By the time my father announced he would be retiring after forty-two years of ministry, his presence—perhaps even more than God’s—was wrapped up in the meaning of church for me. Except for visits home, I hadn’t gone to church for the past ten years I’d lived hundreds of miles away. By the time I moved back to Memphis and began attending church every Sunday for my father’s last year as a minister, I couldn’t imagine seeing someone else in the pulpit, or taking communion from someone else’s hands.
Throughout my childhood, my father was at my side for every week day, ushering me through the day’s hours—waking me up in the morning, driving me to school and picking me up in the afternoon, taking me to gymnastics or soccer practice, tucking me into bed each night and reciting with me the prayers I knew by heart. But on Sunday mornings, our paths abruptly diverged: my father left the house before I woke, alone, and dragged myself from bed. My mother and I got ready, walked or drove to church together, and by the time I saw my father, standing in the doorway to the sanctuary, he’d been fully transformed into a pastor: black robes, long stole, a Bible and his sermon tucked under his elbow.
It should not surprise me, now, that my father seems so inseparable from the ritual of worship itself. But in the last year I’ve spent going to church, I’ve felt the rhythm of ritual becoming more persistent, insistent somehow, in my body, in my own burgeoning understanding of what faith might look like without my dad standing at the threshold and welcoming me inside.
Lately, when I try to explain this year in my father’s church, I hear myself describing the ritual of worship in the negative: church is not faith itself, but an expression of that impulse; worship is not individual belief but is its communal, embodied interpretation, an outward translation of an internal, inward posture leaning toward God. And ritual, ultimately, is the form faith takes when other forms falter: “Liturgy,” I heard a pastor say as I snuck out of a packed funeral, “is what we do when we don’t know what to do.”
My father has always served small churches—the largest Sundays maybe see a hundred folks in the pews, and the meager Sundays see barely twenty. Five years ago, on our first Sunday at what would be his last church, I noticed a wooden marker hanging on the wall, where the previous Sunday’s offering amount and headcount were announced for all to see. By the second Sunday, it was gone, stashed away somewhere in my father’s office. The nature of tiny churches, in his experience, is that they just get tinier, and no accounting of nickels or noses will help.
After growing up in an evangelical mega-church in Kentucky, my husband prefers not to go to worship, but if he had to, he’d choose the mysticism of high church. After years of praise bands and dunk-tank baptisms, he wants clouds of incense; darkened, gilded rooms; a language he can’t understand. He wants to be as bewildered as possible. Sometimes, I think this seems like trying to encounter God through a game of spiritual pin the tail on the donkey: we blindfold ourselves, spin ourselves silly, and in the dizziness and new-found light we hope our hand lands on God, on all we cannot see through the blur.
But I understand—and share—the impulse. The few times I’ve found myself in Catholic or Greek Orthodox services over the years, the sheer disorientation pushes me to some new place, some inward openness I don’t always feel in the midst of the Methodist services I know so well. The physicality itself—the kneeling, the genuflecting, the bowing—is jarring to anyone accustomed to only two postures of worship: sitting and standing.
Growing up in a series of dwindling congregations, what seems truly miraculous is that we make it through worship at all. I have seen a ponytailed man tied to a cross, stigmata drawn on his palms with lipstick. I have seen a baby cow, rented for an Easter petting zoo, running at full-tilt through the church lawn, leaving a trail of smashed Easter eggs in her wake. Each Sunday, as the piano player bungles the notes, the soloist misses her cue, the acolyte nearly sets his polyester robe on fire, or the wrong lyrics appear projected on the screen and we all fall silent mid-song—it seems we get through worship by the skin of our teeth.
As the service draws to a close, I half expect everyone in the room to let out a relieved sigh and look around the room, blinking in amazement: we made it, somehow, before God sent some new plague our way; best to leave before he changes his mind.
