you. In clinical terms I’d call that depression. Do you still think about wanting to start over? I say, Yes. She asks, Have you considered medication? I say, Yes, but I won’t take it. She sighs, says, find intimacy with people who bring out your best self, and, learn to soothe and have kindness for yourself. But sometimes there isn’t anyone around who will or can be what I need—me included. I forget the way. And in those moments, the work of authors like Rachel Zucker is more than poetry—it is a human being, vulnerable to empathy and relationship. It is communion, with knives. I open and open—am undone, remade.
The latest issue of Rock & Sling was launched and lauded at the recent 10th anniversary party in Spokane. Be sure to get your wooly mitts on a copy if you haven’t already.
We heard from some of our contributors at that celebration, and here’s the word from several others:
Ideas of Belief Within Language: Having grown up on the Flathead Indian Reservation, in a Native household, I was imbued with a deep sense of the natural world: its seasons, its weathers, its animals, the tracks they leave. In this family, I was also schooled in the belief of both a strict and forgiving Catholic God. Somewhere along the line, I mixed both God and Nature up in my mind, and now seem unable to separate them. For me, God is tangible in the natural world, and, having fought forest fires for ten years on elite hotshot crews (having “coyoted-out” in some of the most remote places in this country, places where no rational human being would even consider venturing), has only galvanized my belief: God is with us, both in us and around us. And, if we look closely to what is around us, really see, then it’s possible to witness God. Ultimately, this is what I try to do with language: witness God in nature, with both its almost unsayable beauty, and the oft-unbearable harshness that ensues. In the best poems, I feel I have contained some aspect, some fragment of God’s presence, put down in language the vague tracks of His being here, have made hymns of them to be sung quietly at a field’s edge as the mid-winter rain speckles down, and as the long herd of elk slowly move through it.
Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the the sacrarium, the drain for sanctified matter, that goes straight into the earth rather than the sewage system. What happens to that sacred stuff once it returns to the earth? As a chaplain in an Episcopal school, I often pour consecrated wine down this drain in the sacristy after a Eucharist. The color of the wine is a golden yellow, and at the time I wrote the poem I was thinking about the stains that were left on the skin of those cleaning up from BP oil spill. I was also working to make sense—both emotionally and spiritually—of the spill and its destruction in the context of the resurrection, which I’m always working to make sense of!
Poetry is my tool for grappling with scripture and theology. I try to write my way through into understanding. The environmental destruction of the oil spill (and other human-caused disasters) evokes a my need for a twenty-first century theology. For example, the resurrection of the body—a medieval belief that we will rise from death and return our bodies. What can we mean now when we talk about this? As the medieval scholars struggled with the logistics of how we would receive back all our lost hair and fingernails, for example, I wonder how to understand resurrection in terms of the planet, in which so much dies and is reborn—like oil itself—from previous matter. I imagine the oil’s plumes, like Christ’s coming, as in both their beautiful creation and terrifying power.
One last and amusing note: when I went to the online Catholic encyclopedia to refresh my theology, the ad at the bottom of the page was from BP.
Since my diagnosis with inflammatory breast cancer in 2004, I have felt myself on a quest to understand the place of God within suffering. I have wrestled with the universal questions of why God allows the suffering of the innocent, whether God intervenes in response to prayer, and how to make cancer part of the purpose of my life. A portion of my journey has consisted of reading religious thinkers such as Pascal, Tillich, and Weil, but part of it has been a journey inward through meditation. Recently, I have begun Sufi meditation practices that complement my Christian faith. “Four Prayers for Forgiveness” grew out of meditations on four Muslim names of God, which subtitle each section of the poem. I have found the repetition of these names, along with breathing exercises, to be profoundly calming and spiritually healing. In the case of “Ya Tawaab,” the meditation also includes spinning in a much slower version of Dervish practice. Ultimately, these pratices helped me realize that I have to forgive my body, forgive my cancer, and forgive myself for my anger at God. During these exercises, and at times of great stress and sorrow, such as the death of friends from cancer, I believe that I have felt Christ’s presence. Though I will never understand God’s role in illness and pain, I accept that God is with me when I experience them. I included the Rumi epigraph after completing the poem, because it seemed to summarize the poem’s themes so perfectly, and because Rumi writes from the Sufi tradition.
