Round Trip

The congregation rose and turned toward the pastor as he appeared in the doorway of the narthex. Their eyes followed his progress down the aisle behind a white robed acolyte bearing a mitered cross.

He’ll have us bowing to him next, I thought – refusing to turn toward him all the way – or even look at him. It seemed idolatrous enough to rise and follow the Bible’s path up the aisle for the reading of the Gospel. Why should I revere this man simply because he supposedly represents Christ? Did Christ ever presume such a place of honor or prance about in tasseled robes and stoles? I felt myself flush, and – ashamed that I had partly given in – I turned to face the altar.

Scruffy Reeboks emerged from below the acolyte’s robe as he reached to place the cross in its holder. Blue paraments draped the altar, lectern, and pulpit – matching the pastor’s stole. The organ played, "Veni, veni, Emmanuel."

First Sunday in Advent. The beginning of the church year. A time of waiting – waiting for the Savior’s birth. How can I wait for something that’s already happened?

"In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," the preacher intoned in his pretentious stained glass voice.

Purple candles adorned the special Advent holder, hymns had been chosen from the Advent section of the hymnal, choir and scripture readings all coordinated. No poinsettias allowed in the chancel until Advent is over, when blue paraments will be exchanged for red.

On and on it goes. Black for Good Friday. White for Easter. Green for Trinity. Ups and downs – risings and kneelings. Special spots to sign the cross. Pre-packaged prayers and praise. Another whole year of liturgical posturing. How did I ever get into this in the first place?

Scenes from my childhood passed across the picture tube flickering in my mind. A white clapboard church. Aunt Dorothy pumping out hymns on the organ. Mr. Jeske nodding in his pew – jerking awake with a loud snort. Mama and her cousin Lily giggling. Wade and his friends shooting spit wads from the balcony. Sunday School in the basement. The sickening smell of wet wool merging with the warmth from a roaring coal fire in the nearby pot-bellied stove. A nickel tied in the corner of my handkerchief for the offering. Daddy taking the collection or doling out boxes of candy to kids on Christmas Eve. Monthly suppers prepared by the Ladies Aid – when all the town turned out. A place where people came to worship God – not the book; revere the message – not the pastor; trust the facts – not the form.

"Hal – le – lu - - - jah!" sang the congregation, bringing me back to the present. An acolyte took up the cross – another the Bible – and followed by the preacher, they proceeded up the aisle for the reading of the Gospel. The congregation rose and turned toward them. My lips formed a strange grimace – half smile – half desperation.

This is it. The absolute last time I’m setting foot in this place. I feel like a robot – programmed by the church. The preacher’s demeanor set me off this morning – but there’s more to my revolt than rituals and rites. Haven’t I been struggling with my faith for a long time already?

Why else did I hesitate at Betty Jo’s luncheon when Miss "H" asked me, "Do you still believe in the divinity of Christ?" Oh how I had hedged – better than a politician. Why else did I spend all those hours reading uplift books – C. S. Lewis, Thomas Moore, Wheatherhead, Kelsey, Nouwen, Sanford, Watchman Nee, the Holy Bible, commentaries – on and on.

Even as a child I doubted that our church had the one true faith and all others were wrong – as I’d been taught. Going so far in my innocence as to ask God to show us, if and where we might be mistaken. Perhaps he’s trying to show me now.


Sometime later I had a dream. People partied in the next room of a large two-story house. Laughter and words clacked like cue balls in a game of pool. Alone in my empty chamber, I followed my own voice – searching every vacant corner – calling out my name. I heard something heavy fall. Echoes clattered on the outside stairs. Following the sound, I found a French horn case lying on a lakeside shore. I heard my voice calling above the gentle lap of waves. Afraid to look beyond the school of fish that lurked below the surface – afraid to find a body floating there – I turned into the cellared darkness beneath the stilted house – calling my name. The soil was dark and dank, lit by the reflection of a black and white-faced skeleton watching from a corner with an evil grin.


