Bitter

Bats fluttered above the amphitheater.

The two dark figures rose and wheeled, dipping in and out of the trees in the dying light–so close I could almost see their faces as I tipped my own toward the sky.

I stood among hundreds of my classmates. Feeling alone in the crowd, I fought the unidentified emotion tugging at the back of my throat as I sang.

Every word uttered with the music translated to a repeated, burning question.

            Why, God? Why do I feel this way?

Because it was still just the Saturday before school started and I was already overwhelmed. Disillusioned. Angry.

I had little to no interest in meeting new people, of “putting myself out there,” of participating and pressuring myself to go along with everything because I’d be hiding in my room otherwise. But it hadn’t really mattered during the summer, because I spent half of it in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona, and the other half on a relatively deserted campus crunching numbers.

But now, here were my peers, all showing up in excitement and enthusiasm, looking forward to a great year with their friends. Families had helped their loved ones move in. Couples strolled around campus with fingers interlaced. The air was filled with a stifling amount of high spirits and enthusiasm.

Not like I’m a grump and I hate that sort of thing, but it certainly felt a little sand-paper-esque to me.

I had grown accustomed to emptiness and moderate seclusion, partially from my summer exploits, and also because of the fact that the two-story house serving as my on-campus housing this year remained mostly inhabited for a good two weeks before anyone other than myself and my roommate moved in.

An altar call was issued that night in the amphitheater. The instructions were simple. We could make an origami fortuneteller with the provided paper and instructions we received upon arrival, and write inside it what we felt we needed to lay down. To let go.

I sat turbidly on a layer of concrete set in the grass, my back a little sore from standing and sitting upright for the duration of the sermon. I contemplating not having anything to do with the altar call. I wasn’t going to follow along with this. To let myself be inspired to press in, get closer. Again and again I have scoured my soul, searching for what’s wrong, taking everyone’s word as exactly what I needed in the moment I heard it. For years I have done this. Endless repetitions of playing along.

I know something specific is broken these days, but I’m still not sure what.

And I didn’t want to be taught to anymore. I didn’t want to hear a sermon and every single time agree wholeheartedly, to internalize and soul-search and aspire to follow the advice and figure out how I can apply what I heard like Christians typically do.

I wanted to leave as soon as the music stopped, but out of courtesy and an aversion to attracting attention to myself, I stayed through the message.

And when it came time to perform the altar call, I scowled inside, reached over, and grabbed one of the crayons provided. If I couldn’t think of anything, I wouldn’t write anything, simple as that. I wanted to be honest with myself, so I would be honest. Even if it felt like succumbing to a game.

Three words came to mind. Three words I had hoped weren’t actually the things plaguing my aching soul. But they came to mind, so I gruffly shoved my pride behind me. Broodingly, I picked apart the fortuneteller until I found its center, and wrote them down:

 

Bitterness

Cynicism

Fear

 

I’ve been justifying bitter feelings for quite a while. I just never pictured myself as a bitter person, and I loathed to think that I was capable of bitterness. Or that cynicism could truly start to turn dangerous. And fear—that’s always there, isn’t it? Just when I think I’m doing relatively well, fear seeps up through the floorboards like acid.

So those words have appeared, but I still don’t quite know what’s broken. I don’t understand why certain things that shouldn’t hurt still elicit a sharp stab when I encounter them. Why I still feel alone when I know I’m not. Why I run.

But since that night, though I’ve been frustrated, fatigued, and angry over the course of the first week of classes, though I still feel the chronic stabs, while I’m surrounded by droves of new faces, I feel something’s changed.

Not sure what that is, either. Perhaps I’ll never know, but for some reason I’m coming back.

Tentatively, warily, I’m coming back.

Church Musicians’ Kid

The service was starting. Piano music melded with the organ, whose sound issued from the ranks of pipes at the back of the sanctuary above the entrance.

