There was a time many years back in our 21 year marriage when we only had cats, three of them. It was later that we found a landlord who let us have a dog, a lab and Doberman mix, who was pretty well unmanageable until the day she died.
Nowadays we have three dogs, one large, one medium, and one small, and every day of the week — unless it is thundering and lightening or there is an ice storm — we walk them.
We take different routes, according to our mood — and theirs — mostly shorter on the weekdays, a mile or less, and longer on Saturdays and holidays, maybe two miles or more.
We talk about our days, about our grown children, about our moods, the mood of the country. Or we just hold on to the leashes and enjoy each other together in the silence. Richard picks up after their messes and he picks up half the litter in the City of Decatur along the way, his daily service to the world. I check out the gardens and the changes in the sky.
Walking our dogs, in this sense, is our main spiritual practice, a well established ritual that is performed faithfully and intentionally. So faithfully and so intentionally that on the occasion we actually are seen walking together, or apart, without the three dogs, people stop us and inquire whether there has been a pet death in our family.
Day in, day out, those dogs are walked and we with them. Seven days a week for my husband.
For me, never on Sunday. Until almost exactly one year ago.
You see for almost a decade, I was in a pulpit on Sunday mornings, after getting up before dawn, as I did today, to finish (OK start and finish) my prepared remarks. Then I would get on the road to go deliver them, schmooze and lunch with the congregations I was serving as a Unitarian minister, drive home and collapse. Lie on my bed and read the Sunday papers. Watch Lifetime television movies. Take a nap, a long nap.
No dog walks for me, no way.
That is until just about a year ago, when faced with the prospect of a brief sabbatical, three months or so, or a longer break — like resigning and taking back my Sundays and all that went along with them — I decided on the longer break. My last sermon was titled Dayenu, from the Passover Seder prayer, a very Zen one at that, which basically says that whatever we have is enough.
I took great comfort in these words, but found myself soon in my own state of existential anxiety — what would I do on Sundays? In particular, what would I do on Sundays from 11 a.m. to noon? Because not only had I had this choice made for me because of my vocational calling for these many years, I had been for as many years as I could remember, a churched person. An existentially Humanistic, essentially God-less churched person, but nonetheless someone who had been attending services in one liberal congregation or another since I was a small child in Bethesda, Maryland.
My parents, disaffected, what they call “unsynagogued” Jews, who had called off their relationship with any kind of deity and any association with organized religion as younger adults, decided that their four children needed something to do and somewhere to be on Sunday mornings, especially because we lived in a nearly completely Christian subdivision. In the summers we were sent to whichever Baptist or Methodist church was having morning bible camp, so my mother could have a few hours peace. The theology, the hymns, the conversionary coloring books did not bother them in the least. They trusted in our indifference.
But they did search out a more philosophically (and musically) compatible place to bring us on Sundays, and found it in a series of Unitarian fellowships and churches. My mother soon chose to stay home and make the midday dinner, but my father, a devout atheist, drove us there and attended the services, which were really lectures with some classic piano pieces, until he discovered Ethical Culture for himself, and then bird watching.
My brothers mostly dropped out, but I kept on showing up, finding rides, convincing a girl friend, a nominal Episcopalian, that I would sing in her church choir if she would go with me to Unitarian Youth group. And do the driving.
In other words, being churched as it were, showing up on Sundays, was pretty much completely my choice from a very young age. No demands. No coercion. No promises of heaven or threats of hell. God forbid. I just liked going, and kept going all through college, taking the bus from the tear-gassed flats of Berkeley up to the tasteful contemporary Unitarian church up in the hills. I took my own small children there, even when my then-husband never made it inside the doors.
And so on and on, wherever we moved, whatever my life status or life change, like going to the gym every other day to use the treadmill and the cycle, or watching the Sopranos, or, yes, like walking dogs, a practice. What would it be like to suspend this familiar routine, to be unchurched — freed up — out and about with other kindred spirits? Where would I go, what would I do, and most important (to me) who would I see?
Who are these fellow travelers, I wanted to know, and then where would I be most likely to find them?
According to a study by what looks to be a conservative Christian think tank, the Barna Research Group, in their study “State of the Church 2006,” there has been a 92 percent increase in the number of unchurched Americans in the last 13 years. In 1991, there were 39 million (unchurched being defined as an adult 1 years or older who has not attended a church service within the past six months, not including a holiday service, such as Easter or Christmas, or a special event at a church (such as a wedding or funeral).
