Churches and Bells and Carols and Stories

It's been months since I entered a church building. The last time was when my parents were visiting, and I "did church" more in those few weeks than I had since June!

Until Christmas, that is.

Late, late, after all the Christmas eve food was consumed, after the presents had emerged from beneath a too-small tree and the wrapping had been tossed aside, after baby Ethan was spirited quietly to a car and the spare mattress was set up, the house quietened as we headed to our beds. Too hot, windows and doors and blinds left open in the hope of some cool breeze.

And as we pulled up the covers, the bell started. I'd forgotten about St Mary's Catholic Church just a few blocks away. As the sound tolls out across a quieting city, I have this sudden urge to get up and go to church. I've never been to church at midnight. I've never been to a Catholic church. And suddenly I want to go. But the bell's tolling ends and it's too late to find my clothes, sneak downstairs, find the church.

Next morning I hear I'm not the only one that had a sudden urge to go to church when the bell rang - my brother and sis-in-law nearly did too!

But instead we head off to an unknown church, following pencilled directions from sis-in-law's client. It's a converted loft under a curved roof, and seats not more than 50. A removeable banner on the fence outside proclaims "Christian Lifestyle church" and gives contact numbers. We're welcomed by a guy in his early 20's, the pastor. We find our seats and settle in as the band (two guitars, a keyboard, a flute and a djembe drum) play through some songs, practicing and changing as they go. The seats fill up with young and old, hippies and street kids, cool and outcast.

The band strikes up remixed and true-to-antiquity carols and praise songs, the leader tapping out the beat in his bare feet on wooden floorboards, his jeans creating a shiny patch on the floor next to them. And our storyteller enters, giving us a South African rendition of the tale of a small-town girl and boy, who find themselves in the middle of an amazing story that is still told with wonder today.

Church ends with an invitation - "We're always here, but we won't pressure you to be. Come if you want to, and you'll always be welcome."

Unchurched brother and sis-in-law will be back. It's the group they've wanted to find for a long time.

And I, I wonder if in 2005 I should start attending the church I've taken an "indefinite break" from again. I miss the people, and I know I'll be welcomed back with no questions and no judgement. Yet there's still that part of me that doesn't want to be tied down, that wants to run wild and free and find my own voice. That stands outside the holy huddle activity and sees a wider world. That doesn't want to be labelled as a denomination, but rather as a God-child. That is still not quite sure who God is, and would feel beaten down by being in the midst of those who do. That seeks quiet and solitude instead of crowds and noise.

I don't know yet if I'll brave the pews in this year. There are many who think I can't be Christian without it - but I am... Still figuring out that part of this long, winding road through the mountains toward an unknown destination.

And yet, when I hear bells, I almost think I can do it. Almost, but not quite.