Tuesday, February 20, 2018

I Just Stopped Going

I hadn’t been back in years. I just got to a point where I said to myself, “Yeah, it’s time.” I’d had experiences there as a kid, though they weren’t necessarily very good ones. But everyone knows it’s supposed to be a good thing. So many people make it a central part of their lives. They go there not only for themselves, but also to experience communion with others. They leave feeling so much better, not just in the moment, but throughout their week. Some people even go several times a week. For them, it’s a real spiritual experience.

So I showed up one day, and I talked to a kind person who showed me around. He was an expert, I could tell. He really knew his stuff. I asked lots of questions, and he did his best to answer them. But I could tell that there's an aspect of this that isn’t one-size-fits-all. It was going to take commitment on my part. And when I came back the next time, I knew this guy was busy and I couldn’t expect his personalized attention every time.

So I tried to explore on my own. It felt a little aimless, but I did try it, and I felt a little better when I left. I knew that a lot of people develop their own specific practice they they can do at home as well, and that it truly helps them become better. But I didn’t know how to begin to do that.

And after the first couple times, I wasn’t enjoying myself. I tried to go every week, but that happened less and less often. When I did go, it felt more like a slog; I had to rearrange my priorities to fit it into my schedule. To be brutally honest, I would rather have spent that time reading the paper at home or playing on my phone at Starbucks.

Sometimes I brought my daughter, who is eleven. They have childcare for the little kids, who have fun enough. But my daughter was too big for the childcare, and it was clear that they didn’t really want her in the big room with the rest of us. So she just sat in a corner and read and waited for me. It wasn’t especially scintillating for her.

And I felt guilty because I didn’t already know what to do or how to do it. I mean, I had signed my name and pledged money for the privilege of being there. I guess they use the money to pay the people and keep up the things of this place that people find so helpful to them personally. But I wasn’t coming as often as I’d originally intended. So I started to feel like I wasn’t getting anything for my money.

I could have paid more for the privilege of having that nice man help me one-on-one. But I didn’t feel flush for cash or flush for commitment. It wasn't what I expected. I had images of being excited to be there, and coming out glowing and radiant, ready to tackle the big bad world.

But if I'm being honest, I can admit that I went into it half-hearted, and maybe that's why I didn’t stick there. I left. I really meant to keep going to the gym, but I just drifted away.


How is going to church like going to the gym? How is it different? What were the missed opportunities in this story? How could it have been different in a church? How do people's expectations about money play a part in the comparison? Most of all, how do we, the church, greet the people who show up cold, who don’t know the ropes, who have cultural expectations that don’t match our reality, and who are feeling adrift but well intentioned?

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.

- Habakkuk 3:17-18

I've been musing a lot lately about the futility of faith. Yesterday at least 17 people, most of them children, died at the hands of yet another person who somehow thought that guns might solve his problems.

What will America do in response? There will be more "thoughts and prayers" -- or, as the president tweeted yesterday in an attempt to come up with a new phrase, "prayers and condolences." It's the same thing. It's so, so easy to say and not mean.

No political action will result. This is because the National Rifle Association reigns supreme over politicians' pocketbooks. The NRA is not a gun safety club; if anything, it is a gun recklessness club. The NRA doesn't want to protect people from harm. The purpose of it is that more and more guns will be sold in America. As if there weren't already way too many.

Now, last I checked, this country is still intended to be governed by, for, and of the people. We still get to vote. We still get to protest. We still get to call our senators and representatives. And I will be doing that today, and if there comes a time when these rights are taken away from us, I will not put up with that. Really, I don't expect my actions to do much. Yet that won't stop me.

Yesterday I was actively disagreeing with Paul in a passage in which he refers to our sufferings in life and calls them God's "discipline." He says that we discipline children, so why shouldn't God discipline us? The problem with this comparison is that discipline requires parents to be clear with their children about why a punishment is happening. A parent who punishes secretly or capriciously is not a disciplinarian, but an abuser. To whatever degree God seems hidden to our eyes, our sufferings cannot be considered discipline.

A person of mature faith may come to regard some of life's sufferings as God's discipline. But this is a personal theological stance. I am a priest, but I would never, ever, EVER say to another person, "Your suffering is a matter of God disciplining you." No, no, no. If God is an abuser, then our faith is for nothing. Suffering must exist for some other reason. If we suffer and don't understand why, this suffering cannot come from God.

Today we have this reading from Habakkuk, quoted above. I may have read it once or twice before in my life. But I am struck to the core today by its message: against all evidence to the contrary, I will place my faith in God. As Peter once said to Jesus, "Where else can we go? You have the words of life."

The thing is this: we are not going to survive this life. And we all know this. Whatever else we may say about God, we cannot say that God prevents us from dying. We may get angry about death when it occurs, but nothing will stop it. Death is coming for all of us. As 2Pac put it back in 1993, referring specifically to the trials that black women endure: "We ain't in to survive, 'cause it's a setup/ I know you're fed up/ But please, you gotta keep ya head up."

Not even life is an option for us for very long. Yet. Yet. Yet. Beauty. Love. Hope. Service. As long as there is the opportunity to love in this world, we will love. Jesus pointed out to us emphatically that love is the only thing that works. And it will conquer -- it has conquered -- even death. And that's true even if we can't see it now.

So what do you say? Are you game? Are you willing to live this way, believing in things you can't see, because they're the only things worth believing in? I am. Will you join me?