“No, no. We can’t go in there,” she said in a hushed whisper. “That room is holy.”
Even at the tender age of 3, my heart heard the implication: and you are not.
We weren’t Christians growing up. Nowhere close, actually. But we considered ourselves to be a “good” family, and in the 80s, being a “good” family meant going to Christian preschool. So there I was at Good Shephard Lutheran Church, trying desperately to get around the teacher’s leg as she showed us this room called a “sanctuary” – a room that smelled unlike the dank must of the rest of the church; a room that didn’t seem to suffer the same cockroach infestation; a room that shone with the golden hues of pristinely-oiled pews, lit in spectacular glory through the stain-glassed windows.
A room that was something that clearly I was not: holy.
And so I’ve spent my life in search of holy.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had a lot of questions; I still have a lot of questions. On the two rare occasions when I convinced my dad to take me to this place called “church” (both Palm Sundays, since he would not even consider going on any day that was not somehow “special”), we were asked to leave. Dad kept tickling old ladies with his palm frond, tipping off their special Sunday hats, and otherwise being a nuisance until a stern-faced man with arms crossed stood at the end of our pew with that look in his eyes. Get. Out.
You are not holy.
It’s the echo I kept hearing, over and over again as it ate at my soul through all my formative years. And then my great-aunt began to take me to her small church in the country. Here, there was only one room, only a sanctuary. An organ on one side, a piano on the other, and completely out of place in this small congregation of about a dozen persons, all over the age of 60, a sparkling blue drum set back in the corner. It didn’t take the pastor long to discover that I played both the piano and the drums, and it was not long after that that I found myself accompanying this little country church, playing “Amazing Grace” along with them before I even knew the words.
(For the longest time, having learned “Rock of Ages,” I could not figure out what exact species was the “fountain fly,” nor why I would be so foul to it. It would not be until my late 20s that I would reexamine the way I had read these lyrics when I had learned the music, but not the song.)
It was a good place to start, but no place to call home, and certainly no place that felt holy. I’m not sure what exactly it was about that little church – maybe it was the way they so quickly embraced me, this little heathen kid who plays the piano and the drums – but I felt like they’d sacrificed holy for something else. I just couldn’t find it there. And I didn’t want to settle for anything less than holy.
A friend at school, the only friend I had in the world, invited me to his church one Wednesday evening, when the service would be more relaxed. I’d been there before; we often worked on school projects in his church’s children’s room, which had the best art supplies. But I hadn’t been to “church” there. So I took him up on his offer.
That night, the middle school ministry gathered in a room in the far corner of the building, and the youth pastors handed out paper bags. “Okay,” they said. “We’re going to assign everyone an animal. Then, put your bag over your head and walk around making the noise of that animal until you find everyone else making the same noise. That will be your group for tonight.” Shy and insecure, I stood in one spot whispering, “I’m a cow” until groups were sufficiently formed, but needless to say, this didn’t quite feel like holy either.
I vowed never to go back.
About a year later, that same church hosted a weekend youth event, one that my friend talked wildly about every year. He invited me, again, and this time, I went. There was something in the air, something so vibrant and alive that I felt my own hear t beat as though it was living for the first time. And then, that Saturday afternoon, a drama team took the stage. In one of the skits, an actor stood, arms outstretched, playing the role of Jesus, and I swear his eyes locked with mine as he said, “I love you, Kathleen.”
I laughed, because my name has never been Kathleen. But I ached, because I wanted that love. That night, I gave my life to Christ. I hadn’t yet found holy, but I had found love, and maybe that was a good first step.
Sixteen years later, I’m still at that church – through two major splits, a series of revitalizations, several changes in the way that we practice our theology, and all of the other things that either tear churches apart or draw them together. Sixteen years later, I am the first female to be ordained by this once-conservative congregation. Sixteen years later, I am serving as a chaplain out of a love that I first found because Ryan loved Kathleen the way that Jesus did.
Sixteen years later, I’m still not sure about this thing called “holy,” but I know this thing called love. And this amazing thing called grace, the words to a song my heart sings all by itself. It’s still not easy, and it’s often a mess. But it’s beautiful anyway.
And I’m still peering around the legs of the saints, trying to get a better look at it.