Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction:
I was pawing through the archives today and found a column I had pitched to a Christian magazine. I think it fits with what I've been trying to tell you, so I wanted you to see it. Especially since the magazine wasn't interested in it. Ok, that's not completely true. The editors there are brilliant and I love them dearly, but they were afraid that more conservative donors wouldn't appreciate reading a story about a church-search that didn't end with, "and that's when I learned to love everyone at Our Lady of the Frontal Lobotomy." The saddest part is that they are right.
So, I give you, "In Your Dreams, Pal":
My dreams have been very specific lately. It started when I had a dream that I stepped in poultice, and then when I woke up, had to look up what in the world poultice was (it’s an outdated medical powder that was applied to wounds).
A few weeks later, the narrative was drawn out even longer. In the dream, I was at a catered event, though I was never sure of the purpose. [My old writing professor] Mark Stevick was sitting next to me as was, inexplicably, my Aunt Sandra, who we all call, inexplicably, Aunt “C." I recognized the main course as Tasso Ham, although I had no idea what that meant. I took a salty bite and struck up the following conversation:
“This ham tastes like charcoal.”
“It’s just like that Charcoal Ham I made last Christmas,” says Aunt C. Stevick, through all of this interchange, remains silent, but retains a knowing grin.
“What on earth is Charcoal Ham?” I ask.
“Well,” she continues, “You take a ham and cover it with walnuts. Then, you scrub it with a charcoal briquette. Problem is, I used one of the brands that was pre-soaked in lighter fluid. The whole thing burst into flames the second I put it in the oven!”
At this point, I turn, smirking, to Stevick, and say—as I imagine I would in real life—“Sounds like you had yourself a real hambé.” We both laugh in that shoulder-bouncing way that only pun-loving word nerds seem to do.
When I woke up, I was still laughing, trying desperately to hold on to hambé. But quickly, in that haze of waking, my mind does what it does best and analyzes things until I’m depressed. I was left with this question: “Am I so desperate for community that I’ve resorted to conducting witty banter in my dreams?”
I have big dreams. Most of them are selfish and involve what my bio will say underneath the jacket photo on my future, innumerable books, that will never sacrifice art for accessibility, yet somehow everyone from Wal-Martians to UTNE Readers will find something elucidating.
I also really want a farm. I want a plot of land with a community garden, and a barn with a music studio that, on Friday nights, is abuzz with the clangs and plucks of all my people.
In fact, that’s what I want most—people.
Discussing this with my freshman roommate-turned-groomsman, Ryan, on the phone, I said, with much conviction, “It would just be so awesome to all be living close—not in a commune or anything since they tend to look too inward and spoil—but some structure that people could visit at least once a week and catch up for a few hours.” I paused. Ryan was clearly stifling a laugh, erupting after I continued saying, “Oh. That’s called ‘church’ isn’t it?”
But here’s the thing: I’m tired of organs, of three-chord songs, of sermons that promise Americanized versions of Jabez-wealth, of groups that argue what to name themselves until they start calling each other names and then uprooting. I find power in dressed-up liturgy, but I also find it in a pub, where t-shirt garbed conversations feel like Holy Improvisations.
All my life speakers that promised a mighty move of God in New England visited my church. Over time, however, their numbers receded faster than their hairlines.
Many have told me that I can’t customize a church. That it’s not about me. And I get that. But it’s this kind of language that’s kept me in my spare room, quietly writing music for services that don’t exist. It’s this kind of language that pours money into restoring steeples instead of restoring people. Steeples and cathedrals started as the artistic dreams of humans, stemming from the desire to be together and take seriously what it means to take up our cross—our death, not just our burden—and not just ride out faith in the broken rollercoaster of a pew, waiting for someone to come and get the sparks going again.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard friends and acquaintances say something like, “I’m off to seminary in the fall,” or, “I’m thinking about the ministry.”
Well, where are you? I want to be your Director of Worship. Ryan wants to be your advocate for social justice. Stevick wants to eat your Charcoal Ham with a green salad grown in the garden behind a building where we’ll meet once a week for a time that our parents called ‘church,’ but has for too long been an abstract concept, something we would call a dream come true.