A quiver went up my spine like a tremor deep inside the earth and woke me.

Am I really dead: a spiritual skeleton? I do all the right things. Attend services regularly, teach Vacation Bible School, help in the office, serve as chairman of the women’s group. Is that just a veneer – the white side painted on? There used to be a saying, "Please God – on the morrow we’ll do such and such." I seem to have it turned around – do such and such and please God.

Like a soup bone simmering in a crock-pot, I had become immersed in religion. The church was everything to me – flavoring every aspect of my life: choice of mate, child rearing, education, relationships, use of time.

"Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?" says Oscar Wilde. Perhaps it’s time I try. Get away from the noise of the church’s liturgical party. Go into the cellar of my sub-conscious – like my dream suggested and find out who I am. Why I do the things I do. What I believe. What it is I’m objecting to. God or the church? Did the church set me on the wrong track or was it my own failing? And creeping in along the edges came my old doubt – is there really such a thing as God? Lots of fish to chew on.

My revolt began in earnest. I got out more books and – curled in a cozy corner of my den – I began to read and review: Morton Kelsey, John A. Sanford, Henri J.M. Nouwen, C. S. Lewis, Helmut Thielicke, Thomas Moore, J. B. Phillips, Watchman Nee, S. Kierkegaarde, the Holy Bible, Alleman’s Commentaries, and others.

The church I belonged to is a confessional church, which means adherence to its doctrinal statements such as the real presence of Christ in the blood and wine of communion, the administrative set-up according to the Office of the Keys, inerrancy of scripture, the acceptance of the Augsburg Confessions, Creeds, and the divinity of Christ. As a teenager, before I could make my confession of belief and acceptance of their doctrine, I was obliged to study Luther’s Small Catechism where tenets are taught through questions and answers. Answers are accompanied by Bible verses aimed at proving the statement inferred in the answer. In a dissertation called, "The Sword of the Spirit," Paul G. Bretscher points out that the very catechism I had built my life on was simply a product of my church. Other than Luther, in reference to the main parts, no name is given as to who compiled the questions or answers. By what or whose authority were these issues presented? Was it another case of men searching the Bible for a text to prove a point already decided on? A sort of "So there" approach – the Bible has all the answers – "So there." My reading also revealed that our creeds and the doctrine of the Trinity – created three hundred years after Christ’s presence on earth – are products of men’s interpretations and majority vote – leaving others’ ideas by the wayside. What were those other insights? Could they have been closer to Christ than what we ended up with?

The church taught these tenets as though they came from the mouth of God. As a trusting innocent, I thought anything they said was right. They did nothing to impress on us or even hint that these interpretations were man’s – not necessarily God’s or Christ’s. It is commonly noted that the devil himself uses scripture to support his ideas. What else does the church teach as Gospel? Did God really imply that "church work" was superior to other professions as I was led to believe? Are the doctrinal statements listed above man-made, too? Is the organized church nothing but a man-made structure?

Watchman Nee says, "He desires not our work but ourselves." Not doing for God, but being for God. Not good deeds laid on the altar, but ourselves – a continuous living sacrifice. Did God use my failure with the Spacey project to show me that I’d been "doing" for him – not "being" for him? Something was wrong – more basic than my feelings about the rites and liturgy.

In the parable of the rich young man, Jesus told him there is still one thing you lack. Sell all that you own, and "come follow me." Perhaps the "riches" that I possess are the heritage of my church – the fellowship, lovely music, people’s good thoughts about me. Church has become a show – a religious drama. Sometimes we even clap. Are these what hold me here?

Looking back it seemed that the church set up its own agenda and told us this is how to work for God and his Kingdom – stressing their interpretation of right and wrong with minute details – much like the Old Testament law that said it was a sin to eat an egg the chicken had laid on the Sabbath. It led us to Jesus’ words – "deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me," then proceeded to specify how to do that, spewing out rules to a general membership like a fire hose baptism to a crowd in the church parking lot. Tiles in the game of Scrabble, Christ and his teachings were trapped on a game board, never getting beyond the squares moved about by man. I tried to walk on the narrow path that leads to God, but instead of being free to reach out to those by the wayside – to swing my arms, sing, hear the birds, smell the grass, hear it sing – I was shackled to the church and its agenda. Was it fear that kept me there?

