I went to see my spiritual director Tuesday for our monthly meeting. It was good; it always is. But it left me with some spiritual rumblings down deep somewhere – and rather than blowing my top it might be better to open up a little vent further down the hillside so I don’t cover everything I touch with red, angry lava.
I think I can do this without knocking over Leonardo’s house, so let’s see what happens.
She asked me a question, whether there’s a church I can go to close to home, a place that would feed me spiritually even if it isn’t everything I want it to be.
This is because I’m an Episcopalian and there aren’t many churches around here. To get to my home parish I have to get up two hours early and cross the DMZ; that is, the time zone line between Central and Eastern Time drawn three miles south of my house. I’m on Chicago time, while most of Indiana’s with New York. So I don’t go to church very often, only for the biggest services of the year, which are held the night before.
I’m a night person; I love the dawn when I see it but it doesn’t happen that often.
Her question, asked out of love because she knows I live in isolation and need to be part of a community, provoked a complex response, including this puzzlement: why does a person go to church at all?
I don’t assume that the readers of this blog go to church; my Gay Spirit Diary is open to everyone, churchgoers or not, believers or not, Gay or not. Keep reading if you feel like it; maybe you’ve got rumblings too.
Marcia is an ordained Presbyterian minister who for many years was the chief pastor of a prominent downtown church in the next county over from me. Then at some point things changed and it was time for her to go. I don’t know what the issue was, I’ve never asked, I’m not sure I care to know. Maybe someone decided she was too liberal; maybe she made a mistake. I don’t really think so, but it’s possible; I’ve never asked and she’s never said. I’m not going to pick at that scab. I only know that she is wonderful to me, joyful and loving and deeply faithful.
She has recovered nicely, has a part-time job as an adjunct professor of art at the local Catholic college, does “pulpit supply” on Sundays all over the area, produces marvelous paintings and is married to a smart, sexy guy who’s becoming a friend of mine. Ote (pronounced Otie, short for Otis) is a marathoner, an ex-farmer, a gourmet chef and all-around piece of work. I like having these particular heterosexuals in my life.
However, Marcia is left without a regular worshiping community, and so am I. We don’t get fed very often. Her question Tuesday afternoon left me wondering, Why is it we go to church? What motivates us to rise up out of bed, shower and dress and drive?
Could I find most of what I’m looking for in a congregation on this side of the time zone? Do they have to be Episcopalians, or will other Protestants or Catholics do? Is there anyone else around here who would satisfy me, speak to me, or is my only alternative trekking down two clock-hours (50 miles, but still, two hours) to my home parish? What do I get when I go there?
Do I go for the people? No, never have. They are not my “church family.” I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a church family. Perhaps I’d like to, but I never go to church because of the people who might be there.
I go because of God, not my fellow travelers on the Way. I’ve never gotten much of anything from them – and maybe I’ve never given much either.
When I go to church the transaction’s between me and Him-or-Her. I go to encounter God, not to socialize, though it’s wonderful to meet people afterwards. I’m an Episcopalian because they help God encounter people more directly than any other church I’ve ever been to.
After that, coffee hour’s a real bonus; all these people who got up out of bed, dressed and drove for the same reasons I did. I like them; we understand the world the same way.
God does as much or more for them as s/he does for me. Of course I love meeting them! Church is a gathering of people who believe God loves peace, not war; justice, not oppression; inclusion, not exclusion. I love Episcopalians, and in my national tour two years ago I had a fabulous time. North and south, east and west, urban, suburban and rural, I was always at home with Episcopalians.
I don’t want to be triumphalist here; we are terrible sinners and we know it. It helps that we understand sin as corporate as well as personal. “Sin” is less who you fuck than who you screw.
And we have the gift of preaching clergy who seldom fail to point out who, as mostly privileged White Americans, we are failing to treat as God’s own loved ones.
One of the things I like best about my church is that the People are Biblically-grounded, that we try seriously to conform our lives to the faith and ethics Jesus laid down; that we consider the worship of God as high and transcendent art, demanding the best of us and lofting us to heaven in music, Word, preaching and Sacrament, in which we experience great joy. I can go to any Episcopal church in the world, whether we speak English, Tsalagi, Spanish or Haitian, and have a fabulous spiritual time because I’ve connected with God.
I don’t know any other denomination like this. I’m sure the same thing happens in congregations worldwide, regardless of labels and hierarchies, but with time and reinforcement, the Brand Name has come to matter to me. You always know what you’ll get at a Holiday Inn.
To Marcia’s question, challenging my denominationalism, I replied, “Maybe the ELCA, but there aren’t any here; all the nearby Lutherans are Missouri Synod (anti-Gay).”
How could I associate myself with churches that are anti-Gay? I can’t. With churches that think women are supposed to be subordinate to men, because of out-of-context interpretations of St. Paul? I can’t. With churches that think some White European is an infallible authoritarian pope? I can’t. With Methodists who seldom do sacraments despite Jesus’s clear direction to “Do this”? I can’t. For 1500 years the only Sunday service was Holy Communion, but Methodists are once-a-monthers, or once a quarter! I can’t.
So I heave a big sigh, and wonder why anyone goes to church. Because of the people, the “church family?”
I suppose if I got to know them and suppressed all my objections, I’d find that Disciples (with their lay administration and tossing the unused elements out to the birds) and Pentecostals (with their fixation on speaking in tongues) and Catholics (who pay no attention until the sanctus bell wakes them up) and Presbyterians (who think fucking matters more than screwing) are wonderful people. But I don’t go to church because of the people. I go to meet the one true God.
So despite Marcia’s excellent question, and the possibility that I may yet find a church family closer to home, I have to think of why I go to church at all, even though I rarely rouse myself to do it:
I don’t go for “Bringing in the Sheaves.” I don’t go for the shredded carrots in lime Jell-o. I don’t go for the Bible study, because half of it’s lies anyway. I don’t go for the coffee hour at the Episcopal church, pleasant though it sometimes is.
I go for the sacrament, and the immersion (baptismal) experience of the liturgy; for the high art of music that transports me, words that blow my mind and make me more than I used to be.
I’m Anglo, I’m a WASP, and by God we do words better than anyone else on earth.
God spoke Jesus into being as the Word; he didn’t speak English but we’re scrupulous interpreters. We don’t need to press our own agenda when he’s eloquent in any language.
Thus Marcia and I are left a bit bereft in this life, but hoping in the future. We do not have local congregations we feel part of. We’re sort of orphans here.
We could become volcanoes, but it’s better for us to open up and vent a little before we blow our tops.
Meanwhile there’s a lot to be said for finding Christ in a congregation, not in theology or liturgy or ritual, but in the living faith of real believers, trying to conform themselves to the Way of Christ even as they resist and resist and resist.
Marcia asked, “What should we talk about next time?”
“Fear,” I said, and I meant it. I know I’m being stupid to be afraid of the One who loves me – but I’m mortal, and it’s natural to me to be afraid of merging with the divine.
I’m afraid I’d stop being Joshua, though the evidence is clear that the result of the merger is that I would become more like Joshua.
If Christ ever saw me as I really am, I’d probably blow my top.++
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