Last week, less than 48 hours after there was a senseless homicide in our neighborhood, my family participated in a time-honored summer ritual: My husband and I took our 5-year-old son to Vacation Bible School at the local Methodist church.
Our town is a small one, isolated by woods and miles of industrial parks from the rest of suburban Washington, D.C. The two larger churches in town, Methodist and Roman Catholic, are effectively also community centers, their pancake suppers and casino nights drawing far more than their membership
So it was not unusual that we would be sending our son to VBS at a church that we ourselves do not attend. But there was no inherent reason that we should be going in the first place: My husband is Catholic, and I am a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy-neither of which has traditionally been in the VBS business.
A lot of our friends are people for whom the spiritual is a radically open, non-sectarian, often even a non-theistic question-and who tend to think that any Christian children's activities must be some kind of creepy, fascist-army kind of indoctrination. Meanwhile, most of our Christian friends, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or conservative Presbyterian, affect a sophistication that tends to wink ironically at such rah-rah evangelical conventions as Vacation Bible School.
My family background is Southern Baptist, though, and I spent decades of my youth as an evangelical, and on some level I did not entirely understand, I was determined that my son would attend.
But when the day arrived, the idea of five nights dedicated to 'Visit Paul and the Underground Church!', complete with costumes, skits, and lessons on Unmerited Grace, seemed beside the point indeed. Fresh in my mind was the image of coming home in the early evening on the Fourth of July from a leisurely barbecue to see the neighborhood's main drag choked with police cruisers, yellow crime-scene tape stretched across the boundaries of a yard.
"I'm going to walk down to see what's going on," my husband said when we arrived at our house, ordering me and the children to stay inside; he came home with the news of the shooting, and that the shooter had not yet been found.
In the hours that followed, we traded instant messages on Facebook with our frightened neighbors. A longtime neighbor's adult son had been killed after, of all things, an argument over a pickup basketball game. That a young man had been killed over something so strikingly unimportant stunned me-I have a son, too, and the thought that a mere disagreement might result in death hit me square in the middle.
And while the crime didn't occasion a loss of faith for me, by the time we walked up the Methodist church stairs on Monday evening, the whole world felt suffused with meaninglessness. This summer I have been reading Kathleen Norris' excellent book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, and I recognized that the emotion I was feeling was the one that the Desert Fathers had described so well: a lack of inclination to care; a spiritual paralysis that bores and drowns. Acedia can effectively choke off the soul. As Norris describes, the Fathers held acedia to be one of the worst sins because, unchecked, it could undermine the believer's efforts to cultivate charity and other positive virtues.
It is acedia, she holds, that is at the root of much of our modern materialism and individualism, our tendency to respond to the adversities of contemporary life by walling ourselves up into private, consumer-oriented "lifestyle enclaves," to use Robert Bellah's phrase (which she quotes), and to neglect our duties to the community and others.
I made myself walk up the stairs.
"But I'm just going through the motions," I had complained once about my prayer life to Fr. Aris, the wise Greek Orthodox priest who would later become my son's godfather. "That's all right," he said to me. "The important thing is to keep on saying them. You can feel them later." They would save me when I least expected it.
For the next five nights, each evening we arrived at the Methodist church, had dinner, then journeyed with Alex through a series of games and crafts and a live drama in which an actor costumed as the Apostle Paul (complete with a Roman guard to which he was chained) told the little children about how Jesus Christ could make them free.
The children were both black and white; there were a number of Catholic children in addition to the Methodists. That old CCM anthem "They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love," which my husband remembered from 1980s guitar Masses and I knew from college Bible studies, has been updated with hip-hop era hand motions, we learned.
Each night, together, we were being a community.
I found myself thinking about how ridiculous some of my more secular friends would find it. But whatever corniness was involved in the week's activities, there was also a serious commitment to illuminating the tenets of scripture. The steady, dialectical voice of Paul underscored everything else that was going on: For I am not ashamed of the Good News about Christ. The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus. Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.
What struck me then was something that I had forgotten in 13 years of being Orthodox-that the steady cadences of memorized scripture could function, in a Protestant context, similarly to the mystical prayers in Orthodoxy (themselves drawn from scripture). The reason that I had so wanted my son to attend was that I wanted him to be haunted by scripture too, so that when he least expected it, the memorized verses could rise to his consciousness, indelible.
And perhaps startle him with their beauty.
Caroline Langston, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion's Good Letters blog and has been a commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. She lives with her husband and children in Cheverly, Maryland.