“Why do I have to go to church? I don’t want to.” My 13-year-old was bleary-eyed and cranky. Ten a.m. is far too early, by his reckoning, to be wrested from bed on a Sunday.
It was a rhetorical question–more protest than inquiry–and a moot point, since we were already on the road, but I responded anyway, in cheery dictator fashion.
“I know you don’t, and I respect that. I didn’t want to when I was your age either.” When I was in junior high, my best friend and I would sneak into the back of the Cathedral right before five o’clock Mass, grab the Sunday bulletin as evidence we been there, then split to go smoke cigarettes behind the mall.
“You’ll be a grown-up person soon, and you won’t have to go to church if you don’t want to.”
“Good. I’m never going.”
If you want to amuse your mother, say never.
“That’s alright. But someday you might need the church. Something might happen that’s too big for you to handle on your own. You’ll know it’s a place you can go, where you’ll feel at home.”
Maybe he pondered this, or more likely, he decided not to invite further edification with a rebuttal. We arrived late, as usual, and took our seats in a pew near the back.
Ours was a party of three–the oldest had spent the night at a friend’s, and Patrick, who doesn’t share my bone-deep love of ritual, can only be coaxed to endure high-church Anglican liturgical rites once a quarter. It was almost time for the sermon before we got settled.
Father Danny ascended the pulpit, and I sat up. I love when Father Danny has the sermon. He has the deep mind and the open heart I’ve come to expect from Episcopal priests, but his style has a touch of country tent preacher. He presses his palms on the pulpit rail, and rocks forward on his feet a little when he gets going. (If you’ve spent time in an Episcopal church, you know that’s a lot of spontaneous body language for an Anglican. They don’t call us the frozen chosen for nothing.)
Sunday’s sermon was about preserving space around the busyness and business of life–leaving margins around our schedules, budgets, and relationships, instead of writing over them from the edge of one day to the next. Margins that leave room for breath, perspective, grace. A simple but illuminating metaphor that even a ten-year-old could follow (and did). And a perfect articulation of what I was trying to tell my teenager in the car.
I bring my kids to church to draw a margin around them. A space outside the bounded agenda of self and society, where something greater than the to-do list has a chance to enter. And I need the weight of the institution–that I once found so lumbering and oppressive–to frame it and protect it, when the craziness of the world presses in. I need people like Father Danny to remind me why it’s worth it–what meets us in the margins, in the small, still space.
How they honor that space when they are adults is up to them. What matters to me is that they know its outline.
During the announcements, I asked my son if he had listened to any of the sermon.
“Nah,” he said, “I spaced out.” I smiled. I demand very little of my boys at church–come along every few Sundays, don’t cause distractions, follow along in body if not in mind. Usually I let him bring a sketchbook, but he had been too sleepy to remember it. Instead, he had drawn in the margins of the service bulletin.
It was tempting to pick up where I’d left off earlier, summarize the sermon, point out the example of his creativity finding expression in the literal margins, tie it all together for him like a line of poetry diagrammed to death.
I left it blank instead.