"There are four things we all need. We need to love, and we need to be loved. We need to know and we need to be known."
And I do. I want you to know who I am. That's why I write. I want to be loved. That's why I sing. But as I was sitting in church yesterday, listening to the parson preach, I thought, "Is that really all? Because I seem to need desperately to know that there will be enough mangos, salmon and butternut squash in my refrigerator for the rest of my life. I need to know that I will always be able to pay my heating bills. I need to know that if I or Tom gets sick, I will have a way of paying for it.”
I want to be set for life.
The minister is Stephen Philbrick, Parson (a word which means--drum roll please-- "person,") of the Congregational Church in West Cummington, MA. Tom and I discovered this church in early 2004 and have been coming here as often as possible ever since. Tom had a party last January, shortly after we began dating, to introduce me to his spiritual friends. Ann, Andy and Susan represented the Catholics; Rick the Buddhists, and Sharon was batting for the Baptists. Sitting next to Spiritual Friend Fran Henry, I said, "And where do you practice your form of spirituality?"
"At this little church near where I live. The minister is a poet and a shepherd," said Fran.
That was enough for me to want to check it out. A poet and a shepherd? Sold.
The first time we visited, Stephen, a strong man in his fifties, wore a kind smile that made me feel he wanted to be friends but would wait for us to let him know we were ready. He was also wearing a big button saying, "This church affirms all marriages." Another plus. I was comfortable. Fran was there, sitting next to Stephen’s wife, Connie, a potter like my beloved Aunt Elizabeth. Connie had huge beautiful eyes that looked straight at me, clear and welcoming.
But what won me over completely was the music. After a moment of silence at the beginning of the service, a small white haired woman named Penny, her back to us, began playing the piano and humming along softly. She was singing to herself, to God, maybe to us, inviting us into some kind of private meditation. And I felt the elusive Holy Spirit; that intangible Presence I've been looking for all these years. Sometimes I find the Spirit in an unacceptable receptacle, like a Grapevine church full of people who are going to vote for George W. Bush. I am not proud of my prejudices against fundamentalists. I recognize that my level of charity is that of a particularly unevolved Neanderthal, but there you have it. Think of it as a kind of spiritual tone-deafness. In order for me to come to God, God needs to be packaged in a way I can tolerate. God must know this, because She certainly has sent me wonderful teachers over the years in various guises: books by Marcus Borg and Thomas Merton, lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh, funky churches and spiritual centers all over the country that, for whatever reason, felt good but not quite like home.
Penny let me know I was home. She played “How Can I Keep From Singing” and “Abide with Me” and led African American spirituals, the kind my parents taught us when we were kids, singing around the kitchen table with an acoustic guitar. She stood on her tiptoes and sang with her head thrown back and joy pulsating out of her dancer’s body.
Then Stephen began preaching, mixing personal anecdotes with interpretations of the Bible I could get with (God as Superego in the Garden of Eden; Jesus, in saying He has come not to unify but to divide, as an “individuator”—encouraging us each to be true to our own peculiar Light), mingling scripture from the Tao and the Baseball Book of Wisdom with all the Gospel preachers (including the Gospel of Thomas.) This was the church I'd been looking for since reading M. Scott Peck's A Different Drummer in 1990, a book which calls on churches to be havens for community building in our suffering, fragmented post suburban world.
Stephen also shared his poetry with us:
I am water,
You are clay
I am what the world needs
But you are what it is made of.
When we meet: mud, and muddy water;
Thickening, loosening, even (a little) panic.
Waiting for each to settle,
It is a gospel of courage and honesty that he preaches. He preaches against the Iraq war, but he also preaches against the knee jerk reaction some of us liberals have of demonizing the US, automatically assuming our government means harm. He laments the war on terror by pointing out that by calling it a war on evil, we ignore the evil within ourselves: “The evil in ME; we can learn this anywhere, from any argument we've ever had with someone we love.” He goes on to say that we can learn this from Jesus: “if we know ourselves we will realize we are the children of God (yes, just as we really are.)” We have within us heavens and hells aplenty, but it is not what goes into our mouths that creates sin. It’s the hate that comes out of our mouths. The deeds that we do, the words that we say.
“This is not America bashing. This is a native son grieving."
