On lighter burdens and connecting

This post fits within the context of becoming more connected to others.

I feel like I am living so many days packed into each one now. I had no idea when I began writing about it that the act of writing about my experiences would show me how much I am actually living my life and spur me to have more experiences. Here is an experience I had with a little church in Menard, Texas.

I went to an Orthodox church with my stepmom Lisa in Menard, Texas, a totally unexpected experience from beginning to end. We picked up Mike on the way – a friend and fellow churchgoer from Eden who had had a stroke and recently lost his wife. Nice fellow – old rancher. It was a bit of a drive to Menard, and when we got there the church turned out to be a little white building no larger than a cabin. Several people of hispanic descent wore white robes and greeted us at the door. They turned out to be mostly of one extended family, and there was a comfortable easy familiarity in scene.

A warm and bubbly lady sat behind us – her name was Lisa too. She mentioned that she’d lived in the Chama NM area and wished us a lovely time. She was very touchy and huggy and I warmed to her right away. She put her hand on my shoulder before she’d even met me. Her look was of pleasant expectation that I would be introduced to her so she could begin to know my story. I would have liked to get to know her better.

We had these plastic binders with the various prayers and observances as our guide. Nowhere was there a list of people who help officiate the service. I forgot the pastor’s name almost as soon as he was introduced to me, but not his bearing. Bear is the right word – he was big and round and still rather powerful in his energy levels. Maybe mid 40s? some gray in his beard. Black hair – hispanic like many of the others. Twinkle in his eye, informal manner, plain spoken like the people in this area but thank goodness not dogmatic and holier-than-thou.

The congregation consisted of maybe 20 people scattered among 50 old-fashioned theater-style wooden folding chairs. The hispanic ladies wore the most wonderful silver jewelry that gleamed on their golden tan skin, big silver hoops, bracelets, rings, silver concho belts, and their hair was long and full, cascading across their shoulders. Many wore white, which further accented their lovely coloring. They seemed happy with each other in an easygoing way. During the singing as the pastor was sitting down, he playfully batted a plastic binder out of one of the ladies’ hands, but then grinned impishly and picked it up to hand back to her. I was struck by how big this guy was as he sat in the row. This was a substantial guy!

This church is different than many I have been to – I’ve been to Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Southern Baptist (yes they are different), Buddhist, Unitarian, Unity, and Episcopalian. I guess this was a cross between Baptist, Episcopalian and Catholic in flavor. The informality of the Baptist church combined with the pageantry of the Episcopalian and the rituals of the Catholic. Of course, not having spent much time in any but the Methodist and Unity churches, I am probably not an authority on describing them. I had enough to keep up with just figuring out which way to cross myself, and I am embarrassed to note that I still couldn’t tell you. I didn’t want to be too conspicuous in watching others at first, so I lost the method after that.

They had the obligatory cheesy sentimental songs but added the twist of putting the words on an overhead projector (text was formatted badly and ran off the screen – I was itching to put that in InDesign or Quark for them) and the music was country western style devotionals. Almost no one sang, or if they did, it was in whisper. I couldn’t figure out which part to take because the loudest singer kept going from soprano to alto.

The sermon was about Jesus’ message that his yoke was easy and his burdens light, and how we can choose to set down our burdens or let God carry them for us while we walk with Christ in our lives. Okay, that’s the lingo, but what did it mean?? To tell you the truth, I didn’t get much out of the pastor’s explanation, or for that matter the deacon’s (a good looking young man who is still new to addressing the crowd). But he called on Lisa to elucidate, and there were two Lisas sitting in the same area, my stepmom and the Lisa I had met earlier, sitting behind me. My stepmom went first with a very nicely worded explanation of the wonderful lightness of heart you can experience when you let go of normal worldly concerns. I liked that her explanation was not too mushy or worshipful. She’s been to many churches and is in the Franciscan order, and she has many viewpoints including secular, and this serves her well for mixing with people of many faiths or none.

Her words flew right over the tops of the heads of some in the congregation (a shame!) but I liked them and the pastor was impressed. The deacon looked terrified that he’d met his match. Then Lisa behind us spoke, and she immediately worried that people were going to have to strain their necks to see her, so she walked up to the front and talked for a bit about the types of cares that can make us feel tired and depressed, like divorce, misfortune, the death of a child. She was near tears the whole time and I found my heart reaching out to her and my eyes welling up. My reaction to her made me feel angry at myself. But anyway, I struggled to breathe and listen. Prybar to the heart, yet again. She said that she liked to use a visualization of a forested road, and you are the weary traveler with many heavy burdens representing your worries, your disappointments, your sadnesses and regrets (maybe your guilts?). You come upon a cart and there is a double yoke at the front, with whomever you choose as your spiritual guide – Jesus, God, the holy spirit – in one of the yokes. You can put your burdens in the cart and put the other yoke on. You won’t feel the burdens at all because your guide is doing all the pulling for you, and as long as you walk with him your burdens will not trouble you – though sometimes you may forget and take them back on, or take new ones, when you remind yourself of your intentions to lay them down and walk with Christ, it will immediately free you again.