Emily Van Kley
Having grown up as a queer pastor’s daughter in the rural Midwest, my experience with faith has been a confusing tangle of birthright, comfort, doubt, and grief. For the last five or so years, I have pretty much been at a loss to describe it even to myself. Though our tradition did not emphasize certainty as a necessary component of belief, these days my relationship with the God I knew as a young person has been supplanted by a near-complete disorientation––to try to think about or articulate some aspect of it is like stepping onto a northern prairie with the snow blowing, the space around me flat as a piece of paper, or vast and empty of all variation, nothing to observe or hold on to, no guide. Strangely enough, the longer this feeling persists, the more I find a kind of peace in it. There’s a release in unknowing, in neither fighting to retain nor reject. Living in a state of spiritual bafflement, I find it all the more important to appreciate those things I do recognize as sacred: like the friendship in “Take Care, I Love You,” like a lake so big it feels like an ocean, like the Dreamers––brave young people often risking everything they know of home to nudge this country toward policies of compassion. Writing poems feels like way to witness and participate in what I suppose I would still call grace.
Nathan E. White
A certain vast, mystical magnanimity governs dramatic portraiture—no matter how difficult the rendering. Hitting a moving target requires a proper lead.
“Hi! Have you heard of Rock & Sling?”
This is the inane question I started with as I stood at our booth, a sweaty and tired traveling saleswoman. I was posing. I’m a writer; what do I know about making money? During my initial shifts, I gave a practical spiel about Rock & Sling niche to any victim who made eye contact. Oh, there is the head nod of thinly veiled boredom and drifting eyes. There is the inching away, there are the vapid agreements. At first I told them too much all at once, desperate for them to validate my position behind the table by buying something. Despite my enthusiasm, sales were low.
I lost steam. I am relational at heart, so all of my efficient sales techniques turned into conversations about something else. One lady with an accent stopped by and asked if we accept submissions for bilingual work. I gave a noncommittal answer to hide my ignorance and probed the topic to find out more. She was from Greece and wrote her work in two languages. I was fascinated. She told me that, though she is in America, her heart is still “over there.” I responded with sympathy. It must be hard to be so far away from home. She asked which free back-issue she should take, and I described a couple of them, ending with the one I personally liked best. She gave me a big smile and took that one, saying, “We’ll go with your favorite.” I smiled, pleased, and she departed.
A man with a stroller came by and shook hands with me. He introduced himself as Kevin Goodan, a skilled poet whom we had published in the most recent issue. His son was sleeping, for which Kevin seemed grateful, so we spoke in low voices. I was surprised at how kind he was. I was relieved that such a good writer might also be a good person. I saw him again later with his wife. This time their son was wide awake and squirming endlessly. Thom came by and we stood around our booth talking, blocking any potential customers and having a great time.
Once while I was standing in the aisle in front of the booth, a girl was walking past aimlessly. Acting on impulse, I caught her eye and greeted her. I asked her if she had heard of us as an excuse to talk to her. When I explained what Rock & Sling was about, she seemed shocked and pleased. She told me she has a really strong faith that feels out of place at her public university. I, too, was surprised, and we talked about faith and the tension she lives in. She was ecstatic to find a literary journal committed to conversations born of that tension. She took some swag and bought a copy of our new issue without a second thought. (My only sales were unintentional.)
She then said with confidence that she wanted me to participate in something. Curious, I watched as she pulled a thin, rectangular black box from her bag. She told me how a group of people used to draw authors’ blood samples in order to preserve their essence. I felt the bottom of my stomach drop out. Here, I had been thinking how cool this girl was and how I would like to get to know her better, and now she pulls out a sinister container full of author blood? She was probably part of some adoring writer cult and thought AWP was the best place to practice her outdated and slightly vampiric passion. I felt myself involuntarily inch away.
She laughed and explained that her and her collaborators liked the idea, but instead of collecting blood, they wanted to collect words. She undid the clasp and opened the box. No test tubes. I was relieved. Instead, there were orderly rows of microscope slides. She handed me one, along with a permanent marker, and requested a word. I thought about it for a minute, wrote my word, and handed it back. She had me sign my name on a corresponding sheet of paper, and we parted on good terms.
As she walked away, I wondered how long that word would be preserved. Money is one thing; it comes and it goes. On the other hand, words might be eternal.
