I ran across Joe today. We manage an occasional street wave a few times a month, but don’t know each other except by sight and first names. I was surprised when he said, “You’re a pastor aren't you?” “Yeah, I am, how did you know?” “I read your columns in the paper.” Well I’ll be; someone other than family and close friends actually reads them. That’s nice to know.
Joe had more to say. He doesn’t go to church often. He should. It’s the season. Maybe he will. My guess is there are many Joes out there who will show up on Christmas Eve. Clergy tell each other stale jokes about C&E Christians (Christmas and Easter), but this is a time of year when seeds planted early in life try to bud once again. Maybe it’s the music, decorations, catalogues, tv movies, and holiday parades that give them energy to produce a nagging urge to reconnect with church. Why is it so seldom a take?
The problem is church. It gets in the way whenever church is a place one should go to. It’s an hour or two of time. It’s a half remembered ritual. The urge to go there is present, but why, what’s the purpose? Life seems to get along fine without it. Going there a couple of times a year is good, in some way, but why is it good, what do you really get out of it? Those are the questions Joe is bound to ask himself as January unfolds. At least going to the dentist twice a year has a purpose, but what’s the purpose of church?
My pastoral answer may not be enough, but it’s all I’ve got. There is no good reason to go to church, if church is just a place, no matter how nice the music or inspiring the sermon. But there is a reason to join with others to be nourished with God’s word, receive God’s blessing, and to know there is more to life than getting teeth cleaned twice a year. People who have any belief in God at all know that communing with God is to be in communion with the source of all life, and that a more intimate relationship with God is nourishing in ways nothing else can be. But how to do that? Our tendency is to stumble around trying to figure it out for ourselves when God has told us how, pointed the way, opened the door and invited us in. It’s church.
Church, in its proper sense, is not a place. It’s a gathering of people to hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest what God has to say, and to be nourished with holy food that will give them the strength to go on. Can you do that on your own? Apparently not, at least not very well. God, and particularly God as revealed in Jesus, called people into community to enter into holy communion with God, and through it to become agents of God’s healing and redeeming love in the world.
Many people have a sense of what that might mean, but keep looking for it in all the wrong places. For instance, there’s a lot of New Age talk about using the power of crystals to focus the energy of the universe for human good, or about various places in the world where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin. You can fork over a lot of money trying to get the right crystal, or travel to the right place, to discover if the hidden power of the universe can be yours. God, whom we know to be manifested in Jesus, says forget it. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is the power so many are seeking. He isn’t somewhere else. He’s here. You don’t have to find him. If you let him, he’ll find you. God’s power doesn’t flow through crystals but in the community of people gathered for worship. Thin places are real, but not rare. They exist in every gathering of the church. Maybe not always easy to experience, but always there.
Admittedly, not every place that calls itself a church is one. If the message it offers is centered on loving God, loving yourself, loving your neighbor, and following where Jesus leads, it’s probably a real church. If it promises prosperity, easy self help, or threats of all kinds, it probably isn’t. Moreover, every real church is a gathering of sinners and miscreants of all kinds stumbling toward more faithful communion with God. Real church doesn’t offer perfection. Different churches offer access to God’s presence in different ways because people are different. What works for some doesn’t work for others. How can you tell which is right for you? We clergy hate the idea of church shopping, but it can work. When you find the thin place you’ll know it. Needless to say I’m biased, and am certain the Episcopal Church has it all.