...Now, I had a great-aunt who faithfully attended church. She wore the dresses, carried the book, knew the songs. She was there on Sunday mornings, for class and services, Sunday nights, more than one night throughout the week. Heck, she went to more than one church! Every week! And by the time I hit middle school, I earned permission to start going with her.
As long as I took "a couple of dollars" to "put in the basket." That's what my mom said. I didn't get it. But I did it. I understood that I could go to church as long as I could afford to go to church.
We went to a small Wesleyan church out in the country. (Are you keeping track of this? Lutheran...United Methodist...now Wesleyan.) Total membership in this place was, at the time, about 12. They've since cut that number in half, at my last visit for a project in college. They may have closed by now. But they had a children's Sunday School program in the basement, which consisted of me sitting in a dim room with the pastor's wife while she talked about God knows what. God knew what, but I didn't. I did not understand that lady, though I was trying hard to grasp all these stories she was telling.
And yes, I was the only kid in the Sunday School class. I was the only kid in the building unless someone's grandchildren happened to be visiting, which was almost never.
In the main service, we sang songs with a piano and an organ. They quickly made me part of the music ministry because I could play the piano. And the drums. This little rinky-dink church in the middle of small country Indiana with a membership of 12, of whom the youngest member was probably 60, wanted to add a drum set to their worship. So I drummed for them for the year or so I faithfully attended.
The preaching was Bible-based, or at least I assume so by the number of times the preacher held the Bible in the air and raised his voice about this or that. It was the kind of passionate condemnation preaching you hear on television that makes you shudder. It was always boring. And worst of all, completely irrelevant to both my questioning heart and my middle school attention span. If this is the God I'd been looking for, I didn't want to find Him. I kept going, hoping it would get better and feeling an unnatural sense of responsibility to the music ministry in that place. I joined the preacher and his wife on Tuesdays at the assisted living ward in the hospital to play music for the residents there. I was trying to get something out of this, but it just wasn't happening.
It wasn't too long, and yet far too long, before I came to the painful conclusion that, though my heart was still aching and longing for something more, this place was not worth $2 a week. I could still afford church, but at what cost?
During this time, my great-aunt also took me a couple of times to visit her other congregation - a holy-roller Pentecostal bunch in heavy suburban Indianapolis. The baptistry was basically a hot tub built into the floor. In the middle of the sanctuary. There were tons of rare instruments. Tons of people. Lots of dancing and hand-raising and shouting. I couldn't hear God for all the church going on in there, to be honest with you. I was highly uncomfortable. It was not at all what I was looking for.
As middle school pressed on, I made a few friends. Or, at least, made a place with a group of boys who allowed me to sit at their lunch table. One of the boys was in my advanced placement classes, and we frequently worked on projects together. We'd always end up in the craft room at his church, which also had that funky church smell. No cockroaches. Mice, but no cockroaches. (I'll take mice any day. And such is the hazard of a church in an open field.) And you know, for as often as we worked in that little classroom concocting our brilliant projects, I never once saw the sanctuary. I didn't see the holy room.
I met a handful of people. Welcoming people. Pleasant people. People who didn't know, or maybe didn't care, that I was not supposed to be in a church. That I wasn't good enough. That I wasn't righteous. That I didn't know their stories or their songs or their book. That I didn't know their God. That I wasn't holy. They were nice just the same. And his minister people? They came for lunch at the middle school and sat right at the table with us! Brought fast food and shared a meal. No preaching. No Hell. No condemnation. No qualification to sit at the table.
From both the boy and the minister people (a man and his wife, youth ministers), I had an open invitation, but no pressure, to join them for services. Even just a Wednesday night if that would be more comfortable for me. That's when the young people met. People. As in, more than one. As in, not just me in the basement with the pastor's wife. It took months for me to build up the courage to go, knowing how out of place I was in a place like that.
But dammit! I'd always been longing. And as relaxed as these people were about everything, and around me, and around the table...I convinced my heart that it was okay to want to go. A few months after that, I convinced my heart that it was okay to actually go.
Things were about to get awkward....