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Going to Church

Often when I get up in front of the congregation I am a part of on Sunday morning, I will silently wonder why each person has come to church that morning.  Did they come hungering for an encounter with the living God?  Out of grim duty or rusty habit?  For their kids’ sake?  To worship?  To hang out with friends?  Because there were rumours of a soup lunch afterward?   There are likely as many different reasons (or combinations of reasons) as there are people in the pews on a given Sunday.  One Sunday a number of years ago, I began the service by saying, “I’m not sure what brought you here today…” but before I could finish the sentence, a middle-aged man with a penchant for loudly and delightedly answering any and all rhetorical questions posed from the front blurted out, “The bus!!”  Like I said, many responses…

One response which, in my entirely unscientific and purely anecdotal estimation, seems to be appearing more and more frequently, is voiced by Andrew Brown in a recent post over at The Guardian.  It is the, “Of course I don’t believe any of this religious nonsense, but I go for the sake of ‘humanity’ and in the hopes that some of this outdated ritual and symbolism might play a positive role in my own well-being and personal improvement” approach.  Here’s a quote:

I’m happy to kneel in prayer even though I can’t believe there’s anyone out there: not even the congregation, who are too busy lost in their own ritual. But it’s a cure for haste and pride and self-pity just to wait and listen, even if there is no one to hear. I even went up to the communion rail to take a blessing. Why not? What harm can blessing do? I don’t suppose that most, or any, of the congregation were theologians, and in any case I am never quite sure what theology means: it always appears to me as a purely rhetorical performance. So I didn’t wonder what it was like to believe in the Trinity, or even the resurrection, or any of the miracles. I’ve no idea if anyone in the church was really capable of such things, in any sense that I can understand.

When I first read this post, my temptation was write it off as yet another self-important post-Christian making hay off of his conflicted engagement with/dismissal of religion.  One more heroic rejection of faith, one more socially approved and laudable expression of appreciation for the social and personal benefits of religion, minimal though they might be.  One more fashionable embrace of this curious relic of the past, one more deliciously detached and nakedly condescending reduction of the historic faith to a tangentially useful and selectively accessible self-help technique.  Ho hum.

But I decided that this would be a very boring blog post indeed.

My thoughts turned, strangely, to the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32.  Both sons are told by their father to go and work in the vineyard.  The first says no, but later changes his mind and goes.  The second says he will go, but does not.  “Which one did what the Father wanted?” Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders.  The response seemed as obvious to them as it likely does to us.  The first, of course.  It’s better to go and to do, regardless of one’s professed intentions.  Or, we might add, regardless of one’s attitude in the going.  Did the first son have a complete change of heart?  Or did he go grumbling and grudgingly?  We’re not told, but it doesn’t seem to matter.  The important thing is the going and the doing.

There is surely a yawning exegetical and hermeneutical chasm to be leaped across in order to make Jesus’ parable mean anything like, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you go to church.”  And who would want to make that point anyway?  What could be less interesting or useful than a bunch of people grudgingly sitting in church week after week out of a sense of wearisome and misguided obligation?  Jesus is not addressing life in the twenty-first century post-Christian wasteland, after all; he is, rather, delivering a pointed critique and challenge to the self-appointed guardians of Israel’s religious and cultural identity.

And yet.

Surely, operating somewhere on the periphery of this parable, is the basic truth that we humans often act our way into believing and thinking and professing rather than the other way around.  And I know that it is easy—far too easy—to sit soullessly in the pew each week, mouthing mostly empty words about what we “believe” and why we believe it, with these words having precisely zero impact on how we live.  I know that belief is not a binary category, that it is experienced in differing degrees and shades throughout the course of an individual journey.  I know that some Sundays we come to church vibrant, expectant, and alive to the Spirit, while other Sundays we are convinced that our prayers are simply bouncing off the walls.

We may not all be as transparent as Andrew Brown about our decidedly “unspiritual” reasons for trudging off to church each week, but I suspect that each of us is familiar with at least some of his sentiments, at least some of the time.  None of us come to church with unmixed motives.  At our best, though, we keep going, because we believe that it is in the going and the doing that the believing and the professing is shaped, sustained, rehabilitated and enlivened.  And, of course, out of the hope that it is not finally the strength or the constancy of our cognitive conviction that will save us, but the goodness and mercy of God.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    I used to be one of the those who went to church seeking to encounter Gods presence. I adhered to the Old Covenent style rituals of going to the Temple of “God’s House” (church) to meet God and pay Tribute (tith). Eventually though, I discovered that God does not dwell in temples made of stone and that the organizing of Christianity was ultimately the brainchild of man’s Ego and not the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It’s getting harder and harder for professional religious organizers to maintain their facade as Keepers of Gods Presence. The temples are coming down. IMO

    March 11, 2013
    • I’m not suggesting that church is by any means the only place where one might encounter God. Far from it! But, by the same token, I’m not prepared to write off the possibility of encountering God at an institutional house of worship either (I guess my profession kinda rules out that option :) ). I think both ends of this spectrum assume a profoundly limited God.

      March 11, 2013
  2. Kevin K #

    “…operating somewhere on the periphery of this parable, is the basic truth that we humans often act our way into believing and thinking and professing rather than the other way around.” Good thought. Though it does make me wonder about the evangelical obsession with “conferencing” our way into new lived behaviors, particularly as they relate to how we structure and do church. Easy to be a cynic though. I suppose at the heart of the religious person who sits in the pew not truly believing, and at the heart of the hyper-religious person who sits in the conference seat professing belief in every emotive way possible, is a shared realization that part of being human is grasping at God.