Tom and I left the church shaken. Our minds had been exercised, along with our hearts and our spirits. I have been to wonderful churches that exercised my mind. I have been to wonderful churches that exercised my spirit. Likewise, my heart. But never all three at once. We felt so happy, so full of joy, so deeply seen and loved it was almost hard to take. We told our friend Ann Turner about the experience. She nodded, and talked about the first time she felt God’s presence in that kind of way. “It felt like ‘savage joy’ and that it was so fierce, strong, and all- encompassing, that God knew I couldn't take it in all at once. That He had to let me feel the joy of his presence in little bits, suited to the small handbag size of my heart.”
She told us about someone who was praying, and he was so filled with the joy of God's presence, that all of the buttons on his waistcoat popped off as his chest expanded. That’s how I felt leaving West Cummington.
While we were tearing down after the Iron Horse last Saturday, I said to Dave Hower," I envy you getting to be in so many bands. I am going to miss playing with Katryna so much."
"You could be in other bands, too," he pointed out.
I shook my head. "Somehow, that would feel like cheating to me," I said. "Maybe what I'll do is see if I could do some music at my church."
The next evening, at 8pm, Penny called me up. "Nerissa, we've been talking. Any time you'd like to do music at West Cummington, we'd love to have you. In fact, I'm going away next week. Will you take over?"
So yesterday, Tom and I made our now familiar trek up the mountains to the little white church with no bathroom. Tom drove. On my lap were copies of the two hymnals and the folk song supplement, plus my own copy of Rise Up Singing. I still hadn't decided what to do. I don't play piano, so "Abide with Me” was going to be a challenge. But I'd circled Cris Williamson's “Song of the Soul,” and also my favorite from the Christmas Revels, “Lord of the Dance,” and of course “Amazing Grace.” I also ventured my own “Give Me A Clean Heart,” a song I’d swiped from an amazing church in Amherst I went to once called Hope Church.
"I've never been more nervous in my life," I told Tom.
"Why?” he said. "You do this all the time. You'll be great.”
I shook my head emphatically. "It’s totally different. This feels like service. If I screw up in The Nields, I’m just making a fool of myself. If I screw up at church, I’m letting down the whole congregation. It’s disrespectful."
Tom looked at me and grinned. "You think what you did last night at the Railway Cafe in North Adams wasn't service? Besides, I was at church a few weeks ago when you were in Philadelphia. Penny forgot the words to one of the hymns and the chords too and she laughed and everyone laughed. No one's going to care if you screw up. It just reminds all of us that we’re human."
This made me feel better, and I remembered the first time I'd ever performed my own songs. I was fifteen and in high school, an all girls’ school called Madeira in Northern VA. My voice teacher wanted me to sing my own songs for the recital. This would've been fine, except when I got up there to play and sing, I noticed with dismay that my hands were no longer my own; they were trembling as if they had suddenly decided to engage in the Hippie Hippie Shake. Also, I no longer knew any of the words to any of the songs I'd ever sung, let alone the ones I'd written. I looked out in to the mass of teen-age girls, all of whom surely hated me and had been plotting my fall for eighteen months, or at least would giggle about pathetic me on the way back to classes.
"I've never done this before," I said after attempting to put my trembling hands in the general vicinity of the fretboard of my guitar. "And I'm really scared."
The entire auditorium exploded with the applause that only an all girls’ school can produce. They clapped courage into me, and I played my first song. They gave me a standing ovation. I haven’t really ever had stage fright since then.
We want to be known, Stephen said in his sermon yesterday. We want to love. (And some of us want security.) I signed on this morning and saw that Christopher Reeves had died. Even though, as readers of this blog now know, I prefer Spiderman to Superman, I loved Christopher Reeves. He was an example to me of an intrepid spirit. When I was going through my divorce and feeling very sorry for myself, I had a quotation of his above my desk:
Q: “How do you get through your life without feeling sorry for yourself?
A: Oh, I feel sorry for myself. I allow myself to feel completely miserable and self pitying for exactly one half hour a day. Then I stop. It’s essential. But it’s equally essential to count your blessings and keep hope alive.
The bad news for me is there’s no such thing as being set for life. I would’ve said, before June of 1995 that Chris Reeves was set for life. Then he was thrown from his horse and suffered a spinal chord injury. Still, he got to live for nine more years with purpose and love; he knew, he was known; he loved and was loved. He made himself see that every day, just as he advocated for others, becoming more and more a vessel for compassion and empathy as the years went on.
The bad news for me is I don’t get to lead a life with total security. But I can sing at the West Cummington Church; I can let myself be seen and loved by these people with the kind faces, and better yet, they can teach me to go back out into the world knowing how to see, know and to love. And when I am awake to this, I am so filled with happiness that the buttons burst off my waistcoat.