I was not always a church goer. For the first decade of my life, Sunday didn't mean much of anything. Being taken to the UPC church when I was 13 however, Sunday was a pretty big deal; and so was Tuesday, for youth group, Wednesday, for bible study, and Friday, for worship. It wasn't really optional either. They often expected us to go to church every night they had something going on. We lived 20 minutes away, and when my dad expressed that it wasn't feasible for us to go that often he was met with disappointment from the church. Eventually they decided the only way to keep us was to "plant a daughter church" in our hometown.
We never really committed to the transplant church, and after I got married at 18, Josh and I sought out somewhere else to go. We went to a non-denominational church and I really loved it. The people were great. Sunday was a day of obligation once again, and we traveled a good distance and got up super early to make it to church.
I never cared much about dressing up, although I would watch Josh's family when they would go and his mom always looked like she was going to a fancy awards banquet. Josh and I wore jeans usually; it was an invigorating change from when I had gone to the pentecostal church and guilted into wearing skirts.
Even though we felt very welcome and had no complaints about the new church itself, it was the same challenge it had always been: suddenly remember on Saturday night that we had church in the morning, wake up begrudgingly early, fight rising tensions as we shuffled our baby around, experience stress as we are running late but still have the obligation to go, feel miserably exhausted the entire time, and so on. Then before we knew it, church was over and we were so glad we went. It didn't matter if the message resonated with us or we had any kind of spiritual fulfillment. We were glad we went because we had made it over a huge hurdle. Of course, we were told often to equate that feeling to the devil trying to stop us from doing the right thing by getting our family to church. Despite the drawbacks, I made several good friends and have little regrets about our time there.
We moved to Alaska a few years later and found another great church. As much as I loved it, we were once again at the mercy of obligation and pure exhaustion. If we didn't go though, we felt like we had done something wrong. Maybe we were just too lazy, unmotivated, and not as spiritually mature as we needed to be. I was just waiting for the day that the love of Jesus alone would get me out the door and to church because coffee wasn't enough most days.
The more kids we had, the worse it got.
Sometimes, climbing the stairs while anemic and large during a pregnancy was almost more than I could bear. There were seasons (actually, it was the majority of the time) when I couldn't sit through the message at all, because I had a baby or toddler. I would end up in the nursery, often with the door shut, or I would sit in the playroom on a wooden bench downstairs. The worst times were when I was pregnant and sick or uncomfortable and had to sit downstairs with kids. I would spend the entire service just counting down minutes until I could go home a lay down to relieve some of the back pain and nausea.
Needless to say, church was rarely fulfilling for me. We would get up early, even though we are by nature, night owls. We would scream and yell and fight trying to get all the kids ready - did I mention there were several schedule changes that kept my husband from attending, and I was getting all of this accomplished with sometimes 5-6 kids on my own?
At a certain point, my extreme discomfort and the fact that I hadn't even gotten to hear the message in a year pushed me further than the guilt of simply not going. During this long break from church, I was constantly being asked why we weren't going and told that we should come back.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this - any time you stop attending a regular function, people are going to say the same thing. After attending a UPC church however, these words meant a lot more to me. It meant everyone must think I am a backslider. I am a sinner and I am being rebellious. The guilt was overwhelming, even though I tried to be very honest about why we weren't going. I couldn't help but think that I was doing some horrible disservice to my children by withholding church from them. On top of it all, I was really angry at Josh. He was supposed to be the spiritual leader and make sure his family went. When I finally reached my breaking point and couldn't drag all the kids over there every week, he did next to nothing to fix it. In fact, he just acted supportive as if it was a given that an exhausted, stressed out mother of a ton of children couldn't get everyone to church consistently by herself. This didn't make me happy. This made me feel like he was obviously not taking his role as the head of our house seriously and I felt insecure in his ability to spiritually lead us (again, all part of a narrative I had been taught for my entire adult life as a christian).
The day came when we decided to attempt church as a family once again, and I was met with absolutely no surprise to find that it was chaotic and inconvenient. I spent the entire service in the play room, and ended up rushing home in aggravation before getting a chance to even socialize with anyone. Returning to church as regular attendees was, needless to say, short lived.
Honestly, it's not anyone's fault. I don't think any church would be a "good" fit for us since we don't do mornings and I have my own struggles with obligations and so on. Add on the number of children we have at all different age levels, it's hard to make church work for everyone. Rowan offered to sit with the small kids so I could go upstairs, but then she was missing the message. I had to occasionally keep the boys with me for their bad behavior (nothing like going to church and feeling condemned because of your unruly child and having to babysit them when you already don't get to experience anything worthwhile during that time). It was especially hard feeling like Archer's meltdowns and inability to sit still left him with little point in even going. There was only a place for Archer to belong about half the time.
I reached the point that I had to admit that it was all too much. I couldn't make it happen and it wasn't worth the struggles, the anxiety, the discomfort, the emotions... not to mention how it left us feeling for the rest of the day. There was something about getting no sleep and spending the morning going batshit crazy that resulted in a bad day. We often were exhausted and at each other's throats the rest of each Sunday. Church was not a beautiful reprieve - it was pure torture. There were even days where the stress and anxiety of it all got to me so much that as soon as church was over, I literally snatched up my kids and ran home so that no one would see me crying. This is not the way church is supposed to be.