The highest proportion of the unchurched, they say, is in the Northeast (around 44 percent) compared to the lowest here in the South (26 percent).
Men are one-third more likely than women to be unchurched — 38 percent compared to 28 percent of the women.
The average unchurched person is 38, which is younger than the national norm of 43. In fact, of the bridger generation (those born between 1977 and 1994) less than 30 percent attend any church.
One quarter of American adults (26 percent) are single, never married, whereas nearly two-fifths (37 percent) of the unchurched fit that definition.
So, already I could see there were fewer unchurched folks to be found here in the South, they were more likely to be male, younger, and never married.
What would I expect in terms of the spirituality and beliefs I would encounter in the wilderness I was about to enter into?
More than half of the unchurched adults (54 percent) consider themselves to be Christian. However, while half of the churched population say that Jesus Christ is their personal savior, only one out of every six unchurched adults (17 percent) have done so.
In terms of their beliefs, 65 percent of the unchurched believe that Satan is not a living being but a symbol of evil. And only 23 percent of the unchurched believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches.
I was beginning to feel that I would not be so alone.
This experiment or experience in being unfettered on Sunday mornings began last fall, figuring that the late spring and summer were slack times for church attendance in any case, and the Georgia weather was too hot. My search would begin in earnest in September, the traditional beginning of the church year, and my expectation was that most Sundays I would be challenged to find a place to be where I could discover who I was in this radically different context and who would be my fellow travelers.
It was then that I thought about keeping track of this through my very first blog, the name of which would be, appropriately, “On Sundays We Walk Our Dogs.”
Because that was the very first thought I had when looking into the prospect of that empty 11 o’clock hour: I bet I know where everybody is that is interesting and seeking and open and spirited — they must be doing what I had never been able to do. They were out and about the neighborhood, or at the dog park. I will share an excerpt from one of my first entries:
Ministry, once the title is granted, is a role not a robe, I have frequently told my contextual education students, first year seminarians at the local ecumenical theology school. Imagine the heavy, thick folds, I have said, the weight, the gravitas. But you will be wearing jeans and team t-shirts, and you might be wiping a nose or stacking folding chairs after a meal in a shelter. Yesterday, I spent a Sunday without robe or ritual, at least the ritual I have been used to: lighting a chalice, opening words, a couple of hymns, 20 minutes of talk, and not even the studied casual costume of a female Unitarian minister. My husband and children have teased me about the look: flowing dark pants, a simple loose blouse of some clear color, the modestly dangling ethnic earrings. I was wearing my weekday cropped pants and a Keep Austin Weird orange cotton top, and sturdy walking sandals. With no pulpit to fill, I browsed through two thick papers in a sitting, instead of catching up all week in untidy piles. We worked out at the local Y with the handful of other non-churchgoers at 10 a.m. By 11, we were walking our three dogs and unleashing them in the new dog park in our neighborhood. I intend to return to this place on as many free Sundays as weather permits, to see who else shows up at this hour where even in a laid back, progressive Southern town most everyone else is sitting in a pew. There were eight other adults and around 12 dogs. I asked one thirtysomething woman who was reading a book and keeping a half eye out on her roaming spaniel if this was a typical crowd. No, she observed, the largest number come on weekday evenings right after work. This is small, she said. Maybe because people are at church, I tested. I guess, she answered, not with much conviction…
And our second dog park visit:
This morning, the first day of standard time, and an unemployed Sunday for me, we took the dogs again to the dog park, trying to discover where people go when they have no church, let alone a pulpit. Once again, the 10 or so humans with their twenty or so dogs were mostly thirty-something…
Our first few moments of entering this sanctuary: a brown expanse of dirt and a slope of old, neglected oaks, were spent settling our three dogs into the mix. Our Tibetan terrier was almost immediately set upon by a hound, whose owners were alternately embarrassed and defensive. Charlie escaped and found refuge under the chair of a woman with twins, allowing me to resume my religiously sociological fieldwork as a participant observer. From the cheerful snippets I picked up, the main homily topic was finding faucets in specific and remodeling in general. Ours is an area of transition and/or gentrification, and there is apparently a lively debate going on about the relative merits of Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Restoration Hardware. This and boisterous comparisons of pumpkin carving prowess filled the time in between comments about shedding fur, hot spots, and canine behavior. So far, I can determine that this is a relational space, an intentional community, with sacraments of watching, admiring, comparing, and controlling canines. Its resident theology, however, is harder to discern.
