There’s an adorable English mastiff I saw a few times in the yard adjacent to the Lutheran church a block from my house. There’s a living quarters on the premises, so I guessed that that the dog belonged to the pastor. One day an elderly gentleman in that yard asked me if my dog’s frantic barking at his dog was playful or otherwise, and I guessed that he was the pastor.

“I’m pretty sure it’s playful – it sounds playful – but he’s a rescue and he’s so big that I don’t want to risk it,” I yelled back across the street. When I got home after that walk, I went to my whiteboard to-do list and wrote, “Go to church/befriend pastor.”

So yesterday, that’s what I did. In addition to that particular ulterior motive, I’ve been wanting to go to a place of worship lately. I enjoy the sense of community and the singing, and generally, I find church services to be a good reminder to be a good person as often as possible.

It was a windy day in Chicago, so there wasn’t anyone standing outside to indicate which door might be best to walk through, so I went through the front door. Opening the heavy wooden door was a dramatic affair as it blew open violently, and the wind rushed in along with a hurried me trying to get out of the cold. The small group of greeters standing inside looked at me wide-eyed and one said, “Well hello!”

I said hello and grabbed a program and started to walk by them, when they stopped me saying, “Do we know you?”

“No, I don’t believe you do!” I said, and I turned around and shook each of their hands (all of them were super awkward about it, but sweet, so I stopped myself from making snide remarks).

I introduced myself to the pastor, and laid the groundwork with a reminder of who my dog was. He’s loud, and a doberman with a tail, so he stands out in a crowd. The pastor remembered him and me by proxy.

The inside of the church was beautiful. Ornate dark wood carvings lined the front of the church, and behind that was a colorful abstract stained glass window. The same type of glass dotted the walls alongside the pews. The carpets were a deep red. Overall, I’d describe the space as warm and cozy, even in spite of the high ceilings and ya know… the churchy vibe.

By the time the service started, I was the only one seated in the first 4 rows, and the back of the church was only sparsely populated. Since I hadn’t been to church in so long, kept turning around to check if people were standing or sitting at certain parts. For the most part, I enjoyed my time there. The song selection was a bit dated, and I know we all love us some organ music, but if I slept less the night before before, the tempo would have lulled me to sleep.

The takeaway from the sermon was that we should more mindfully dole out small measurements of love to improve the relationships in our lives. Jesus said in Luke 6, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

To the children, it was put in terms of baking cookies, and the pastor handed out chocolate chip cookie mix packets to the children at the front of the church. My favorite part of the whole service was the audibly whispered, “YESS!” from one of the parents behind me.

After the service, I glad-handed downstairs between bites of homemade banana bread and sips of coffee. I put four boxes of Girl Scout Cookies on hold in the school office (I was supposed to go get them today, but my check didn’t go through, so I’ll go get them tomorrow – it’s only a block away after all). I walked back into the cold grayness of the outdoors with a smile on my face.

I don’t know how often I’ll go back to this particular place of worship, but I’ll definitely go get those cookies and introduce my dog to Cici (that’s the mastiff’s name). I also hope to open a philosophical dialogue with the pastor while our dogs play.

I spent a lot of time in churches when I was growing up, and the similarity between what Jesus said and what Buddha said (according to my recent readings) is striking. I mean, I always knew that, but churching it up yesterday reignited that bit of knowledge. Now I want to check out a synagogue, and a mosque, and a non-denominational spiritual center to see how everybody else is doing this whole “spread the love” business that I’m such a big fan of. Maybe I’ll learn something, or maybe I won’t, but I’ll be going in with an open mind and an open heart to see what there is to see, and spread some love of my own.

Merry Whatever!

I’m cuter now.

Once upon a time, I was a religious dude. I was baptized Lutheran, and I spent many a Sunday morning in either Lutheran (with my mother and her family) or Catholic (with my father and his family) services. When it was happening, my favorite part was easily the donuts at the end, but looking back, there were a lot of parts to my church experiences that were formative.

My dad and I would read each of the passages for the day before the service got started. Then we’d talk briefly about what they meant and how they related to the topic and to our lives. He was a volunteer lector, so during the services he got up and read the passages aloud to the congregation. I remember him practicing each reading beforehand – a habit that I eventually picked up, as well.

In high school, I really went all out with the religion thing. I started by volunteering as a Sunday School teacher. It involved some reading and discussion of the topics, but mainly I was in charge of answering little questions they had about what the youth pastor said, and monitoring them while they did themed arts-and-crafts.

Then I, too, became a volunteer lector. It’s safe to say I was the youngest volunteer lector by about a decade (if not two). I had my father’s example, though, so I was pretty decent at it. At least that’s what all the old church regulars told me after each service.

I also spent a lot of time at youth group events with my friends from ROTC. It was neither Catholic nor Lutheran, but my friends were there, and so long as you don’t get caught up on the details, Jesus said pretty much the same stuff across the different denominations (minus maybe Mormonism). That was pretty chill – song singing, game playing, rapping about our Lord and Savior (sometimes literally). 

Around that time I started to pay more attention to that science stuff. I was largely able to reconcile the scientific and religious beliefs I held up to that point. The “days” of an eternal being (like God) are probably not the same as our days, so making the world in “seven days” seemed pretty reasonable. Like any good Christian, I ignored a lot of the parts of the bible that didn’t ring true for me (like the hair regulations or the pro-flogging stance it takes pretty frequently), and focused on the stuff that suited me.

Then I went to college and got a secular hippie girlfriend. I took classes like the Philosophy of Religion and the Psychology of Religion that really broke down why we believe what we do, and reconciliation became more and more challenging. I had many long, heated shouting matches with my girlfriend about the existence of God and creative design. Ultimately she won, but not without many tears shed.

Now, I consistently say that I’m an atheist, but I’m pretty open to being wrong about that. There just isn’t any empirical evidence proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that God doesn’t exist, so I think it’s still possible. I think it’s also possible that all of the gods and goddesses that anyone has ever thought up are equally as likely to exist. Why not? If you believe in those entities and they make you happy and a better person, then go ahead and continue with what you’re doing. 

Similarly, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing. In all likelihood, I’ll go to more church services and mosques and temples and other places of worship because I enjoy the process of gathering in large groups and discussing ethereal things. Community can be powerful even if you’re not wholly on board with whatever they’re saying. Plus where else do you get to go sing in a big group? The choices are limited, and I really like Christmas carols, so whatevs on the belief stuff. 

My spiritual journey is not over. I don’t think it will ever be over. Given my openness to being wrong, there’s a lot of room for discussion, and I look forward to having many more of those conversations throughout my remaining years. 

Anyway, Merry Christmas, or whatever.