One more time, I want to reiterate that while there were occasionally people at church that made it more miserable for me, I actually don't blame the majority of the congregation. They are good people whom I still have a lot of respect for, and great friendships with. I especially loved my pastor and his wife and still, even through a Jewish lens, agree with the messages the pastor gave. He was not about fire and brimstone; in fact, the word he delivered was usually fairly well aligned with Jewish concepts. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to make church a good fit nor beneficial for us as a family. We had even toyed with the idea of switching churches, but that never sat right with me for some reason. In any case, I don't think it would have mattered.
Every once in a while, I will wonder why it seems like no one in online and why social media is so quiet - and I will suddenly remember that most of my cyber friends are at church. It is a strange feeling when you are vaguely aware that it is everyone else's rest day, but this day is just the start of a new week for you.
Today, church service has been replaced with Shabbat - which begins on Friday instead of Sunday. The difference is like night and day.
We start thinking about our Shabbat plans in the middle of the week. It's rarely a last-minute ordeal. When I say we, I am referring to myself, the kids including Ender Dean who is only four years old, and Josh. All of us are in it together and are very committed to our weekly observance. Josh has even text me from work several times to ask about dinner plans and offer suggestions. He sometimes starts hashing out the entire menu before I have chance to give any input at all (which is both adorable and slightly annoying). The kids are always very curious as to what will be served for Shabbat dinner.
When Friday rolls around, there are no morning alarms. We get up at our usual time and start working on chores and food prep. I ask the kids to really make their chore time count so that we can have best rest day possible. Josh will finish up any shopping on his breaks so that I can spend the day cooking and prepping. We try to think ahead and remember the tablecloth, the candles, plates and cups that will be needed, and anything extra. Josh brainstorms throughout the day about how things will be served and what he can do to help when he gets home. He often picks the dessert or the drink at the last minute while shopping.
We insist that the kids are dressed and have clean hands and faces if at all possible. When Josh comes home, he either manages the kids finishing up the last few duties that can't wait until sunday or he jumps in wherever he is needed on cooking duties. We announce when we are coming down to the last half hour, things tend to get a little more chaotic. It all ends up coming together though, and before we know it, we are sitting down before the candelight and singing the Shabbat prayer together. Dinner is so peaceful and calming. We are forced to stop everything and feel the resolution of our hectic week and just rest in the ambience of enjoying each other's company. This is the atmosphere church should have been for us, but it just never was.
After dinner, we always have Rowan clear the table. She took this duty upon herself, and enjoys being alone in the dining room carrying away dishes and blowing out the candles. Traditionally, you are supposed to let the candles burn out on their own - but with seven kids, three dogs, and a number of unruly cats, we have opted out of that tradition if favor of safety.
The rest of the family gathers in the living room and groans about eating too much while we deliberate about what movie we are going to watch. No one can ever agree.
Some nights we watch two movies, and some nights are just one. Sometimes we let the kids sleep downstairs, but not always. They do try every week to whine, "but it's Shabbat!" which is a phrase I don't think I will ever get tired of hearing from my littlest ones.
Saturday is usually about sleeping in, finding ways to entertain ourselves without tablets and computers, and just hanging out. Leftover challah ends up being breakfast the majority of the time. We will some weeks turn on the T.V. and watch a movie depending on how tired everyone is and what our plans are. There are always still responsibilities that must be dealt with; pets still need to be fed, unexpected messes still need to be tended, etc. We find time in the middle of the day to have a Shabbat nap and most of the kids (and myself) end up passing out in various places and just catching up on sleep. I have been known to still get on my laptop from time to time to work on my Jewish conversion studies, but I try to avoid social media or anything mind-numbing that isn't fulfilling in some way. Josh unfortunately still has to work on Saturday - something he hopes will change in the near future. After working so hard to make sure Shabbat comes together and we get out day of rest, I am sure it is frustrating for him to have to forego the actual resting part. When our 25 hours is up, we begrudgingly clean up and prepare ourselves to rejoin the real world - booooooo. It's been quite interesting to watch the whole family come together for this and follow my lead. After years of resistance from everyone, in every capacity, I can't really even understand why they are all so drawn to Judaism with me. Josh is much more invested in Shabbat (well - all the Jew stuff really) than he ever was with church or christian holidays, despite spending his entire life engaging in those practices. I don't bug him or convince him to do anything, since this originated as my own journey. Somehow, he has just sort of hopped on board and is totally along for the ride without the guilting and coercion I used to employ.
This last week, I have been traveling and in my absence, he made the choice to keep Shabbat. They were a little late getting everything to the table, but he managed pork chops (we are obviously not kosher), mashed potatoes, green beans, and a beautiful little round challah. They had one of the kids' friends over and still sang the blessing and everything. Then they watched a movie I had been wanting to see which I was slightly pissed about, but I digress. I can't imagine the whole family going through with a religious observance without my insistence - it's just always been me, dragging them along. Jewishness has settled deep in their hearts, just as it has in mine, and I am letting go of Sunday; instead, every Friday, we connect spiritually to all the generations since the beginning when we honored Adonai by resting, as we were commanded.