On Sundays We Drive on the Road Back from the Coast
On this Saturday morning, we drove seven hours to Wilmington, North Carolina, to visit our youngest son at college and to see where he lives this year, the bottom floor of a magenta-painted bay front house at Wright’s Beach. We spent the eight hours that was an unexpected gift of time for a sophomore, got up early and shared a nearly empty dining area at the Ramada Inn with a half dozen portly men on a weekend golfing gambit, and then went back on the road home. The route takes us through the Carolina coastal plain, down 95 and its miles of nearly empty cotton and then full tobacco fields, and back onto interstate 20 toward Georgia. We turned off around 10 a.m. a few miles past the 20-95 junction, when we saw a sign for a home-cooking café located adjacent to a gas station just off the highway. We had broken our usual covenant to only eat at non-chains when we ate breakfast at a Waffle House the day before. Our nod to righteousness on the Christian Sabbath was to redeem ourselves with something more local.
The place we chose only opens from 10-2 p.m. on Sundays. There was only one other table occupied, six men and women in neon colored racing t-shirts, who ate quickly and piled into a couple of pickups. We were, after all, nearby to a NASCAR speedway, my husband told me. In the front of the room there was a steam table, empty when we came in, but by the time we left filled with a lunch buffet familiar to us after more than a dozen years in the South: iceberg lettuce, cucumber and pickle slices, canned peaches and cottage cheese for a salad bar. In the pans and over the sterno, fried chicken, slices of ham and pineapple, a green bean dish, macaroni and cheese, and some kind of cobbler. It seemed sacramental to me somehow, the bringing in of the creamed corn and squash casserole and gravy for a ritual meal as old as or older than the church services it follows.
If there was a love offering in the midday meal, the breakfast was an indifferent sacrifice: flat, lukewarm, and pale scrambled eggs, inedibly over-salted and buttered grits, greasy biscuits, and dry toast. As if to remind us that at that hour on Sunday only godless race car fans and heathens would be sitting down to eat.
There were only a few of these entered into my blog, mostly because my Sundays got taken up with guest pulpit dates once or twice a month in places like Camp Hill, Alabama, and Cookeville, Tennessee, or I snuck into the back of my colleague’s sanctuaries and got a chance to pick up some pointers or engage in some spirited (and sometimes mean-spirited) critique. Or I came here or other liberal philosophical and spiritual communities, just because I felt the need.
There are a few places we went that did not get written up and should have, like the morning we drove out to the airport and sat in the chapel for the first of two non-denominational (but really, really fundamentalist) services they hold for people on lay-over between planes, perhaps, and employees. There was just the two of us and two others, and the minister who led us through a series of passages on salvation. Afterwards, Richard got to eat a vegetable plate at Pascals. Or last week when we just stayed home and I watched the talking heads show on network television from 11 a.m. to noon, and caught the different perspectives on illegal immigrants and global warming, one sound bite at a time.
Truth is I have been missing being in a place like this on Sunday mornings at just this time.
After exploring many alternatives, and deciding against many others (like Wal-Mart or Costco, or bowling or golf), I know now for myself that more than ever I believe that we are meant to be alone/together. Yes, we come into this world alone and leave alone and in between choose our beliefs, actions, and responses, but as social existentialists like Martin Buber maintain, in a well-structured society, the cell tissue is not the detached individual but what he called “far-reaching, autonomous, togetherness of human beings, forming and transforming itself from within.” In these social cells — like this one — each human is a free person insofar as she or he participates in the formation of this society — a freedom which all participants confer on each other through their mutual response and responsibility.
This act, this life-enhancing and world-building act, is not a one-time occurrence but an ongoing process of inter-human relations.
African-American theologian and distinguished Harvard lecturer Thandeka was in town recently and called this coming together on Sunday mornings “presence-ing.” Her word to describe what happens when we sit and stand and sing and be together, affirming each other’s physical presence and mind and heart.
Ours, I am convinced, is a relational faith, and Sundays are as good a day as any to make and keep those bonds.
It feels good to be back where I belong.