The forty-five-minute drive to my father’s church seems to get longer every Sunday: first on the interstate and then a series of county highways as the city gives way to gently rolling farmland and the occasional ranch house, subdivision, or strip mall. When I consider the hours I’ve spent driving to and from this church, a tiny white brick structure perched on a hill, I wonder if it was naïve of me to think I could learn anything more, in this one year, than I have in the past thirty years as my father’s daughter. Where my years of ambivalence and doubt once seemed benign enough to live with, to even ignore, I find my lack of faith—or my inability to articulate what lingering faith I might still feel—accompanies me on the long drive like an open wound, raw and stinging.
When I first started attending church again, I found myself crying at some point during every service. It could happen any time: at the start of worship, when my dad stands in the hallway ringing a hand bell, the signal for us all to settle into our pews; or at the start of a hymn I have not heard in church for years but find myself humming even now; or when my father baptizes a baby and asks us all to promise we will “nurture one another in the Christian faith and life.”
Over the course of this year of crying in church, I have felt some small shifts: at first, whenever I found myself red-cheeked, overwhelmed by a sudden rush of emotion, it was for how far I felt from faith. And now, as my father’s last year winds down to a close, I find myself struck by how close my father and his church have brought me to faith, how utterly within reach. It’s my own self I run up against—not the absence of God but the absence of my own will or conviction or humility—some word I don’t know how to name, whatever it would take to claim the God I’ve spent long years longing for.
After this year in church, I want to be able to offer up some results, some proof of the value of this experiment. I feel an anxious desire to articulate some statement of faith, even though I know these articulations—the creeds, the memorized prayers, the affirmations recited in unison—are exactly the moments when, in church, I sense some part of myself slipping away.
But when I settle onto the pews and hear my father’s invitation to prepare our hearts and minds for worship, I feel aware of some new kind of faith, carried in my body, whose rhythms I know without thinking, without language, almost without prompting. It might be wholly different from any kind of faith I could try to describe or explain. But I don’t really know, myself, precisely because whatever it is, it’s not articulated—only practiced, embodied as a form of muscle memory that might not be expressible in any other ways. I feel it gathering at the backs of my knees just before I stand for the gospel reading, or in the rush of nerves spreading through my chest and the base of my throat in the moments just before passing the peace, or in my slowed breathing as I bow my head for prayer.
At times church is so familiar it’s hard to see it. I arrive already in the rhythm of things, half-glazed over, moving through a world of familiarity and repetition. Other times, I’m struck by the sheer strangeness of it. I check the bulletin every few minutes to figure out where we are in the order of things, what we will do next. One night, dad and I are running errands when a woman in his congregation who is suffering from cancer asks him to visit her at home. She’s been sleeping all day, waking up around five or six in the evening and staying up, wired and alone, all night. We swing by the church where he hands me a small wooden box and asks me to help clean it while he gets ready. I take it to the kitchen and open it to find it’s a communion to-go kit, its insides encased in red velveteen and holding a small rubber bottle, its insides stained light purple from years of grape juice, and two small containers to hold hunks of bread. I scrub each container and wipe them dry, feeling the shock of some small, new thing I hadn’t known existed, this carry-on case ensuring God makes it wherever God needs to go.
A couple weeks ago, my father got a text from a member of his congregation: “I guess this is your last Easter Sunday.” My father texted back: “Do you know something I don’t?!” Retirement is not death, but it feels right to grieve the end of his ministry and the unknown looming beyond it, now only a handful of Sundays away. On that last Easter morning, before communion, my father reminds his congregation that this ritual has no prerequisites: “You don’t have to be perfect,” he says, “You don’t even have to be faithful. You just have to come trusting that God’s going to use what we do here for our own good.”
He instructs us to come forward holding our hands cupped in front of us; the communion bread will be placed in our hands as a reminder than we can’t take sustenance from God—it can only be given. This seems to describe something about the way faith arrives, if it ever does: as something that cannot be achieved, only received. There is no earning it, but you can keep your hands open.
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Written by: Martha Park
Martha Park is a writer and illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from The Rumpus, Granta, Ecotone Magazine, Image Journal, the Atlantic’s CityLab, and elsewhere. She was the Spring 2016 Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, and holds an MFA from Hollins University’s Jackson Center for Creative Writing.