On the far right side of the room, a group of pews crowded behind the organ. The organist’s fingers bounced along the double rows of keys and her shoeless feet danced over the pedals below. On the pew closest to her, I sat with my two sisters, occupying myself in as well-behaved of a manner as I could muster. Sometimes I had something to color. Sometimes I flipped through the hymnal. Sometimes I just sat there in excruciating boredom.

We would wait through part of the service until children’s time, when all the kids went up on stage for a short lesson from the pastor. After that, we headed back down through the sanctuary, out the double doors, and down the green carpeted hallway to the sunday school rooms in the back of the church. When the service had ended, the kids would return to the sanctuary to find their parents. My sisters and I would wait for the postlude music to end before rejoining ours.

My dad was the pianist, my mom the organist. My parents have always been musicians, and my sisters and I have attended the Sunday services of the churches where they worked for as long as I can remember.

For this reason, whenever I’m asked to identify my specific denomination, I am uncertain how to reply in a concise manner.

I grew up in the Methodist church, but my family is not Methodist. I went to a Lutheran church for a while, but I am not Lutheran either. I went to a private Christian school for the majority of my childhood, which I believe was Pentecostal or nondenominational. I never found out for sure, and though I identified myself with them for a while, I don’t anymore.

My parents worked at the same Methodist church for a good portion of my childhood before deciding it was time to leave. When we had finally said all our goodbyes, I thought we could be regular church-goers for once. But it wasn’t even a year before my parents were called to yet another Methodist church in a nearby town.

Ten years later, my family is still very much integrated into this church. My dad is the pianist and the choir director, my mom is the part-time organist and head of the Sunday school. My older sister is in charge of the nursery, and I lead praise and worship with the kids, as well as a small group for grades 5 and up. I go to that church every Sunday, but I still don’t consider myself a member. I followed my parents’ work there, and now I work there too. Don’t get me wrong, I care about the people, but I still don’t feel like it is my “home church,” per se. Sometimes I fear it will always be this way.

My last year of high school, I started attending an Assembly of God church with my friend, and over the summer I got recruited to lead worship. I almost felt I had found my niche, but I still couldn’t make that distinction without significant reservation. I still didn’t feel as comfortable there as I would have liked to. The next summer, I led worship again, but I wasn’t particularly excited when they had asked me.

I have come to realize that I always feel really awkward in church, like I’m being watched. I also somehow keep ending up on the praise team.

I wonder if this is a bit like pastor’s kid syndrome. I remember knowing full well my parents were important figures in the church. They were well-liked and well-respected. They still are. People love them, and they think well of my sisters and I by association, and I often feel pressured to be on my best behavior.

Because church has always been somewhere my parents worked, it just continues to feel that way for me. I enjoy playing worship music, but I somewhat dread being asked to lead worship at another church, because then I fall into my parents’ footsteps, like I am doomed to never have a “normal” experience. From the moment I agree to use my guitar for the greater good, I feel the pressure and obligation weighing on my shoulders.

I just want to go to church with no other purpose than going to church. Nothing special. Nothing extra.

Lately, I find I just want to slip unnoticed into the back of a sanctuary or auditorium, worship my heart out, consider the sermon, and slip out again. No questions asked. No conversations had. No offers made. I just want to come and leave without anything having been scheduled or arranged, or no performances made on my part.

I admire those people who have grown up in a certain church and who identify with all the people there, fit in well, and have a generally wonderful experience. I have always had trouble making connections in a church. No matter how warm or welcoming the congregation is, and no matter how much I appreciate it, I always end up feeling like an outsider barging in on a tight-knit group. I can pretend I’m a part, but I never really am, and when I  manage to get myself to a mid-week service, it’s because I have guilt-tripped myself into going. Good Christians go to church after all, don’t they?

At one point, I just got fed up with all the discomfort and self-coercion.

I still haven’t found a home church–and I’m tired of wanting one. Maybe I don’t need one, or I’m not thinking about it in the right way.

I believe the church is essential, and I know all the reasons for it in my head.

But for the time being, they’re just words.

For the time being, I’m waiting for them to mean something.