It’s 9:57 on a Sunday morning, and I’m not getting ready for church.
It feels like a confession, writing that. Today is Sunday, so what else should I be doing? I went to divinity school, after all, and the church I go to just gave me some money to do a project I really, really want to do. The minister there gives thought-provoking sermons, the music is consistently good, the people kind.
But I have a lingering cold, and Schuyler’s working all day. I want to go for a walk soon, and there have been so many people around lately. I’m still coming off that holiday rush of crowds, noise, fullness. And the church I go to—well, they wouldn’t want me to come to a service just out of guilt. Right?
Right. So why this persistent, nagging anxiety the idea of church and of choosing not to go to it provokes in me? It’s not new, it’s been here for years, and yet I haven’t wrestled it to the ground yet. I should go to church, I like the idea of church, I even like actual church sometimes…but it’s always a struggle, never quite fits. Is it the millennial in me, some unrealistic expectation that everything I do should bring some kind of authentic personal fulfillment into my life? Am I just being too goddamned self-centered? (The number of times I’ve used the word “I” in this so far does not escape me, and yes, I meant to say “goddamned”.)
Perhaps. There is a tendency to navel-gaze in me, a habit of reflecting things into the ground and coming to no useful conclusions in the process. Still, there seems to be something more here, and it’s not only me who thinks so. As a society we’re forgetting how to “do” religion, in some part willfully. This is no new observation: think about how many times you’ve heard the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” how many people you know who care about other people and ethics and God and stories, but just don’t feel at home in organized religion. Depending on who you are, maybe that doesn’t resonate with you, but in the church (whatever that means anymore) this is a big bewildering full-fledged crisis.
And I’m supposed to be one of the few young faithful (believe me, lots of churches have assured me of this), one of the ones who keeps the church alive. It feels like a responsibility, something I’ve been educated and groomed for, and willingly so. I want to be a part of the church, want to lead in some way even, but walking into a room full of strangers and making myself talk to them sounds like the worst way to spend my morning.
I can’t stress enough that this church, the particular church I’m talking about, is wonderful. The people, I mean. (That’s what church is, right?) They care about the things that I care about, those liberal church values: community, authenticity, social justice, openness. They even care about God! Well, most of them…but let’s not get into that right now.
Here’s the thing: those values are all terrifying. Practicing them requires work, discomfort, vulnerability, risk, failure. Just like talking to strangers, which, as I have already noted, is something I hate. (Unfortunately, that’s kind of all Jesus ever did: talk to strangers. How inconvenient. Again, we won’t get into that right now.)
I read an article yesterday that offered some advice that seems to fit here: to live a good life, rather than asking ourselves what we want, we have to ask ourselves what we are willing to struggle for. I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out here: am I willing to struggle for community, to work to get to know people who will care for and disappoint me, who will make me feel awkward and loved and judged and forgiven? Because that’s what the church does. That’s what people do.
Everyone doesn’t find that community in church. The church hasn’t done a particularly good job of providing it, which probably has a lot to do with that crisis I mentioned earlier. What brings me so much hope and anguish is that I know it can, and can abundantly. And I can play a part in inviting people into that community, welcoming them into the imperfection and the grace.
The only problem is, I have to make myself, let myself go in first. I guess there’s always next Sunday.