Before I knew God I loved God, and how could I not? My mother sang about God’s goodness at the foot of my bed. Kind hands showed me how to lace my fingers, how to bow my head in prayer. My earliest memories are tinged with this gentleness and awe.
As a teenager, I wept to think of sin. I wrote rhapsodic poems about grace. My friends and I lay out on the grass at night, heads resting on each other’s stomachs, marveling at God and staring at the stars. The infinite burned like a fire in our chests. And then we turned sixteen. Then we went away to college. We argued with our parents. We wandered, some farther than others, and not everyone came back.
Everything got more complicated. I began to agonize over the church’s apparent cruelties and inconsistencies. My palms clenched into fists during sermons. I closed my eyes to pray and I felt nothing—then, stricken with guilt, it seemed easier not to try.
For a while, God shrunk back into the abstract and I went only sporadically to church. I made friends who were kind and good and didn’t believe in God and they seemed happy. I tried this, but I found that because of the fabric from which I had been cut, I could not be. Despite my frustrations and doubts, faith was still so knitted up inside of me I couldn’t tell where it stopped and I began.
I grew up singing the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” loving its soaring melody and eighteenth-century rhymes. It was much later that I caught the plaintiveness of its third verse, which entreats: “Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.”
Strikingly, the chains that bind us to God in this hymn are neither guilt over sin or fear of punishment. Instead, the fetter is goodness. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,” the hymn continues, “Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it…” The song spoke to my longing to hold onto belief even when I felt it slipping away. It spoke to some profound and fundamental good that must be stronger than the inclination to leave it behind.
This is why, even on days when I don’t believe, I still go to church. On the days when Jesus seems unreal, I go where he would be if he were anywhere, even when the conversation turns to global health or affordable housing—or especially then. I hold in discordance my disillusionment and my commitment, and I pray anyway.
Then some days I do believe. It feels different than the rhapsody of my childhood, no longer passion but peace, like a warm cup of tea and the assurance that however you feel tonight you will be together tomorrow. The light filters in through the stained glass. An elderly man on the metro sleeps on his wife’s shoulder. A robin pulls a fat worm from the ground in the middle of a traffic circle and life suddenly feels too grand, too expansive, too beautiful to possibly come to an end.
My story is not of leaving the church but of rediscovering it. Trusting that here among the saints and pacifists, hospice workers, union organizers, teachers and babies and poets, God will appear.
We say the words. We grasp hands. We stand, we sit, we sing, we swallow bread and wine. Then we go out into the world to feed people, write grants, sign petitions, give our money away and love people who are hard to love, even when all of this is exhausting and countercultural—or especially then. I find goodness here, like a fetter to bind my wandering heart.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).