My friend and sister-in-law Cary lives in a swank little town in California’s Napa Valley. One summer afternoon she is sitting with me on the back deck in our not-so-swank Maine village. We are watching my kids jump into the pond. They are loud and goofy children, and always fun to watch. Suddenly she says, “One of the older ladies I play tennis with invited me to church.”
“Cool,” I say, groping under my chair for my iced tea.
“An Episcopal church.”
“Well, I can’t go,” she says, mildly exasperated, as though any fool could see why.
“Why not?” I ask, comfortably assuming the role.
“I don’t believe. I’m agnostic.”
“That’s what the lady said.” Cary pauses and shifts her chair toward me before delivering the zinger. “How can a church survive if it allows people like me to attend who don’t believe? Won’t it just eventually dissolve into a social club?”
Here’s my truest confession: I don’t think about the answers to these questions every day. I believe this stuff, try to live it, and generally let God take care of everything except those things that lay conspicuously before my path and, thereby, require my attention.
So here’s my sister-in-law, whom I have known for 20 years, who thinks of our faith as quaint and admirable. She’s not exactly lying in my path, but since she’s sitting on my deck and invited to stay for supper, I suspect I have to answer her. I quickly recite one of the writer Anne Lamont’s two best prayers, “Help me! Help me! Help me!” (The other is “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”)
“Well, think of it as though you’re at a wedding,” I begin. “There’s the head table with all the critical players. There are the immediate families. There are the extended families. There are the groom’s friends, the bride’s friends, their mutual friends. Then there are the parents’ friends. Then there are the neighbors. It’s like concentric circles of intimacy.” Help me here, Lord. I mean it.
“It’s the same with church. Just like it’s OK for a friend of a friend to be at a wedding, it’s OK for a person who is simply interested in faith to come to church. In every congregation, people are at every level of commitment and involvement. The bottom line is this: Who am I to say what the spirit of God is doing in anybody’s heart? Simply showing up for church, simply having an opening heart means that maybe you are in a position to be touched by grace and the spirit of God.”
“But what happens when everyone just shows up and doesn’t believe anymore,” Cary asks.
“Well, then it does fall apart. Just like if there weren’t a bride and groom at the wedding there would be no reason to have the party. When the very last soul in a congregation has ceased to be in deep communion with Jesus, then the party’s over. But that doesn’t happen very often.” I sigh. I’m not theologically trained, and this is as good as it gets.
But there’s no convincing Cary. So I give her Anne Lamont’s funny and genuine spiritual autobiography, “Traveling Mercies,” and ask her to read it.
I suspect that the church Cary was invited to is a wealthy, wine country parish. But they are God’s people. The spirit of God is present among them. I pray her tennis partner keeps inviting her whether or not even she, the tennis lady, truly believes.
Heidi Shott is the communications officer for the Diocese of Maine and editor of the diocesan newspaper, The Northeast.