I personally don’t buy into the idea that a deity is going to carry my stuff as long as I subscribe to his approach. I think Jesus was really a good guy but no one needs to carry my burdens for me and I don’t need to focus on Jesus or God in order to be free of them. One can do the spiritual work of being free of one’s burdens completely without that divine help. They aren’t actually burdens, really – there is no weight or substance to them beyond what we perceive them to have. The trick is in how you see things. The work is to quiet the mind every day and learn to see things for what they are, so that your troubles get into perspective with the big picture. As your troubles melt away, your joy will bubble up. This is only my opinion, of course, and I have seen how belief in Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit can really help others. I want people to seek out whatever comfort works best for them and their families, just as I do. There is good in every gathering of people that sincerely meets to focus on becoming better humans. For that matter, there is good in every person who regularly focuses on becoming a better human!

Another part that always inexplicably chokes me up is the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” It’s the part about forgiveness of others’ trespasses that always gets me in the heart. I don’t know why but it chokes me up, ever since I stopped going to church during my community college days. Maybe in my heart I have associated church services with being more forgiving and tolerant of people in general. This is a helpful observation for me because when you can get your judgments out of the way, you can truly connect with each person. Perhaps I have been angry with myself all these years for my slack observance of this important goal. To connect with others is everything – not merely a good idea. I am just now coming around to that and “getting” why this is so vital. When you truly work to understand someone without judgments, you see amazing things. You learn about life and love, and you get ideas for things you can try in your life, and your empathy or other emotional reactions provide you with important clues about things you may want to work on a little bit more from time to time. For me, judgments about people are burdens which I can choose to lay down, to be freer and happier. Sounds good to me.

I really liked the greeting part of the service. I can’t remember the name of the ritual but you approach someone with both your hands together in a prayer position, with fingertips facing the heart of the other person. You make eye contact and wait for them to put their hands in the same position outside yours, then slide them apart and say “grace” and then the other person puts his or her hands together and you put yours outside theirs, and you both say “and peace”. Then you hug, and look for someone else to perform the ritual with. There’s enough ritual for standoffish people like me to find something to do that doesn’t shine the light of connectedness to glaringly upon me. It’s new for me to connect with others and maybe it will always feel too intense to me. But I do like it.

Because I was baptized in the Methodist church when I was 14, I was allowed to take communion with these folks. You go to the front, put both your arms across your front like an X, as if to hug yourself or skydive, and then you say your name and open your mouth, and they put a cracker dipped in wine on your tongue, an oddly sensual experience. I honestly don’t remember what the pastor said. He has a very direct gaze and it blew out my thoughts. Sometimes you wonder if they can see in your heart, you know? Hee hee. Besides which, he was flanked by other officiants, all of which were looking lovingly at me. I love all that attention anyway. Why did they use white zinfandel for dipping? Pleh. Would prefer some nice Shiraz. What do you say when a strange man looks into your eyes and feeds you by hand?? Awkward! I shuffled off to the right and tried to observe others’ behavior for clues.

Other rituals included lighting a candle for someone, in the same way Catholics do, and the holy water by the door – wasn’t sure what to do with that since I haven’t been to many Catholic church services. I also loved the incense and the cool ringing noise the brass censor made when they waved it around, and the pastor kissed the four corners of the table while doing it. Later a helper did the same all around the congregation space. After the service we were invited to the front to take a drink of the leftover wine from the chalice (so as not to waste the blessed wine) while the cute deacon held it and looked into my eyes, then he wiped it off before the next person approached. To the right stood the pastor, waiting to give me a blessing. Amid this intimacy he saw fit to ask me where I was from. I almost couldn’t answer. I was thinking, hey, let me focus totally on this cool thing I am receiving. I got another hug and was sent to light a candle (or not).

Kudos to the officiants for not singling me out beyond simple welcomes at the appropriate times. I absolutely hate being greeted as a visitor, being asked for my address, being asked to sign up for a committee (Southern Baptists – scary), or being confronted about my personal beliefs or churchgoing habits (several of the more rigid faiths).

I got the feeling that family would have been fun to hang out with later – like there were some awesome cooks among them and they were going to have a monstrous feast with happy kids running around and people laughing and talking. Something weird about this area of the country – the land is desolate, so the people try to make up for it by being as cheerful and sweet as possible. And they succeed.

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