The panels were formed by, to a poor measly undergrad, the greatest professionals in their field. I didn’t always agree with what they said or how they approached any given topic, but I quickly learned that I was at the bottom of the food chain and that any qualms I had probably would not hold. Once, a fellow youth spoke up during a panel and, quite frankly, sounded ignorant and inexperienced. The panel answered his question very nicely, and then they asked him to come and talk afterwards, the topic not being fitting for the entire group.
On a panel on teaching “setting the scene”, the professor speaking made a joke at the expense of undergrad writing, noting how any story written will probably take place at a dorm room or a local eatery, it would be about relationships or parties. The entire room laughed, knowing what he meant. While I agreed with their statements and gave a small chuckle, having read several terrible pieces myself, I was slightly affronted. I never wrote a story about libraries or a fight with my roommate. Why was I being lumped with the beginning writers? What I realized was the professor never meant to offend me; I was not the target audience. The other professors, writers, or MFA students were.
I am a senior at a small school in a small city. I am about to graduate and conquer the world or something to that extent. I do not want to be like the cocky student from Michigan. I hope to enter the official adult world with a bit more dignity and humility than that. I liked being at the bottom. I liked looking at the thousands and thousands of people who share my interests, and are way smarter than me, and seeing that I can grow to become something like them. I am a young writer, but it’s nice to know that I have a lot ahead of me.
I went to a panel called “Magic and the Intellect” where Lucy Corin, Rikki Ducornet, Kate Bernheimer, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, and Anna Joy Springer talked about pushing boundaries in literature, and using magic as a tool to push those boundaries. Lucy Corin opened up the panel reading an unpublished piece, with a title that I cannot recall. The premise of the piece was that a woman had tried to commit suicide by taking pharmaceuticals, and her father was trying to keep her awake by telling her dead baby jokes. It was interesting how the crowd reacted at the beginning of the piece. There was uncomfortable laughing at first, then less laughter, then mostly cringing. Before the end of the piece an audience member stood up and yelled at Corin, interrupting her and telling her that the story was disgusting. I agree, the dead baby jokes were disgusting. This visceral reaction just proved that what Corin had written was well-crafted, and the other attendees and panelists leapt to Corin’s defense and said as much. I do not like dead baby jokes. I can take one or two before I try and change the subject. Corin’s piece made me squirm, and feel dark and dirty. At the end of the piece, I felt real grief for what the father was going through. Corin seemed to be wrestling with grief, and how it may not be pretty, and can stir up ugly emotions and reactions. Grief and loss is rich territory to explore, and Corin did so in a very real, very raw, and very uncomfortable way, and I have to commend her for that. As she finished the piece, my feeling of distress from the jokes dissolved into a defeated sadness for the father.
This is what writing can do. This panel was fantastic in showing how the envelope can be pushed. Writing as a medium can put all of these uncomfortable and hard to describe feelings into a story that acts on your gut. Writing should challenge the audience to feel wonder, or hurt, or disgust. I met a number of very interesting people, and saw very talented Christian writers tackling similarly difficult issues, particularly at the Wordfarm, Rock & Sling, and Ruminate reading and reception. One piece told the story of a garden that was torn up because of a woman who could only believe the worst of her neighbor. A poem that was read discusses the strangeness of marriage, and how special that is. As a writer, there is an obligation to tell a truth that others can engage with. AWP provided a place for these pieces to inform one another, and challenge writers to engage with these same questions on their own. I left A.W.P. knowing that if you wrestle with these questions, there is a greater community doing the same thing in their writing. I feel challenged to tell a story where someone will yell at me, or even better, write their own story in response.
Over the last year, I began seriously practicing literary translation, which, funny enough, came about from a random conversation during last year’s conference in Boston. However, it seemed to me that 2014 Seattle, my third year at AWP, was the year of translation. There was hardly a time slot that did not offer a panel or reading focused on the subject. The panels, readings, and book fair were a valuable resource for practical knowledge, advice, and opportunities to network or submit works of translation. More importantly, this year’s conference acted as a sounding board for my current and forthcoming translation projects as I spoke with novice and experienced practitioners.
One element that stood out to me in conversations in and outside of panels was the question of faithfulness. At what point does attempting to produce a translation faithful to the original work stand at odds with art and creativity? Is it more faithful to capture the spirit and beauty of language used by author rather than producing an accurate, yet stilted copy of the original in the target language? Some panelists proposed more liberty and creativity in translation, while others challenged translators to understand and respect the linguistic implications of the original text while stretching and morphing the capabilities of the target language.
