About, Purpose, Players

I ask my students to find these three things in every text we read, whether it’s an essay or a chapter of a novel. The “about” of a text refers to its topic, the “purpose” to its theme, and the “players” to its main characters or main ideas. We discussed the difference between topic and theme today, actually, with the classic example: “love” is a topic, but “love stinks” is a theme. They rolled their eyes a little, but I think that will stick with them, or at least the 15 minutes I spent excitedly discussing everyone’s Enneagram number might.

Ascribing meaning is easy to do in literature. Mrs. Dalloway buys flowers for a reason; the moors of Wuthering Heights symbolize Catherine and Heathcliff’s love. Every sniffle has a deathbed scene in its future. Narratives follow predictable patterns of exposition, conflict, and resolution. Our minds like them, know how to follow them, and we find them easy to recall. They end in either a wedding or a funeral, and thus we place them in easy categories: comedy, tragedy.

I struggle to give meaning to the events of reality, however. Unlike just about every person of faith I know, “belief” and “connectedness” are nowhere near my top strengths, and my Enneagram type is sometimes called “The Skeptic” for a reason. My doubt is persistent, rarely quenched, and finds roots in every pocket of insecurity in myself or perceived flaw in others. In the face of tragedy, my thoughts sound less like “Why, God?” and more like “What god?” That’s me in the corner, losing my religion.

Yet fifteen years ago, in a tiny Baptist church at the corner of a dirt road and a dead end, my seven-year-old self was dipped in and out of some lukewarm well water, and I don’t remember much, but I had on a yellow bathing suit under those white robes. Two very real hands held me then, even if the attached name and face I forget, and several sets of arms dried me off and brought me in for a hug. Human hands have led me and carried me and sustained me over the past fifteen years when the abstract ones weren’t what I wanted them to be.

And human hands have hurt me, dug deeper holes in those pockets of insecurity, and have pushed my doubt into phase two: anxiety, that nameless fear, which I’ll write about someday, but not now. Those same human hands make up the body of believers I’ve wandered in and out of for fifteen years, the community I’ve resisted being a part of but still want to be accepted by. I’ve seen the church hurt those closest to me, watched it do more harm than good to its congregants, and yet I’m still poking my head into the doors of the sanctuary.

Maybe I’m giving a few too many second chances, but I’m also the girl who stuck around the college she complained about incessantly for six years, who lugged over 300 books to another state because I couldn’t possibly get rid of any, who has never quit a job under any circumstances other than moving. Point me in the direction of a sinking ship and I’ll buy a one-way ticket to the bottom of the ocean, if I think I’ll be comfortable and secure on the way down.

So these two parts of me, my nagging doubt and my clingy faith, find their place in the back row of a sanctuary–sorry, a “worship center”–on Sunday mornings. I’m finding a little bit of comfort and security in the walls of a church and the narrative of an 11:15 service that I have yet to be on time for. The plotline of worship, message, worship. The quiet of communion. The predictable names for ministries and the common language spoken by regular attendees, the routine of Sunday mornings and afternoons, the baby dedications and youth group games.

The topic is church, and the theme is “church isn’t the worst,” and that’s it for today.

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