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Homecoming

Andrea Palpant Dilley felt both clarity and confusion. In this book excerpt, she considers: Had she come back too soon? Was she ready to be back at church?

July 17, 2012

Editor’s note: In “Faith and Other Flat Tires,” Andrea Palpant Dilley writes about her struggles with faith and her decision as a young adult to leave the church for a period of time. In this excerpt, Dilley writes about the Sunday she returned to her childhood church.

After attending First Presbyterian for about four months, I took a risk and decided to go back to the church of my childhood. One Sunday morning, I got in my car and drove down the hill to Knox and Post. Walking up to the front door, I was invited in by a man who had been the greeter since I was a child, a funny retiree who made faces at kids and lifted old widows into the elevator chair that hummed up the stairs onto the landing. He greeted me as if I’d been going to church every Sunday of my life without fail.

For me, though, going back to Knox was like going back to see an old friend that I’d been estranged from for years. I felt nervous and anxious. I felt nostalgic too, walking into the sanctuary and seeing the pews where I’d sat for fifteen years of my life, the pulpit where the pastors had preached, and the stage where youth interns had performed their campy VBS skits every summer. About halfway down, I saw my parents in the same place they’d sat for the last twenty years of their church attendance.

At first, I stayed at the back of the sanctuary in the same place the bride stands before she walks down the aisle and commits her life to someone. Then, after holding back for a moment, I went forward and sat with my parents as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do. They tried hard not to register shock that their daughter was back at church.

“Please rise for the doxology,” the pastor said. He held his robe-draped arms out toward the congregation to bring us to our feet for the singing of the doxology, “From Whom All Blessings Flow.” The whole service was still familiar to me -- the liturgy, the prayers, the sacrament of communion. Even my parents’ habits were the same. My mother penciled notes in her bulletin. My father nodded at notable insights in the sermon. I sat next to them for the duration of the service, taking it all in.

In the geography of my spiritual story, I had returned to the threshold of the church and was standing looking in rather than out. What prompted my return seemed as mysterious as my departure. I left for a while, burned out by faith and church. Then I came back, driven by a completely different kind of fatigue. I was tired of myself. Tired of being an overwrought, introspective twentysomething trying to undertake the search alone. But even in my homecoming, I felt both clarity and confusion. Wondering if I’d come back too soon, I thought, Am I ready to be back at church?

“After the accident,” Jerry had said to me once, “I went to church again, but I couldn’t bring myself to sing the hymns. I let other people sing for me. I let them carry me.” I pictured him standing in a dark mahogany pew of First Presbyterian surrounded by churchgoers and staring up at the tall organ pipes while the congregation sang an old nineteenth-century hymn. I pictured him present and absent at the same time, standing but not singing. Jerry’s story wasn’t anything like mine, but I understood the feeling of ambivalence that he described in going back to church.

At the end of the service that Sunday, the pastor held out his arms again and said, “Please rise and join hands for our final hymn, number 690 in your pew hymnals.” No one opened their hymnals. Everyone knew the song by heart. By tradition on communion Sunday, the congregation held hands in a long unbroken chain and sang the hymn “Bind Us Together.” My parents stood up first. After a brief hesitation, I stood up too and began singing along. I held my mother’s hand on one side and the hand of a stranger on the other.

Bind us together, Lord,
Bind us together,
With cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together Lord, Bind us together Lord,
Bind us together with love.

A skeptical philosopher like Nietzsche, had he been sitting beside me that day, might have told me I was caving in to group pressure. “The herd,” he would scratch in pencil on the side of the bulletin before passing it back to me in the middle of the sermon. Leaning forward from the pew behind, Karl Marx would have whispered in my ear that I was succumbing to religion as “the opiate of the masses,” avoiding the admission that my belief was just a bourgeoisie myth used to control the populace. God was like a drug. A temporary fix. An escape from reality. At coffee hour after church, while sipping lukewarm coffee, Freud might have sauntered up to tell me that, given my unresolved sexual frustrations -- not to mention issues with my father -- it was no wonder I had taken up religion again. The church and I were polar magnets. Eventually, after straining for so long to pull away, I would snap back into place. Faith was something I couldn’t shake, like the glue residue that stayed after I scraped the Ichthus off my Plymouth hatchback.

But then, if Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud had said those things to me, I would have cornered them all at coffee hour. Even in my ambivalence about church, I would tell them, I could sense in my heart a strong longing for God. Frederick Buechner said, “Faith is homesickness.” That was how it felt to me. If we were accidents of a godless universe, I would ask, then why did I sense this enduring pull toward God, the Alpha, the Omega, the Unmoved Mover? Why did I have a soul and a mind with rational faculties? Didn’t it all mean something?

I knew from my Western civilization course in college that Plato believed in the Forms -- unchanging, eternal ideas written into the human being. We lose these ideas in the trauma of birth, he said, and spend the rest of our lives trying to recover what we lost. God, too, seemed like something lost that I was trying to find again.

To me, longing for God was like hearing music from an open window on the street or seeing mountains off in the distance. The yearning felt almost like grief. A cry born into my heart before the human heart ever existed. A desire so deep and far back that it seemed almost prehistoric. I sensed the imago Dei, the image of God within me. I was Plato’s child searching for the lost language of my origins. I was a homing bird traveling with my outspread wings, carried by an innate compass and crossing a thousand miles to get back to the place where I began.

Even disbelief, I would tell them, was part of my search for God. Doubt impelled faith over a lifetime. Doubt was born from disappointment, disappointment was born of longing, and longing was born of the imago Dei. C. S. Lewis, in his preface to Pilgrim’s Regress, says, “The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given -- nay, cannot even be imagined as given -- in our present mode of subjective and spatiotemporal experience.”

If that was true, then this too was true. While I stood singing a hymn in an old Presbyterian church, feeling the start of a deep, uneasy peace, my doubt was my desire -- to touch the untouchable. To possess the presence of God.

Excerpted from "Faith and Other Flat Tires," Copyright © 2012 by Andrea Palpant Dilley. Used with permission of Zondervan Publishers.