Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Visit

The building seems smaller now, as if its physical size somehow had shrunk along with its significance. This is no looming Mount Sinai, only a simple structure that is lovingly maintained by people who have grown up sitting in its pews. There is probably no other single place outside the childhood home in which a typical Laestadian will spend as many hours of his life. It is not just empty talk to call it a spiritual home, a sanctuary.

Just as pangs of nostalgia fill the adult believer who sees the humble house where he ran and played with a swarm of siblings and harassed parents, the sight of the church evinces its own memories grown fonder with time: beloved old preachers with their sleep-inducing sermons and funny habits, weekly gatherings of lifelong friends, hasty communal lunches with fellowship shouted over the squalling of fussy babies. God’s Kingdom nourishes the spirit with the unchanging Word, and the body with hot dish and Sloppy Joes, iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. Variety is not a prominent feature of either menu, and that makes the memories uncomplicated, easy to come by.

My old friend and I walk together from the parking lot of vans into the foyer, curious but friendly heads turning in recognition. On the way in, there are smiles, waves, hands outstretched in greetings of as much welcome as one could ask for, even without the spiritual-acceptance catchphrase of “God’s Peace.”

Certainly, eyes widen with surprise to see the erstwhile brother in faith in this place, after he has written so many critical words about what is taught from pulpits like the one nearby, which waits mute and empty for a preacher to sit at it and convey this Sunday’s message from the Spirit. But the smiles reach the corners of those eyes, too; there is love and friendship here, despite everything that might be expected to stand in the way. None of it feels like a show being put on for the dangerous author and blogger, even if the possibility of reading or hearing about yet another posting is in the back of a few nervous minds.

But this is no fact-finding mission I am on, nor a yearning visit by a wishful prodigal son to be awoken by the sting of God’s two-edged Word, the opposite edge from the one experienced for the first four decades of my life. It is one item on the agenda for a weekend visit to my friend’s home, a pilgrimage to the place that is of such prominence in his life. It was in my own, too, but the shouting in the spiritual marketplace has been fading into the distance, quieter still since I wrote the closing lines of my book. What has not faded is a friendship that goes back two decades, and in honor of that, as well as the wish to see some familiar faces, I have come to church.

I certainly enjoyed the singing again. These old songs are in my head forever, along with a full catalog of Laestadian-approved classical instrumentals, even if they must now share space with an overflowing variety of new and newly rediscovered sound. So I sit in the pews happily belting out the verses, vibrato and pitch still intact after a year of disuse. My heart soars as my voice swells with praises to the Father Almighty who, the lyrics promise, will begin frying me in an eternity of torment someday. The emotion and beauty of it is no less moving, in its straight-backed old way, than the gritty industrial beats and electronic spectacle of trance or the throaty golden voices I now hear in all their variety of genre and era: Adele, Bob Marley, Bryan Adams, Dido, Ellie Goulding (yes, I’ll admit it), Enya, Neil Young, Sting, U2. It’s all good. Let the music play on, even if it is with an organ and hellfire.

As for the rest of it, I am not much more inclined to discuss that morning’s sermon here than I was with my friend, which was not at all. I was a guest in that house (both of them), after all. It seems in better form to criticize what the church puts out for us all to read and hear in publications and online sermons. The one from that day is indeed available online, as are most of the others from around the country, adding to an ever-growing archive of monotonous and repetitive Laestadian oratory. I’ve listened to a lot of them in the past year, actually. Truth be told, I’ve found no better way to get to sleep than playing one on my iPod slipped under the pillow. It is soothing in a way, against all intentions of the ministers charged with preaching the law to unbelievers. The inflections are familiar, the content unsurprising.

Speaking generally, my feeling is that the low point of a Laestadian church service is the actual sermon. If all the preachers called in sick and no suitable recordings could be found to play for that disorienting ghost-pulpit experience of “tape services,” the best parts of the churchgoing would be left intact. Put in your appearance, bow your head in the Lord’s Prayer, sing a few songs, pray the Benediction, and then catch up with your friends while your kids catch up with theirs.

I will offer one specific comment to the preacher who surely knew that there was a goat among the sheep that morning. I am certainly not one of those whom you claim are aware that “this [Conservative Laestadianism] is really God’s Kingdom,” but alas, have not received the gift of repentance. Nor have I ever heard of such a person, or any biblical justification for supposing one to exist. What I have heard about, over and over again, are those stuck in the opposite situation. They know, deep down, that the church whose pews they have warmed Sunday after Sunday since their little feet dangled above the floor is not what it claims to be. But, because of unimaginable social pressure and deeply ingrained fears, they remain in those pews, and most of them probably always will.

Originally posted on the Learning to Live Free blog, January 22, 2013, where it’s been viewed about 2700 times (as of August 2014). I’m happy to report that I’ve (mostly) kicked the falling-asleep-to-sermons habit, though I still pay attention to what they are saying sometimes.