Installation 6: The Fold
by bryan parys
Since moving to New Hampshire for grad school, I have been in the throes of a harrowing church search. At the end of this column you will not hear about how I've found one and am now the events planner, or floor-vacuumer, or coffee-brewer-for-Friday-Singles-Night-even-though-I-won't-actually-attend-
figuring-that-one-out! This lack of success is due to all the usual mid-20s reasons and excuses--personal laziness ("But I've had such a long week; please let me sleep!"), intellectual awareness (songs with choruses that repeat "Yes, Lord" over and over just don't have the same umph anymore), and the fear of commitment ("But what if they don't like me for me?").
The denomination I grew up in was nondenominational--a church that has no national sponsorship or funding, no pastors ordained by any umbrella group. While visiting this church recently, a woman named Delilah got up and announced, "I've never read the Bible!" This was shocking to me, but everyone else seated in their padded chairs just smiled as if she were announcing that Sunday School would resume in September. She went on to say that she was in the midst of a yearlong attempt to read the Bible, using a Gideon pocket Bible--New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs. I thought she might do well not to cut out the not-as-quotable and often uncomfortable Old Testament.
Comfort. I thought of the comfortable blue folding chair beneath me. Much more comfortable than the unpadded folding chairs we sat in when I started attending during high school. At the end of every sermon the pastor said, "Before you leave, could everyone lend a hand folding the chairs and putting them back in the closet?" For me the act was liturgical. This wasn't just stacking; it was a sonic ballet of grab-clasp-stack that made it well with my soul. I looked forward to it the way others looked forward to Communion. A priest swinging incense would've been weird; folding as many chairs as I could carry was a holy offering.
But that was back before the church split. Every church I've ever been a part of has met with this fate due to one controversy or another, be it heresy or hearsay. It always happened at times of great prominence in the church. It seemed the more comfortable we became, the less God blessed us with a sense of unity.
As one of my childhood family's churches grew, so did plans for a new sanctuary. Soon pink padded chairs that were locked into place took over the sanctuary. I felt helpless. Evidently so did a few others since a few months into the use of the addition the church split for reasons I still don't fully understand. My guess is that cozy seats paralyzed us. Before we had them, a certain amount of discomfort kept our community in a constant state of critical analysis of our great communal commissions. The discomfort brought us together, got us talking about our struggles and successes, then sent us back out into the world to keep on keeping on.
In my current search I've visited churches with wooden pews, churches with fixed rows of chairs, and churches where the only folding chair is in the lobby--behind a table with a cash register and a fanning display of church-merch. During these visits my brain is in constant argument with itself; it goes something like:
"Nope. This isn't artsy or intellectual enough."
"Well, that's a bit snobbish. You don't pick a church like you a do a cardigan. If anything, they should be picking you!"
"I know, but it wouldn't hurt to be understood. Plus, I don't even know these people."
"That only comes with time! Look around, doesn't it remind you of your childhood church?"
"It does. That is comforting."
"On the other hand, it reminds you of your childhood church."
"Ah! That is discomforting!"
This loop continues until we leave and go out for breakfast, where I then replay it to my wife, Natalie. We get angry about the church, then we get happy about the church, then we eat omelets. As usual, I'm probably overthinking this metaphor. But is it so bad to want a church that knows when to fold 'em?
This column is a modified version of a longer essay of the same name.
bryan parys doesn't like to capitalize his name and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire. Whenever he hears the word "potluck" he is forever doomed to picture goopy finger sandwiches and the culinary enigma known as Jello salad.