For me, AWP 2014 offered a place of exploration and growth in my studies and future vocation that was not as easily accessible to me during my undergraduate studies. It’s not surprising to me that there are not many MFA programs that offer translation. Within the American literary community, translation is seen is as the awkward stepchild let in based on loose familial bonds. To some writers and poets, translation may seem derivative and uncreative. But I agree with panelist and international translator Elizabeth Harris’s assessment that “Translation is pure writing.” That is, it is writing freed from the normal conventions of writing. With translating fiction, a translator does not have to worry about creating a plot and characters, but must understand the author’s work so well that the word choices, syntax, and minute phrasings in the new language read as if they had been written in that language. With poetry, the lines and diction should read with the same care as if the translator were the poet who originally produced and slaved over every single phrase and punctuation. It was these types of conversations and others during the week at AWP that have affirmed my belief in the value and need for translation within the literary community.
Well, I’m back from the most English major-oriented adventure I’ve ever experienced. I survived, thrived even. I got thirty free literary journals. I got fifteen stickers to put on my Nalgene. I got thirty pounds of buttons. I don’t know what to do with the buttons. But to summarize my experience, here are five things I observed.
1. The smaller literary journals had the neatest tables, and were the most willing to talk about their journal. Cave Wall shared their journal, and asked about Rock & Sling. Willow Springs gave away many back issues for free, and were eager to talk about what they were excited about in their current issue. Several of the other tables I visited ended up coming to visit our table later on. There was a sense of respect and appreciation between the smaller journals, instead of a competitiveness that I was expecting.
2. Cover art makes a significant difference in the world of lit journals. So many people stopped at the Rock & Sling table because the covers caught their eye, and then stayed and took time to read some of the work. I know I rushed past tables that had unappealing covers, though I knew that was no indication of the quality of work. The cover really is the first impression, and it is highly influential.
3. Some tables really thought outside of the individually-wrapped-chocolate-box Burnside Review handed out matches. Versal handed out insanely strange black licorice salt candies. Beloit gave away shortbread cookies and tangerines. Sugar House Review handed out saltwater taffy. Another table was handing out shots of whiskey. It worked. I was drawn in by the interesting provisions, and stayed for the top-notch journals.
4. Turns out, the writers that Rock & Sling publish are in fact real people. Several of the writers published in the latest issue came by to see their work in print, and introduce themselves. It was cool to put a face to a name, and to share how excited we were about their pieces.
5. On the emotional spectrum of people attending the conference, I noticed most people either looked desperately indifferent to the entire environment, or were giddy, expressive, and walking around with full tote bags and new literary t-shirts. I much preferred the spazzed enthusiasts, as I was one of them.
This was my first year attending AWP. I thoroughly enjoyed the readings and panels I went to, and I loved wandering around the bookfair to collect such books as Drawn to Marvel, Minor Arcana Press’s new anthology of superhero-inspired poetry. But the most memorable part of the conference was probably the various conversations I had with my fellow Rock & Sling staff. These ranged from in topic from the problematic characterization of Pa Kent’s character in the new Man of Steel movie to why we undergrads love our professors so much and how those relationships can change after graduation.
By far the best conversation occurred on Saturday evening, over dinner at The Veggie Grill. Karina Basso and Meredith Friesen had sat down in a crowded Starbucks that morning next to a woman named Marybeth who had given them instructions for getting to this place. So our group of seven women trooped down the few streets from the Convention Center and proceeded to discuss boys over drinks, dinner, and sweet potato fries (it was all surprisingly good considering how much of a vegetarian I am decidedly not). The conversation went something like this:
Alyssa Olds to Kaitlin Schmidt: “What, you haven’t heard that story already?”
(Cue chorus of groans from the rest of us as Kaitlin shakes her head.)
Alyssa: “So this guy. I was on the escalator on my way to a panel when the old guy next to me starts talking to me. Just a casual conversation. When I got off the escalator I forgot about it. Then later, this same guy comes up to me and says, ‘It’s you!’ Eventually he mentioned something from our earlier conversation, so I remembered who he was. So we talked – he introduced himself, invited me to some reading his program was having. Which, I guess isn’t that abnormal. I told him about our reading. When we were finishing our conversation he said, ‘Well, I have to go. Could I get your number? Maybe hit you up later?’ And I was like, ‘Um…no,’ and then I just walked away.
