Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 31, 2018 - What is Church Now?

It may come as a surprise to you but I don’t really like going to church. Of course I very much enjoy my own church community at First Parish and I enjoy the services. But if I didn’t have anywhere to be on a Sunday morning, church is not how I’d fill my time.
I suspect the majority of us feel that way nowadays. Our generations still remember being compelled to attend and many of us would now rather not. For us “church” can be a concept of boredom, judgement, and oftentimes hostility from other members of a congregation who do not practice what they preach.
I’ve heard recent stories of churches kicking out members because of living with a boyfriend, or having to stand before the entire congregation to confess sins like adultery or other crimes. Is this mercy? This is not what was taught. This is conformity by shame. Not growth by grace. These punishments are antithetical to the concept of church.
Of course not all churches are like that. Thankfully, my own included. But these are the churches which give Christianity and other faiths a bad name. Their public misuse of scripture prevents those who might need a spiritual community from ever seeking one.
And what of congregations with no awareness of or connection to their surrounding community? These churches are rather fortresses meant to keep the outside world right where it is. They are afraid of the world and hide; pointing judgemental fingers instead of serving humanity. They are missing out. Pray for them.
So what is church supposed to be? Two things. The first is freedom. But more on that in a moment. The second answer to the question ‘what is church?’ is: Wherever you have transcendent experience as part of a gathering. Of course some would say that their “church” is a walk in the woods. But that is not what the word church actually refers to. Church comes from the Greek ekklesia which is a reference to a gathering of people for sacred purposes. A church is people. A solitary walk in the woods is meditation. There is a difference. Each has particular value which is enhanced by the presence of the other.
Regarding freedom, spiritual expression is unique and fluid. Our personal beliefs and feelings evolve over the course of our lifetime. Moses was warned not to make false idols, but what I suspect is that he was being cautioned against concretizing God. He was being advised against making God into a fixed thing, incapable of evolving and growing alongside humanity. The moment an image of God is carved by a sculptor into a form, the image is already obsolete. But the artist will never know it. For they will be transfixed by the beauty of what has now been made permanent. Safe. Unchanging. Understood. However, that is counter to the freedom we require in order to evolve.
We more easily understand things which do not change. We would prefer God be the same so we can just have a rulebook for everyone and be done with it. But that is not the nature of anything in our world. Nothing doesn’t change. Adopting a static version of human spirituality does no justice to the complexity and awesomeness of the Universe. Therefore, the best version of “church” is freedom. Freedom within it. Freedom to explore and evolve. Together.
Sociologists understand that humans are a communal species. We operate as a group almost exclusively. Wonder why that is. Does your faith tell you there is a power in numbers? Be curious about what that fact implies about how best to tackle virtually any problem or make any discovery. Seek community. Even solitary people exist because of the work of others. Else a child could be born in a field to immediately fend for itself and the mother could simply walk away. We need other people from the moment we are conceived and it never ends. Lean into it.
Spiritual community is an expression of our natural desire to gather with our questions. Through it we achieve a sense of belonging and family. These, above all, are the best platform for true exploration of the world and All which has made it.
I may still from time to time enjoy sleeping in on a Sunday without a single whiff of regret. But I know that I have a community waiting for me when I return. And that sense of safety and belonging gives me the strength to go forth and thrive.