    March 11, 2013
    • I suppose at the heart of the religious person who sits in the pew not truly believing, and at the heart of the hyper-religious person who sits in the conference seat professing belief in every emotive way possible, is a shared realization that part of being human is grasping at God.

      That’s a very good and charitable way to put it, Kevin :).

      Of course, I am not advocating “acting into doing” as some kind of working ourself up into some emotionally-drenched state of affirmation. God knows, I’ve been present at enough conferences where something like this was going on. I’m thinking more along the lines of obedience leading to belief… which leads to greater obedience… which leads to truer belief… and around and around the mutually-reinforcing circle goes.

      March 11, 2013
    • mike #

      “…part of being human is grasping at God”
      Great point, Kevin. For me,grasping at God entails a seemingly never ending pursuit,a pressing forward by a process of repeated refining and redefining the Divine mystery.I believe we are allowed to proceed as deep into the mind of God as we are willing to venture or until we feel sated,so to speak.Dry scholastic knowledge about God does not sustain Life,it is the Spirit that quickens.The outward displays of religion are the firstfruits of our salvation, they appease the yearning of the outer man (the flesh). Our gradual awakening to the reality of Christ in us,His Literal real time indwelling Presence,is the dawning of our Salvation. The outer ritual of church attendance is the beginning of this journey for most of us,but eventually,as the Spirit becons, we will divert inwardly to find The Kingdom of God.

      March 12, 2013
      • Kevin K #

        Mike, I would echo your sentiment that “grasping at God” is a life long pursuit. It’s something I think you become an expert in either. I also am thoroughly convinced that grasping at Jesus is the best way to go about grasping at God (and think there’s a few points in scripture about that as well).

        Ryan, I appreciated your thought “I’m thinking more along the lines of obedience leading to belief… which leads to greater obedience… which leads to truer belief… and around and around the mutually-reinforcing circle goes.” That’s what I was getting at. For example, I think loving our neighbour starts with literally doing nice things for our neighbour. That we’re closer to the heart of Jesus when we shovel someone else’s sidewalk than when we register for a conference on missional thinking. Maybe I’ve been at this evangelical thing for too long… Again, it’s so easy to be cynic.

        March 12, 2013
      • That we’re closer to the heart of Jesus when we shovel someone else’s sidewalk than when we register for a conference on missional thinking.

        I laughed out loud when I read this sentence, Kevin. It’s so very true. I don’t know if it’s unique to evangelicals or not, but we Christians love our conferences, we love to talk about churchy things… and all the while, we avoid doing the simple acts of love that are often right under our noses (and which may just have a greater influence in the world than another book, another lecture, another “breakout session…”).

        Well said.

        March 12, 2013
  3. Kevin K #

    *Correction in the above. I meant to say “…grasping at God” is a life long pursuit. It’s something I think you don’t become an expert in either.” Emphasis on the whole not being an expert at it.

    March 12, 2013
  4. “…grasping at God”…………..no, no! You just open your heart and say: “Come on in.”

    March 12, 2013
    • I appreciate your reminder of the simplicity of the response of faith, Joyce. We undoubtedly have a human tendency to sometimes make things quite a bit more complicated than they need to be :).

      I don’t want to speak for others, but, as I see it, the phrase “grasping at God” gets at the idea that there is an element of “pursuit” that is inherent in a relationship between God and us. We are continually being invited into deeper levels of awareness and obedience of God. And, there are times when God seems absent or confusing to us as well—even once we have said, “Come on in.” The journey of faith is a long one with many peaks and valleys, but at our best we keep pursuing, keep desiring, keep hoping and trusting and longing, even when God’s ways aren’t obvious to us, even when it is difficult and not immediately rewarding. That is, at any rate, some of what I think about when I hear the term “grasping at God.”

      March 13, 2013
      • mike #

        …Ah, the beauty and innocence… a part of me envies…

        submitted for your approval:

        March 14, 2013
      • Approval granted :). Great song.

        March 14, 2013
  5. I think that when I hear the term “grasping at God” I think of someone trying to “grasp” Him intellectually, which, of course, is impossible to do. So, since he cannot reside in my head, then I put Him into my heart and so that way there is no longer any pursuit of meaning. I just feel the permanence.

    March 14, 2013
    • Yes, that is certainly another connotation for “grasping at God.” Grasping as pursuit in the context of relationship seems a far more appropriate and life-giving endeavour than grasping as a form of intellectual conquest.

      Thanks for your comment.

      March 14, 2013
    • mike #

      “I think that when I hear the term “grasping at God” I think of someone trying to “grasp” Him intellectually, which, of course, is impossible to do.”
      Your right, Joyce. Knowing Christ personally IS relational and not simply an intellectual proposition.. Speaking for myself, I think what I am doing is trying to intellectually/philosophically make some sort of sense out of the seemingly random non-sense and mysteries of Life on this planet with God, and yes, it’s proven impossible. But I have an insatiable hunger (Divine spark?) to keep probing deeper into these questions I have…grasping at God for the answers

      March 14, 2013
      • Mike, you can’t possibly know about the many years I spent in anguished probing. Perhaps someday you, too, may experience the meaning of ” I surrender”.

        March 14, 2013
      • mike #

        ..Yes…Thank you,Joyce

        March 15, 2013

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