Monday, January 23, 2017

What Am I Doing Here? Church Edition

The subject of church is on my mind a lot lately.  Swordwind is full of people from weird religious traditions, Meshparjai actually asked to go to church last week, and she and I had one of those powerful parent-child spiritual covering moments a few nights back.  I'm thinking more about the mystical now these days just in general, in large part thanks to Tenranova (who makes me feel like a bad Christian, sometimes).

The truth is, though, that I've always had something a fraught relationship with church.  Maybe that's kind of surprising - I've always found it ironic for someone whom Princess once called "the most Christian person I know."  I've pretty much always found church hugely problematic.  I can recognize its value in my own life, but the more honest I am with myself about how problematic I find it, the harder I find it to commit to as a real spiritual discipline.

This really bothers me, of course.  To a pretty close approximation, Christianity cannot be done outside of a community.  The same is true of most religions, I expect.  And as Hebrews discusses, there is something fundamentally incompatible between the redemption of Christ and "forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some."  But there it is.

The problems I've had with church have varied over the years.  When I was in school, my basic problem was that the fellow Christians I was supposed to be building spiritual community with were not my kinds of people - by which I think I meant some combination of "into the wrong hobbies," "too popular," and "too dumb."

I have never dealt particularly well with dumb people.  I like to think I've gotten better.  But this was over twenty years ago.  And, to be fair, it wasn't just the people.  Church was often infuriatingly stupid.  I used to say that I didn't really understand how you can give a worthwhile sermon in less than an hour.  What I meant by that was that when I gather to hear the Word of God proclaimed, I really want to hear the Word of God analyzed.  I want to understand the text better.  I don't want some kind of "application" to my life.  If understanding the text happens to have application to my life, then great.  But the text - Scripture, the Word - that has to be the point.  Not my own circumstances.

As I got older, my problems with church tended to fall more into this category: that church is a place to meet with God, not a place to get moral or behavioral advice.  And in this regard, I find myself caught - have been caught for about ten years, if I'm honest - between different approaches to church.

I grew up with a very low church sort of liturgy, where the congregation enters the Presence principally through musical praise.  This sort of rock concert worship service has become fairly widespread and especially characteristic of the non-denominational megachurch, though I think my home church was unusually thoughtful about what precisely we were doing.  On the model I grew up with, musical worship is performative.  It's instantiatory.  It taps into the ancient roots within humanity that feel the need to create spiritual space where it is on earth as it is in heaven, whether we're recreating the throne room of Yahweh as revealed to John or recreating the hunting grounds of Ashur.

Perhaps because of this, I find this sort of liturgy a more ... complete experience of the Presence.  There is thunder and fire in it, and tenderness and heartbreak, that I don't find in the more staid liturgies of other Christian traditions.  I don't think I could take seriously an experience of God that doesn't have thunder and fire and tenderness and heartbreak.  Here my heart is open to God in a way that I crave.  Maybe this makes me weaker, in theological terms, than those who can trust God without such direct experience.

At the same time, this sort of liturgy is vulnerable to being ... well ... stupid.  I don't mean pointless: I mean literally lacking in intellectual substance.  It runs the risk of being hollow.  There is thunder and fire and tenderness and heartbreak in it, but God is more than that, and you can't have Christianity without the text.  You just can't.

The Episcopal liturgy where I've made my home for the last few years (well, intermittently) doesn't have that problem so much.  It may be staid, but as Archimedes once said to me, every word has been examined and re-examined.  The prayers are excellent, carefully grounded in the text and with many layers of function.  There is value in the sense of wholeness that comes from being part of a comparatively long-standing tradition.  I find that there is actual, direct spiritual value in the Eucharist - a value that I think even Pastor Scott would have recognized.  It is a staid liturgy, lacking in fire and thunder and tenderness and heartbreak.  But there is strength in it.

And as for the intellectual substance of the liturgy of the Word - something that, I find, all liturgies place more importance on than I appreciated when I was a kid being annoyed that Pastor Jack's hour-long sermon hadn't included nearly enough footnotes - well, as far as I can tell that's just not something you can control for by liturgy, or even by denomination.  That comes down to the individual pastor.

All three of these things are indispensable to my understanding of church - of what it means to just be in the Presence of God.  There's only one church I've ever been in that combines all three (The River, back in San Jose).  As a believer, I find that thought kind of ... discouraging.  As a parent, I find it exhausting, and a little bit frightening, and a little bit sad.  I want to worship with my family.  I want to wallow in all the things that God has to offer.  I don't want to have to pick and choose.

And this doesn't even touch the community aspect of church.

I have had the thought periodically over the past ten years that perhaps that is the missing part of the puzzle - or at least, the part that I'm supposed to grow in next.  In truth, I've only ever really had one Christian community, which was Testimony - and even then, I was always the one arguing that we had to be an a cappella group first, and a fellowship second.  I've never really appreciated community, is I guess what I'm saying.

And I don't know how to build it.  I don't know how to find a group of Christians who just happen to be the kinds of people I want to make clan - or how to have more than one clan, or how to make my clan big enough to have (say) a fencing community and a Christian community.  I can sort of understand finding fellowship in the context of a larger community where our joint allegiance helps to paper over the fact that we aren't really clan.  But what larger community is likely to have that sort of person, other than a church?  And that brings me back to my problems with church.

Which is why so often I've been in a spiritual headspace - whether it's praying with Meshparjai, sitting in the pews at St. Mark's, administering Communion to myself in the morning alone in the kitchen, or talking fencing with Tenranova - and asking myself, "What am I doing here?"