“When I got back to the Rock & Sling table I told Caroline, ‘Oh my gosh, this really old guy just totally hit on me and asked me for my number and I don’t think he knows that I’m twelve!’ And Caroline was like, ‘Is that how you see yourself?’”
This story, which most of us had already heard once or twice, spawned a whole conversation about strange interactions we’d all had with guys. Caitlin Wheeler talked about an awkward date in excess of four hours long that she’d had with a guy in our university coffee shop. Karina Basso told us the story of how she came to have a Canadian boyfriend. I talked about the good-friend-turned-criminal I’d had a crush on all through junior high and high school (until the criminal bit happened, of course…). As we separated for the night, some of us to a hostel and some of us back to the Convention Center to wait for the Sharon Olds and Jane Hirshfield reading, we all agreed we were glad it had been just us girls for that dinner.
by Stacy Keogh
I’m not much of a shopper. Mother worked in retail for most of my childhood and insisted I keep an eye out for trends and fashion, but I never really cared about wearing what was “in”. Okay I admit: I probably couldn’t pull off wearing the latest fashions anyway, but my disdain for shopping goes beyond the standard I-don’t-want-to-fight-mall-crowds rant. If I go into a mall in search of a black shirt, for example, I know what I’m in for.
It’s not the mall crowds I fear, it’s the variety of options. Am I looking for short sleeve or long sleeve? Cotton or polyester? Crew neck or V-neck? Then I have to find the right price. I can’t buy anything too expensive, because that would go against my personal principles of living simply and being mindful of more socially conscious ways of spending my money. But then, I can’t buy anything too cheap because I’d be back the next week buying a replacement due to a torn seam. Not to mention that a cheap shirt would probably have been made in a sweatshop somewhere in southeast Asia, so buying that shirt would go against everything I stand for as a sociologist.
For me, shopping is not about buying a shirt. Shopping becomes an introspective, existential crisis. So imagine my views about having to shop for something so much more meaningful, personal, something more eternal: Church shopping.
As much as I oppose assigning economic adjectives to all things spiritual, church shopping is essentially just that. It requires constant calculation and rational-choice thinking. What am I really looking for on Sunday morning? Or maybe Sunday night? Big congregation, or small congregation? Worship with a praise band, or through hymns and liturgy? Sermons focused on the interpretation of scripture, or topical studies? The list goes on.
At this point in my spiritual life, I can say I’m fairly sure I know what I’m looking for in a church, but that doesn’t make the decision to commit to a particular congregation less stressful. I have learned not to require life-giving, soul-quenching, earth-shattering services every Sunday morning. Rather, I have learned that church is more about being with a group of people who equally affirm and reaffirm our faith. It is the ultimate sense of belonging, belonging to something Sacred.
Indeed, the feeling of belonging in a church community is a sentiment that cannot be replicated in any other social institution that exists. (Believe me, I’ve looked). That is why making the plunge to commit to a community can be so stressful, so crucial to our spiritual lives. Belonging to a community is an identity. As opposed to making a commitment to buy a shirt, committing to a church is a two way street. Church becomes what we make of it. We find a way to serve the community, and are therefore served in return. Once we let ourselves experience the collective energy of others in the room as we worship our God together, it changes us, just as we change the church. And until we commit fully to giving ourselves to a community, we will not feel connected.
As I settle in to my new life in Spokane, I have realized that it doesn’t matter how many churches I try on or visit. If I am not feeling connected to a particular congregation, it may well be my own issue. I’ve made the mistake in the past of moving too soon from a church that’s a good fit. Community takes time, and learning to accept a congregation requires patience and grace. Grace to those preaching, ministering, and worshipping with us. As an educator, I know full well that it is difficult to have a flawless, awe-inspiriting lecture every class. I also know that despite my great efforts, I will not deeply impact each student at the conclusion of every course. But I do know that the students that put the most effort into the class tend to get the most out of it.
All this to say: Church shopping is, at the very least, a way to experience the variety of options for a spiritual-seeker. The good news is, if you keep searching for what you are looking for, there are enough options to prove that you likely will find a place that fits you. And God meets us there.
Stacy Keogh is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Whitworth University. Dr. Keogh is active in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and has been a member of a variety of religious communities including the Church of the Nazarene, Society of Friends, and Roman Catholicism. Her sociological training in religion inspired this post.
Church sign is from here.