We went to church yesterday, which is not something we regularly do. Before my betrothal to Dr. Mom, I had probably only been to church a couple dozen times. My mom will protest and say she tried to get me to go when I was a kid; but really, I'm thankful that she didn't try harder. Somehow the religiosity gene from my mom's side of the family was overcome by the sleep-till-noon-on-Sunday gene on my dad's side. I felt like I needed the sleep more than the redemption.
My wife's family, on the other hand, have been hardcore Roman Catholics since the first Jesuits started knocking on doors in Hanoi about 400 years ago (although they still burn incense at ancestral altars when no one is looking). So in order to marry into this family, I had to go through a year of adult catechism, get baptized, and renounce Satan and all his works (I was all even the footnotes?) This was not negotiable.
Since the year of my conversion, we have gone to church faithfully on Easter, Christmas, and whenever the in-laws are around. We also went a number of times in the run-up to the baptism of our girls, so that we wouldn't be complete strangers to the priest when he performed the rites. One of the things I like about the Catholic faith is that, as far as I can tell, baptism is a "get out of hell free" card (as one of my evangelical cousins would disapprovingly say). Of course, the idea that we will be tormented for eternity if we choose the wrong religion--or no religion--strikes me as preposterous. And the implications even for the people who choose to practice the right religion in the right way--they'll go to heaven but most of their friends and family probably won't--are pretty sucky. But still, a little holy water never hurt anybody. Except vampires.
But yesterday we did not go to the Catholic church that we regularly attend every so often on a sporadic basis. We went to a Unitarian Universalist church. The welcome message on their website explains their M.O. as follows: "Together we explore the answers of humanity's wisdom traditions - not only from Jewish and Christian sources but also from the world's religions, from nature, from science, and from modern thought." No one longs for answers from the world's wisdom traditions more than I do, and the most pressing question that I wanted an answer for was, "Can we go ahead and jump the line to get our kids into your conveniently located, reasonably priced preschool?" Seriously--people get their kids on the list for this school while they are in utero. We are way behind the curve.
So that's the main reason we were there. And here are the five things I did while we celebrated the service, and that you too can do if you find yourself in a house of worship:
1) Scoff. As the words of the hymns appeared on the screen above the somewhat disheveled youth choir, I had a knee-jerk reaction to roll my eyes. The hymns were familiar Christian verses modified to eliminate any religious references. The purging of "God" and "Jesus" resulted inevitably in the overuse of terms like "compassion," "love," "spirit," "life force," "tolerance," etc.
2) Gawk. This was not the same crowd that we would see in the Catholic Church (at whom I still gawk, but for different reasons). The UU congregation comprised mostly older folks. Like my age and up. There were very few small children, but a good number of eclectically dressed teens whom I probably would have been friends with as a kid (as long as they didn't go spouting off about spiritual healing and social justice). I know it's not completely accurate or fair to judge people by their haircuts, but I would guess that a good 30% of the pews were populated by lesbians. The church being in the heart of Fiercetown, this didn't surprise me. But where are all the gay men? I wondered. It turns out they were at brunch having mimosas.
3) Recoil. This was another visceral reaction that I was not expecting. When everyone enthusiastically recited the Unitarian Universalist creed (specific to this congregation, I think, because UU'ers are dogmatically opposed to dogma) while throwing the "UU" gang sign and smiling broadly, I found myself looking for the nearest exit. I think this panic was due to my having overheard a conversation between students one time in which the Baptist student was trying to get his classmate to join him at church. The classmate said, "Sure, I'll go to church with you. I'm open to anything. I even went to one of those Unitarian churches once. But it was weird--seemed kind of like a cult." CULT...Cult...cult...cult. The word echoed through my skull and set off a montage of scenes from afterschool specials I had seen in the eighties.
4) Judge. This is something you can do anywhere, not just in church! Just look at someone you suspect is not pure of heart and say to yourself, "Phhht. Hypocrite."
5) Repent. Toward the end of the service, I started chastising myself for being so cynical. After all, there was nothing anyone said from the pulpit that I didn't agree with, which is more than I can say about any other service I have been to. So why was I turning into Glenn Beck when I heard these values proclaimed joyously and publicly? And why do a couple of innocuous symbols seem cultish to me while the ritualistic rigamarole of Catholic mass doesn't even faze me anymore? I'm going to take a tour of the preschool soon and get a better idea of what goes on there; but insofar as it's possible to indoctrinate toddlers, I think these are the people I want doing it. And I will try to work on my squeamishness around earnest, sincere people.