It was a Sunday morning. A wife awoke her husband and told him that he needed to get ready to go to church. The husband replied that he didn’t want to go to church that morning. She told him nonsense; he should get up and go to church.
“But Hon,” he replied, “Everybody hates me, the sermons are boring and none of my friends ever come.”
His wife replied, “Now, listen…! First, everybody doesn’t hate you, only a couple of bullies and you just have to stand up to them. Second, the sermons mean a lot to many people. If you listened to them, you’d be surprised at how good they are in helping people. Third, you have lots of friends at church. They are always having you over to their house. And fourth, but foremost, you have to go – you’re the pastor!!”
As a pastor (retired) myself, I can relate to this humorous story. It’s funny because of the punch line and if told properly, it always gets a hearty laugh. I have used it on several occasions and every time it gets the same reaction – a good laugh.
The story resonates with me right now because I have been MIA as far as church attendance is concerned since Easter Day on 27 March. That’s almost six months!
I am not having a crisis of faith. That’s not a problem for me. I am still a believer, but I do not believe much of the stuff that I used to. Some so-called dogmatic ideas are just not important to me anymore. Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (I Corinthians 13:11). I, too, have put away what I consider to be childish ways.
One of the reasons for my absence has been due to some health issues. I won’t go into those here, but they were sufficient enough to keep me “grounded” for a while.
But another and perhaps more important reason for my truancy has been that though I have not been seated in my usual pew on Sunday mornings for almost six months, no one in the parish has seemed to care whether I am there or not. Not even the rector of the parish. There have been no phone calls, no cards, no contact. Nada.
It is as if I don’t exist. I know that if I were a member of AA and missed a meeting, a member would contact me to find out why I had missed. But that’s AA, not the parish.
And we are not that large a parish. That lack of response both disappoints and saddens me. Maybe my expectations are too high, but I have always viewed the parish as a place where people care for and about one another; as a place where people are called to be a warm, brotherly family together; as a place where people are united together in the household of God through a common life. A parish is not mainly a structure, a geographical area, or a building. A parish is first and foremost a caring community of the faithful.
I know that I need such a community.
And this, it seems to me, is the task of a parish today: to be such a community. A parish is a place where, as Paul reminds the Church at Corinth, “If one member suffers in the Body of Christ, which is the Church, all the members suffer with that member” (1 Corinthians 12:26). But heck, that’s just my romanticized idea of a parish. It’s not reality. As I said, maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe my idea of a parish is of a place that never was and maybe never will be. It’s just a figment of my imagination. And that’s a shame.
As a result of my views about what a parish should be, it has become very easy for me to stay home on Sunday mornings. I have even looked into attending services in other parishes, but the closest is almost an hour away. Besides, will anything be different in another parish from where I am now? Unfortunately, I am not too encouraged that it will be any different. Only the names will change.
I was beginning to feel some guilt about my non-attendance when I received John Pavlovitz’s blog article the other day. His words really hit me. (John’s blog is located at johnpavlovitz.com/and the sub-title of his blog is “Stuff That Needs to Be Said.”) John says of himself on his blogsite:
“I’m an 18-year ministry veteran trying to figure out how to love people well and to live-out the red letters of Jesus.
“I enjoy songwriting, exercising, cooking, hiking, and eating emotionally.
“This is a place where I say stuff that I think needs to be said.
“I welcome you to say what you believe needs to be said in response, knowing that ultimately the truth is somewhere in the middle.
“I proudly serve at North Raleigh Community Church. I pastor people in the Raleigh area and throughout the world.
“Thanks for stopping by, and for reading the musings of a flawed, passionate, work in progress.”
John Pavlovitz has rescued me several times with his perceptive and thought-provoking thinking and this time was no exception. I would like to share John’s helpful words with you, my readers. His article is entitled Relax Christian, You Don’t Have to Go to Church. It was published on 4 September 2016. If you are like me and are experiencing church-less Sundays, then read John’s words. I believe that you will find them helpful and on point:
“Today is Sunday, and millions of people all over the world will find themselves in local churches today, participating in worship services and Bible studies and age-based ministries, and finding great encouragement and community and joy there.
“You might well be one of those people.
“But you might not.
“For a billion reasons; either because you’ve been excluded or damaged or made to feel unwelcome, or because your faith is shaken or your pain is too great or your heart is too weary, you might find yourself outside the walls of a church.
“It’s okay, God is there too—I promise you.
“Most of us have grown up believing that the Church was a building, and that you went to worship as a weekly activity. Faith and life and spiritual growth were all about getting to that building, because that building was where you encountered God.
“That is only partially true.
“But the greater, far more glorious truth dear friend, is that you are the Church; that God is all around and ever-present and within you. And so wherever you find yourself this morning, that ground is holy. When your mind and heart are oriented toward the things of God, your very life is an act of worship.
“You may be snuggled in your bed with your family and dog, telling stories and giggling away the morning.
“You may be jogging with your best friend through the wooded paths just coming to life in the early morning sun.
“You may be driving through the empty back roads with the roof open, blasting the 80’s metal that reminds you of when you had hair for the breeze to blow through.
“You might be in the garden, your knees pressed to the damp soil, smelling the leaves just popping up through the ground.
“These places are all sacred. They are waiting sanctuaries for God to be seen and heard and experienced.
“They are common cathedrals, fully saturated with the presence of the Divine.
“Church-less Sundays can bring a great deal of guilt, especially if you grew up in organized religion. When you find your spiritual life being defined outside of the local church, you can tend to feel like you’re doing it wrong, or that the experience is somehow counterfeit—less spiritual. You either hear an alarm go of in your own head, or from well-meaning church friends or from pushy pastors that you need to get back to church.
“Well, you may and you may not. You may just need to stay right where you are.
“For many people, because of the struggles we mentioned above, organized religion is the very barrier they need to overcome to get closer proximity to Jesus. It is the thing that most hinders their pursuit of peace. It actually creates unrest within them. And in this way, for those people, “church” is the wrong answer to the question of “How do I grow spiritually?”
“If you can’t or won’t find your way into a brick and mortar building this Sunday, be encouraged. You can fully love God without going to church. Obviously community is one of the ways we blossom. As we navigate relationships, as we love and seek love, as we give and receive compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness—we grow in ways we never would otherwise. There is value in sharing life with other people who are seeking to be the best version of themselves. But these opportunities are not confined to the church building, waiting for you to show up and receive them there.
“God is always close by and easily accessible. Divinity often comes disguised as ordinary days, uneventful moments, and typical conversations: making breakfast with your kids, playing with your dog, getting a rare quiet pause with your teenager, reading a book you love, sleeping in because you’re completely exhausted, catching up with an old friend over coffee. These can all be rich, beautiful, faith-affirming experiences that do more for your soul than an hour worship service ever could.
“Everything God has for you is available to you right where you are; in the woods, in bed, at the game, having coffee with your spouse, pruning the flowers, driving down the Interstate.
“These can be the places you fully commune with God and with God’s people; where you reflect and pray and learn and study and mediate and feel gratitude and seek guidance. Anything we do that is intentionally done with an awareness of God and others—that is Church.
“There may be a time in the near future when you once again find your home in a local church community. But you might also never get back there again. And either way, your faith can be rich and real and fully life-giving.
“Christianity isn’t a building or an hour-long Sunday morning activity. It’s you living with a desire to reflect Jesus.
“Wherever you find yourself this Sunday, do this as best you can. God is with you.
“Whether inside or outside the church building, whether in your Sunday best or in ragged pajamas—be encouraged.”
Thanks, John. If your posts are “stuff that needs to be said,” then this article was “stuff that I needed to hear.” Amen.