Thursday, October 27, 2011
“It’s time to get up,” my mother would say in a gentle voice nudging me awake. I would roll over and bury my face in the pillow because it knew it was Sunday morning.
“Hurry or we’ll be late,” she would speak in a louder and sterner tone.
“I don’t want to go,” I’d complain with my face still buried.
“Now, Phil,” she would reply. “You know we have to go to church. You’ll feel bad all week if we don’t.”
Going to church, which the majority of people did right after World War II, was a requirement. The consequence of not going was feeling guilty.
Well. . . at least it was for my mother and probably a number of others. For a child of four or five it was like taking a weekly whipping, or a tonic that would fix what ailed you. Church was supposed to be good for you.
I confess I don’t have many memories of what happened when we got there. My father, who was a Deacon for a while, didn’t want to be there any more than I did. He could find excuses like needing a last drag on a Lucky Strike right before we went in, or finding that the car mysteriously wouldn’t start. The second resulted from pulling off the black cable on the battery which worked fine as an excuse if it was raining. Unfortunately, it didn’t work on sunny days because we were only three short blocks from the Columbia Theological Seminary chapel which was home to a Presbyterian new church development that would build its first unit during my childhood right across the street from the campus.
Oh, I remember a few scattered funny things about worship like the Sunday morning an Irish Setter wandered into worship right in the middle of the minister’s pastoral prayer and sniffed his rear. Since our pastor’s prayers were spontaneous and unscripted he would lean forward on the pulpit with the fingers of his right hand pinching the bridge of his nose as if to keep his eyes shut. It also meant his hand was in the way of his mouth and you could hardly hear what he was mumbling to God. The Irish Settler got a whooping, “Oh my Lord! Amen.” That made for a quick end of what was normally about a ten minute prayer.
I also remember a Pentecost Sunday that was unusually hot where the windows were opened and right a cue as the preacher was talking about the Holy Spirit being like a “heavenly dove” a flock of pigeons flew in and perched on the rafters. It bordered on some of the best staging I’ve seen before or since as if the pastor and the pigeons had rehearsed the whole thing. There was a good bit of ducking and dodging going on, or using the fans from the local funeral home to shield one’s head. Pigeons tend to be messy birds.
Other than that I don’t remember much except that I liked the minister because he was a warm, friendly, and caring man who knew everybody by name, rank, and serial number. He was a wonderful pastor who could preach an intelligent sermon, though I can’t say I remember sermons even now very well which leads to the comment that though most of us don’t remember a sermon, or even the text ten minutes after we’ve left the church building, preaching does have a cumulative, teaching effect on shaping moral values and theological reasoning.
What I do remember all too well was going to Sunday School where during my early years I was in a combined class with kindergarten aged kids through about the third grade. It must have been a prescribed practice in those days for the teacher to leave an empty child sized chair next to hers. I’ve heard others my age talk about the experience of being told that this chair was for Jesus and that he “did not like” loud, rowdy children. Some of the third graders might raise a hand to ask a question, but the rest of us sat like we were carved of stone. Even wiggling in our chairs was frowned upon. I was half sacred that Jesus would actually show up and we’d have the second coming right then because someone had been bad.
Like going to worship, I don’t recall much of anything the teacher said who was an imposing force in her own right. I can’t say that I even remember being baptized at the age of twelve because my father had been a Baptist at some point in his life and believed in “believer’s baptism.” It would have been easier to have had me baptized as a baby since I was rebellious by the age of twelve and didn’t really care whether I joined the church, or not.
I went through a “Communicant’s Class” my eleventh year of enduring church, but what I recall wasn’t the sacrament itself, but the pastor’s constant kindness and special interest in me. He became a mentor as I worked on my Eagle Scout and God and Country awards. I spent a lot of time with him personally and knew him as an honest, truthful, loving, gentleman. I respected clergy men in general since there were no clergy women back then.
I’ve had plenty of time since childhood to examine my feelings about the motivations of why I was compelled to go to church. It had a lot to do with social conventions in a small southern town from the 1940’s through the early 1970’s. Mostly it had to do with instilling moral values about how to live a faithful, obedient life as a follower of Christ. Church worship and Sunday School were intended to teach us basic human values like The Golden Rule, the wisdom of the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. All of these words of faith were memorized and nearly everyone in church could recite them by heart. We didn’t use creedal statements like The Apostle’s Creed in those days, at least not in “my” church.
The pity of it all is that many of us, child and adult alike, went home on Sundays not feeling the “peace that passeth all understanding,” but a sense of impending doom. When we heard Calvin’s claim that we were “totally depraved” and victims of “original sin,” we felt pretty lacking in spiritual worth.
The truth of my mother’s statement that I “would feel pretty bad all week if I didn’t go church” was way off the mark. What I felt was the fear of God. I felt even worse when I got home. Guilt would have beat the trump card of the “wrath of God” any day. Of course, we set out immediately in our Sunday finest most Sabbath days and drove down a long, winding, red dirt road to my maternal grandparent’s farm house where we had more hymn singing, praying and preaching.
So Sunday’s in general were a bummer.
I also had what was a precocious ability to see the raw truth about the community of faith that wasn’t always that faithful. There were married men cheating on their wives, and wives cheating on their husbands which everybody knew in a small town. There was a man my father swore pocketed a few dollars every Sunday while counting the offering. My mom, who was an accountant and did some of the taxes for church members, could figure out pretty easily who was shorting Uncle Sam. There were also the church wars over such things as changing from The King James Version of the Bible to the Revised Standard. God you would have thought that God himself would come down and strike the pastor dead for even recommending such a radical departure from what “was right.” Even though we sat nestled in the basement of our new education building while waiting on money to build a sanctuary, I heard a lot of angry chatter about the “pinko, communist, liberals” on the faculty of the seminary next door. It seemed to me that most of those horrible “liberals” went to our church! One of the professors had a reputation as a hyper-conservative, and another as being a strict Calvinist. I gratefully had neither of them to contend with as professors by the time I got to seminary, though their ghosts lingered everywhere.
