The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Being the church: Go big or go home

Posted by Ron George on August 7, 2011

Beginning of Christianity, by Cecil Herring

I felt touched this morning at church, though I doubt it was anything like a return to faith. It happened during the Apostles’ Creed – lump in my throat, tears welling in my eyes. Grief. There’s still grief to pay for the death of my faith. I received communion. I sang the hymns heartily. Going through the motions, though I truly enjoyed the singing and the sermon. Getting in touch with the grief was good. Faith may be dead, but I’m not. The grief is real. It may be the only real part of me, anymore. I probably should know better than to say things like that, but it sounds true even if it isn’t. There’s more to me than that. Always has been, but faith has always been the big thing, even since I was a kid. I’m not kidding about feeling dead without it.

I began wondering at church this morning just how much of my faith, truly, was “churchianity” and to what extent that species of faith operates in the lives of others. Today’s lesson and sermon aimed at that question somewhat: Peter or whoever talking about a royal priesthood, a holy nation and God’s own people, or something like that. I don’t believe anyone I know has the stomach for giving it all up, living in community and devoting one’s life to a shared experience of ministry to those in need. That’s church, like or not, and it’s certainly not what most Christians have become.

I’ve just about concluded that, in Richard Rohr’s terms, I did convert to churchianity decades ago, and now that I’m disaffected from the institution, there’s nothing left. My faith was not in God but in the church. All that so-called love wasn’t for God in Christ Jesus but for – well, hell, I believed that the church is an expression of God in Christ Jesus, that there is something more than the sum of its parts operating in the world, the so-called power of the Holy Spirit. I was clueless about whatever or whoever “God” was, but was willing to let Jesus be the conduit and the church be my meaningful group. Otherwise, I didn’t – and I don’t – see any point in Christianity. If it’s not about the Spirit-filled Body of Christ ministering in Jesus’ name to the greater glory of God, then, as they say, WTF? I guess I’ve concluded that it’s not about that, that Christianity is pretty much a self-serving social club bent more on its own preservation than anything else. Its outreach is about joining, its ministry about joining, its programs about maintaining membership. Its good news? Damned if I know.

Cube Jesus, by Anthony Falbo

That’s not an easy conclusion in light of today’s impassioned preaching: Go big or go home, saith the preacher, challenging his flock with his own brand of courage – how he’s lived his life, he said, often to the distress of his parents and his wife. (Laugh line.) He’s a church builder, and despite his statements to the contrary, he won’t be among us for long. He’ll restore the finances and membership of this troubled congregation then go on to his reward – larger, more prestigious churches and, eventually, perhaps, the episcopate. It’s how the Methodist church operates. We’ll miss him when he’s gone. I’m sure old-timers hereabouts already know that he’s three-to-five years and out. Make the best of it, folks. Let him do his thing.

I was prompted to read my customary praise psalm after communion, and then the hymn to love in I Corinthians. No tears this time, but again, something tugged at me, perhaps a bit of nostalgia for the faith I’ve lost in whatever – the church, Jesus, God. I really don’t know, anymore. I haven’t really prayed in almost two years, but today’s choir anthem kind of felt like prayer, except to whom? To what? Actually, I’m feeling more than a little obdurate about all this, because I’m afraid of sticking my neck out again. I’d rather not be willing to be loved by God if it means “going big,” as the preacher said, only to have my ass kicked by the in-crowd.

Don’t go there, though, because I should have known better from the outset. I did this to myself, this church thing. It’s a pattern. I set myself up for failure; then, true to form, I failed. Why in the world do I continue to do that? It’s neurotic. It’s sick. Maybe it’s true, as my breakfast buddy said the other day, that if you can ask the question, then you’re probably not crazy – or sociopathic, which was the subject under discussion. So, maybe I’m not sick, but that doesn’t mean I’m not suffering from a self-inflicted wound. Maybe it was a form of suicide. The priest in me wouldn’t die, so I had to kill him.

Well, then, mission accomplished.

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5 Responses to “Being the church: Go big or go home”

  1. Geoffrey said

    It’s a bit disconcerting to me that as I come to you with questions of faith, I read posts like this one where you profess the death of yours. How am I to react to all of this?

    If I’ve ever felt that my faith was truly dead, I would look into the eyes of my family and know that God is looking right back at me. I understand the “church be damned” part. I’ve spent the better part of twenty years not attending because of what it had become. However, my faith in GOD has always been present. My faith in man, not so much.

    • Ron George said

      Had my faith been as yours, faith in God and not in God’s mediated presence in and through the church, mine might not have died. I’d hate to say my faith was false, but perhaps it was, or at least ill-founded or misdirected. To say my faith has died doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. It does mean I’ve given up having a relationship with whatever or Whoever God is. Part of that is sheer ignorance: I don’t know how to be a Christian without the church; and quite frankly, I don’t know how to be anything else, and I’m too tired of the struggle to seek another path. I just don’t care, anymore, and that doesn’t mean I hate God; it’s just become a matter of indifference to me whether God and I are on speaking terms. You can imagine how disconcerting it is to find myself divorced from The Episcopal Church after almost 45 years of marriage, so to speak. It hasn’t always been harmonious, but it’s been a relationship taken seriously — until I finally realized how much self-deception and denial underlay it. At some point in life, you have to come to terms with what is true about yourself not what you wish were true. I may not know what comes next, but even as I continue to grieve for what’s been lost, I’m convinced that there’s no going back.

  2. Anonymous said

    Are you certain he’s dead?

  3. Patsy Durham said

    Hummmmm. Lots of anger here, still. It is painful to read, though I’m sure not as painful as it was to write. I wish you had been at my church this morning, and heard my priest, who compared the Feast of the Transfiguration (which was yesterday) to the complete transfiguration of Hiroshima 66 years ago yesterday. One was death-dealing; the other is life-giving. One shows humanity at its most destructive, and the other promises what humanity was created to be. I came home challenged, encouraged and uplifted. It grieves me that you weren’t.

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