Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Church Monogamy

Church - Lyle Lovett (mp3)
Once in a Lifetime - Talking Heads (mp3)

My church and I are like that married couple that met when they were in Kindergarten.

I've been a member of the same church since I was five years old. My step-father married my mom and adopted me. I took his name and began attending his church. I never had a say in it, nor did I really care to for a long time.

Over the years, we've had our tough stretches, our estrangements, times when we weren't talking or I would sleep on the couch. I guess that's bound to happen in an arranged marriage that goes back 30 years, right?

In my teenage years, I discovered that all my friends went to churches where actual groups of teenagers congregated and did cool stuff while I languished at a church where a heavy teenage population was, like, five kids.

This was my first revelation -- the first of many -- that my church was frumpy. She was terribly uncool. She had an outdated sense of fashion, the kind you could have just by shopping at TJ Maxx or something. She was Millie from Freaks + Geeks, the too-straight, too-uptight nerd who was already too old for their own good yet also totally clueless.

So yeah, I admit it. I snuck around on her. I visited a few other churches with friends, and I didn't tell her about it. But I wasn't unfaithful, really. It was more like I was sneaking out of my house late at night just 'cuz I wanted to see if I could get away with it, to see if I'd get caught.

I never did, but I never really left my church for long, either.

When I went to UNC, I ended up moving away from her for six years. I thought we broke up. Sure, when I was home for a holiday or something, I'd visit her, and she was all sweet and pinched my cheek and told me she missed me. And I'd hug her and tell her I missed her, too, even though my mind was far away from Chattanooga, a town most decidedly in my rearview mirror.

Problem was, I never got past a first date when I was away from her. I attended maybe a eight or nine services at a handful of churches in North Carolina and Georgia, but they were awkward blind dates, and nothing ever really connected for me.

When I found myself back in The 'Noog, my wife and I tried not to go back to my first and only church. We visited an Episcopal church, and a Methodist church, and maybe a couple of others. I even thought about becoming church celibate, something millions of American Christians have chosen rather than deal with the relationship hassles of a church. It would seem lots of folks seem to think church, while a nice girl with lots of promise, can be a pain in the ass and occasionally an insufferable bitch.

It wasn't long before my parents asked me to come back. They kept seeing my old church even after I'd broken up with her. It's tough to get away from someone when your parents keep bringing them around to visit.

I've been with her ever since. Conservatively, that's 28 years. But I've been a member there since I was five, and I've never so much as signed another church's visitor sheet, so it feels to me like I've been married to her for going on three decades now.

This isn't the part where I tell you I'm happily married to my church. You've got the wrong fairy tale.

This is the part where I tell you I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and wonder how the hell I got to this place. How have I spent almost three decades with a church that has failed and disappointed me time and again? Did I ever even love this place to begin with? Was it an arranged marriage orchestrated by my parents, and I just blindly and dutifully remained faithful?

Lately, I find myself driving past other churches and staring a little longer than I should. The adorable archways. The rugged steeples. Parking lots bigger than some malls. What would it be like to date one of these supermodel churches, or even one of those older more traditional ladies that's maybe like my church, but maybe not... Maybe that other one would love me more. Maybe that one would be more fun at parties, and maybe she'd make me breakfast on Sunday mornings and have Sunday School classes with more than eight people.

Am I in an abusive relationship but just don't know it, because it's the only relationship I've ever known? Has this church sucked away far more from than than it's given me? Would any other church have been any different? Is that, as the Rembrandts said in their lost-'90s hit said, just the way it is, baby?

These are the kinds of things Billy is contemplating as he enjoys a week in DisneyWorld with his family. Support your starving artists by purchasing some Lyle Lovett or Talking Heads or Rebekah on iTunes or at's mp3 site.


Maddy said...

I used to be very pious about the fact that I'd only had one church. The older I get the more I wonder am I missing something by noe having more religious experiences?

The Kentuckian said...

Sweet Billy - I love this post and am feeling a strange mix of guilt and envy about your relationship. As a cradle member of the same denomination in Kentucky (whose particular country church was founded by my family), I felt compelled to seek the blessing of my father on his death bed for my having joined the Episcopal Church in my adulthood. You, of course, understand all of this.

jed said...

is that Cumberland?

The Kentuckian said...

Jed - Yes, Billy's church is Cumberland.