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  • Writer's pictureMara Whiteaker

The Sermon is Never Long

Sometimes I keep the sabbath at church, sometimes I keep it at home. And if I’m going to be perfectly honest, sometimes I don’t keep it at all.

I was not raised in the church. My parents had both grown up in Catholic homes, but neither took it with them into their adult lives. During my childhood, I had a lot of questions. As an attempt to help me understand, my aunt sent me a bible in the mail. She included a handwritten letter explaining how to read it and understand God’s word. She recommended starting with the New Testament. Against her advice I read the entirety of Genesis and then I gave up. Unlike what was traditional for my extended family, I was not baptized as a baby. My grandmother spoke to me of Original Sin. I was uncomfortable. How could I pledge myself to a god that would persecute me for a crime I didn’t commit? I used the limited information I had to form an argument for unbelief. I held my reasons through middle school, thinking that my atheism was a brand of intelligence. I would often fight with my friend, Andrea about the logistics of human creation. She willingly participated in her parents’ Lutheran faith. I tried to make her see that it did not make sense. She was practically the top of our class. How could she be so smart, yet believe in God? She told me, “Humans cannot comprehend something that has no beginning or end.”

I first became aware of Emily Dickinson in late high school. I had heard some of her work before this, possibly in English class, but I didn’t really make the effort to understand what it meant or who she was. Throughout high school, I was an active member of the competitive speech team. I competed in the category known as farrago. Farrago is the combination of many different works from many different genres organized under a central theme. Typically the theme and the works were chosen by the coaches, but my coach always allowed me to pick my own topics. He had a lot of faith in me and knew that it would be best if I could forge a personal connection with my piece. My chosen theme always seemed to align with the current events of my life. Senior year, I felt drawn to spirituality. Unlike the previous themes, it was an intentionally vague yet pointed topic, to reflect the increased uncertainty I was experiencing. I am not exactly sure how or why Emily Dickinson ended up in there, but I am glad she did. It was definitely my coach’s suggestion, he had selected “Some Keep the Sabbath” to fill the gap between Thoreau and The Secret Life of Bees.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I, just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

I had to recite the poem nearly everyday, for practice and competition. I would say it out loud to myself in the shower or the car, and go over it in my head during spanish class. During this time in my life, I was dabbling in a series of seemingly unconnected spiritual practices. I was starting to form beliefs, but I really had no foundation. I was reading informative books, journaling regularly, reciting prayers, and feeling compelled to spend large amounts of time in nature. I could feel the connection between myself and all living creatures, and by extension other people. This was the first time that I really felt that creation was divine. I could sense a higher power, I knew there had to be one. But I couldn’t determine whether it was the Christian God I had heard about, or some other, more personal entity. Nature seemed to be the one thing I could believe in. I had learned about the complex physiology of living things and the complicated puzzle that is the universe. I remember my calculus teacher had described the intricate patterns of numbers that were found to naturally occur in things as mundane as fruit. This was truly an orchard for my dome.

My cousin told me that these things were an example of God. I will never forget that car ride. Levi drove me to Madison, and all the while spoke to me about the glory of God. I could tell that he did not intend to convert me, but to truly describe the importance and presence of Jesus Christ in his own life. He simply explained, and without meaning to, he gave me answers to the questions I had been holding for years. I came to him with skepticism and he gave me the tools to understand another point of view. I wonder if Levi knew at that time what a critical turning point that would be for me. Now, he’s decided to pursue seminary this next year, and having personally seen him in action, it is clear to me that it is truly his calling.

Somehow piece by piece, the transition to Christianity was made. I graduated high school, started college. I began to be surrounded by more people than I could ever conceive of, and even more ideas. I attended educational events, experienced a defining tragedy, and took several more steps toward the life I knew I wanted. I didn’t feel ready, but I took a leap of faith and joined a Christian fellowship program. At first, I felt I came to the table different from everyone else. They seemed so steady in their faith, used to it from childhood. Once I was able to get to know my peers, I learned that this was not the case. I fell into the rhythm quickly, and began to gain a greater understanding. After awhile, I felt ready to find a church. Luckily, I found two, one at school and one at home.

During Emily Dickinson’s lifetime she had a difficult time attending church. She was from a small New England town, so her entire family and community essentially belonged to a singular church. In order to be declared an official member of this church an individual must undergo a public commitment ceremony. Emily, a well-known recluse, refused to comply. While the rest of her community didn’t even bat an eye, to her this was an impassable barrier. Despite having previously attended seminary, she could not compromise her authenticity for the faith of others. She decided to continue worship from her own home, at her own pace. While others kept the sabbath in surplice, she just wore her wings.

I attended regular worship at my church for a season or two. During this time I felt exhilarated! I was learning new things, making new connections, and finding a sense of peace I hadn’t had before. Nothing will ever be as emotionally moving for me as a church service. I remember crying before taking nearly every piece of communion bread I have ever received. I couldn’t help but be in awe when people reached their hands, grasping towards the cross at the front of the chapel. And the music!

However, I had a hard time praying. I didn’t know how and it felt silly and pointless for me to speak directly to God. It seemed like everyone else could do it but me. I knew it was important so I worked really hard on this skill. I even read a handful of books about moving past this very issue. I could sit and listen to my pastor say their prayer, but it felt awkward and inappropriate to be just a spectator. Despite it only being a few minutes of awkwardness each week, it added up and along with Saturday-Sunday clopens at my job, it made it harder and harder for me to attend church.

These days I feel most compelled to work through things on my own, Emily Dickinson-style. This could mean numerous things such as reading scripture, listening to music, reading other relevant literature, or just simply sitting with God. We need to work on our relationship, privately. I just let God lead me through what I need during that time and if that means taking some time off to process doubt, then that is what I have to do. I know that the most important work I must do right now is to make room for acceptance of the things that are hard.

Emily Dickinson spent her whole life cycling in and out of her commitment to God. She always believed, and she always doubted, but at different times one more so than the other. These seasons greatly affected her personal behavior, feelings, and her artistic work. Unknowingly, I have been cycling too. I can see the belief hiding under the doubt, or the other way around, for each distinct stage in my faith journey. When I was a child my belief hid under the doubt in the form of nagging questions. When my belief was most strong, doubt drove a wedge in my personal relationship with God. Now as I feel that doubt may be creeping up to be the dominant function, my belief is forcing me to contemplate these balances. I have no reason to fear this doubt.

I know that one day I will make it to church again and that I will be comfortable during all aspects of the service. I have faith in my faith. I don’t know if Emily was able to definitively work through the issues plaguing her and I don’t know if she was ever satisfied. However, I do not think this makes her any less of a Christian. Can one truly call themselves a Christian if they have never struggled with doubt? The real thing that matters is the relationship between the people and Christ and while we may doubt at times, that bond will never waver. My doubt is not only an obstacle, but a lesson of unconditional love. It can be scary to not know where I am spiritually, but I do know the direction in which I am heading. I know that God has laid out this plan for me and I must trust that it is right. So instead of getting to heaven at last, I am going all along.

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