We also fought about a “new” hymnbook that was mostly a little thicker with a different colored cover, but included the same hymns we had always sung. The poor pastor labored through all of the discontentment and somehow managed to stay sane.
And, the cheaters kept on cheating, Mr. Brown kept hitting Mrs. Brown and giving her black eyes, and the real “sinners” waged war on the more progressive thinkers. My parents, especially my father who eventually quit going to church all together, complained mightily at our dinner table about what these examples taught the children since we sort of knew what was going on. Conflicts, contradictions, and ironies abounded. No wonder I buried my face in the pillow and complained, “I don’t want to go to church!”
The horrible truth is that we don’t seem to have moved that far in over sixty years. Only the arguments change. We moved from fighting about integration in the deep South to ordaining women to the War in Vietnam to gay and lesbian ordination. And so the story goes for those who remember their own history. And we do this in the name of Jesus?
It’s not hard at all to figure out why so many people don’t want to go to church, or worse yet, never even give church a thought. To outsiders we look like a bunch of idiots who fight among ourselves constantly, even if that’s not usually the case. We also don’t seem to offer a compelling reason to eat up half of our Sunday “day of rest” to be bored by things we don’t remember. We mostly re-cycle bulletins these days so at least we are helping replace some of the pine trees we help slaughter. But the bulletin is at least a reminder of what went on if we are forgetful and want to hold on to it for a few days..
Yet for whatever reasons some of us keep going to church and pledging our dollars to support something that seems terribly deformed in the hope that we can somehow make “the body of Christ” healed and whole.
I hear the comment often that people go to church to experience community. I believe this to be true, but there a hundred different choices on a given Sunday morning to experience community with friends and people who think as we do. Drive by any Starbucks, or any similar high caffeine watering hole, or go golfing to see the foursomes enjoying God’s green earth chasing little white balls with chilled beer in the back of the golf cart. Cold beer and Vienna sausages make for good communion elements.
Did I just write that? It must be some of the DNA from Grandpa Oscar leaking out. I used to privately condemn in my heart all those slackers who played golf on Sundays. Since I’m not a golfer and have spent years of my life working on Sundays I think I was really breaking the commandment about envy. But then along came YMCA swim meets and school soccer practices; malls and movies that opened at ten o’clock; and two worker families who needed some family time in their SUV with the Cocker Spaniel in the back with the kids. Early church didn’t fix their preference to skip church and after a while since “guilting” got unpopular as the principal method of getting people through the church door, they just quit coming. Re-branding and wrapping the Gospel in a brighter, more colorful wrapper also didn’t have much staying power. Even the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt and is up for sale.
So what in the name of heaven is church good for?
The only answer I have is so apparent that it sounds ludicrous to put it onto paper. Church is about people who have been already chosen by God, even if they don’t know it yet, who will give themselves away to others with wildly, unfettered, unconditional love. Church is not about buildings at all. We don’t need buildings to gather ourselves and prepare to be disciples of Jesus, and to scatter into the world of needing, hurting people for that purpose and that purpose alone. Church is about experiencing God’s grace through someone else who cares about us enough to support us with their love even when we’re committing those sins of “commission and omission.” Once we learn that we can’t earn grace because it’s always been right in front of us we know how to give it away to others. We understand how to pay it forward even when the world seems to be falling apart, and our friends seem bound on living in hell on earth.
Sartre wrote that “hell is other people.” His play No Exit is proof positive of this supposition. I contend that “heaven can be other people.” We experience the love of God in tangible, real, emotionally charged ways through someone who cares enough to give a damn about our lives. It is then that the community of the church really becomes the church.
None of our doctrinal battles are really worth the effort to protect the purity of the church for admittedly any church where there are pews, or moveable chairs, are filled with sinners. We mostly understand that all of us sin “and fall short of the glory of God.” Those who believe they can work their way out of their guilt, or the shame we’ll talk about later, miss the point entirely. It is impossible to be saved even by the best of deeds. I believe it is equally impossible to mutter some magic words like “I give myself to Jesus” and immediately be on the path to heaven. The only way to salvation that I know and understand is the pure miracle of taking what’s already there for free and then shouting this news to someone else with a quiet talk, a handshake, a hug, or a kiss of peace. Salvation comes to the unsaved not like my Grandfather Gordon’s ravings, or his lifelong quest to be good enough to get saved, but through the healing touch of the church in the world that gives itself away completely.
I had lunch with a friend and fellow pastor recently and our take on this is that maybe we need to sell all of our assets, quit worrying about buildings that suck the spirit right out of a church budget, and annually spend exactly every cent we take in. The heck with endowments, investments, memorial funds, and sinking funds for a leaking roof.
Naïve thinking on our part? Maybe, but maybe not. Stop reading right now and ponder this. You can come back and read the last paragraph when you have answered the question. What does it mean to go to church?
• • • •
The church is a pretty messy place. It’s often far from pretty. It’s rather imperfect. It is sometimes incoherent even to insiders. It fights a lot and contradicts itself. It is living proof that sin is real. What if, though, it’s the world’s last best hope of taking care of the earth and everybody who rides with us on this whirling orb that is like a big, blue marble? What if?