Sunday, January 3, 2010

How to Go to Church

Bekah is in Nashville on an "Alternative Winter Break" service project with a group from George Washington University. Although the trip itself and the work to be done are neither explicitly "faith-based" nor religious in nature, the students are being housed at the Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville. (Bekah tells us that Belle Meade is the part of Nashville where Al Gore lives--an affluent residential area, in other words.)

As a kind of thank you to their hosts and perhaps even as a way of enjoying the support of the Belle Meade UMC congregation, the group from GW is attending church there this morning. Bekah was relieved to know they'd be attending the "traditional service" rather than the "praise service" earlier in the day. Still, at risk of putting words in her mouth, I believe it's reasonably safe to say Bekah has at least some misgivings about attending church in the south, where even mainstream denominations like Methodists and Presbyterians are apt to have a decidedly different, often more conservative or more evangelical, flavor than what she prefers.

This morning I texted her the following suggestion: "Pretend your are a visitor from another planet, and be very very curious and very observant. Like, 'Wow, that's intriguing!' And enjoy singing."

I find that this kind of "from another planet, very very curious, semi-detached observer" stance can be very helpful when I decide to go to church. Sometimes from my observer stance I notice just how horrible a lot of the prayers and hymn texts are, even as I sing along to marvelous, beloved tunes. On All Saints' Day, for example, the hymns were so laden with images of earthly strife, struggle, pain, sadness, toil, battle, burden, and darkness associated with life here and now, while only life hereafter got joy, light, freedom, that I honestly wondered: "Who in their right mind would want to be part of THIS group?!"

As I've said in an earlier post, drawing in church, especially during the sermon, also helps. It brings out a different sort of observer in me--one that's happy to focus on some physical shapes and details in my immediate surroundings. Since drawing is an activity that often boosts my internal happiness, it puts me in a good space for enjoying what I enjoy, noticing what I don't, and letting that roll off my back as best I can.

Which relates to my best of all church-going advice to myself: to keep my expectations very very low. I feel kind of bad saying this, since I remember all too well how much I wanted to know that what I did as a priest in church, and especially what I said in my sermons, really made a significant positive difference in people's lives, and that the liturgies we offered were vehicles of grace. In addition, some of my friends are still clergy with similar hopes. But what's a blog worth if I don't tell the truth?

These days I'm happiest if I remember not to go to church needy, not to go looking for and hoping for affirmation or inspiration or inner peace or intimate community. To that end, it helps if I do my best to care for the happiness and well-being of my soul at home. And then, if I happen to glean a teeny taste of one of those aforementioned things at church (affirmation, inspiration inner peace, etc.), or even if I simply get to sing a hymn I like, or find myself amused at my inter-planetary observations, or feel a tad glad to participate in that ancient ritual of the eucharist (but really, I'd be SO much happier to eat something having more resemblance to real bread than those tasteless, wimpy, papery, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth wafers, thank you very much), and to imagine that David's glad to have my company in church for a change--any one of those circumstances might warrant being called "a good day in church"!


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  2. Just curious....why bother with church at all if you don't have to?

    Happy New Year to you and David!

    Do you know of Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard? He's written an awesome, thought-provoking and I'd say very positive book I highly recommend. "Good Without God" published by Wm. Morrow in '09.

  3. Yes, well, I thought about addressing that very question (and figured some wise soul out there would ask it!) but decided not to. But really for the moment, I'd say: for the occasional shot of that particular kind of music and the chance to sing it, and to go with David (and sometimes Bekah and Anna).

    Happy new year to you! Sounds like a good book (yet another book that bears some resemblance to the book I imagine writing--so get writing, I tell myself!)