And so I did the unthinkable. I dropped my membership and read on. "Lead me Lord, to know you as you are – not as men teach," became my constant prayer. I visited other churches, trying to determine if it was just my brand of Christianity that I objected to or if it was Christianity in general. Images of the delicate, ancient Biblical scrolls I had seen in London’s Tate Museum returned, pointing to the precariousness of the doctrine of inerrancy. The more I read the Gospels, the more I questioned Christian dogma. Is the Bible literally true or are many of its teachings metaphorical? Is Jesus really God? If so, why did he always refer to himself as God’s son? Did Jesus actually rise bodily from the grave – or did God raise him to his throne in spirit? Is heaven an actual place? Do we really need it? Is hell real? Is God real? If so, what is he really like? I read on.

And then I was introduced to Bishop Spong and his writings: "Why Christianity Must Change Or Die," "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism," and "Born of a Woman," which speak directly to these questions. Answers – with an in-depth twist. For weeks I was tormented – desperate to know which interpretation was "right." It was a time of darkness – what Buddhist, Pema Chodron, describes in her book, "When Things Fall Apart." She says, "When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell."

Marcus J. Borg puts it this way: "… the Christian life moves beyond believing in God to being in relationship to God." ("Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time"). To the scribes and Pharisees and people of Jesus’ time, a relationship with God was accomplished through an outer adherence to the Law. But God is a spirit and we need to worship him in spirit. Jesus is quoted as saying "the Kingdom of God is within you," (Luke17:21 KJV). Not a place we’ll reach some day, or a structure built of creeds and dogmas, but an inner reality available, here and now, to each as individuals.

Spong’s argument for the demise of the theistic – Father image – God, who metes out blessings, left me looking back on the God experience of my life. One in which, in spite of wrong interpretations and turns, I felt he had been there and helped me. Not because of what I’d done or not done, but because I had trusted him, took him up on his invitation to ask, and received abundant life. I had begged God for true faith and suddenly realized I’d had it all along.

But as Chodron says, "The spiritual journey involves going beyond hope and fear, stepping into the unknown territory, continually moving forward." When I left South Dakota as a girl, I was just at the age when I was becoming aware of my faith. Instead of moving forward I got stuck in the grips of fear – fear of never doing enough for the Kingdom of God, never being good enough, never being right. It was like I lived my life in a specific room in the mansion of this world. The walls were the fixed limits of doctrinal interpretation. Everything I did was sounded off those boards. Within the room I had access to God’s throne and he responded to me in that constricted area, but I began to feel trapped and deadened. Jesus’ message was for all people. The Kingdom of God is bigger than a man made organization called The Church. It is a place within, ever growing and expanding as each day brings its own opportunities or limits. I still don’t understand all the mysteries that surround God and Christ. But are we really meant to? Don’t we want to know too much? Wasn’t that the sin of Eve – wanting to know?

And so I went back into my garden. I watched the cardinals flange the hedgerow red. Heard their early morning-glory toll to rise. Listened to the wind play its backyard symphony: hissing through the screens, tap-tapping a loose board, sizzling the leaves in lulls and loud crescendos. I heard the squirrels and grackles quarreling on the wires. Watched shadows from the screen play Tic Tac Toe upon the grass. Ripples from the pool flitted across in a surrealist vision like a steady stream of smoke from nowhere. Dead fern fronds fell into the pool and activated movement. I felt their writhing, roiling undulations and floated in a limbo of unrestrained regress, back to that cherished girl in a small Dakota town who was unable to believe that her church was the only one that’s right. A round trip back to a simple trust in God’s inclusive love.

Cherise Wyneken