Saturday, January 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 18, 2020 - A Bumper Sticker’s Worth of Wisdom

It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s for the serious. But also, not. It’s for the questioning. And the doubting. As well, it truly is for those who feel comfortable hovering only around the edges, and listening.

For the record, this is an attempt at persuading you to consider yourself in spiritual community with others. That can take many forms. But it is not solitary. Church is a group activity. Some may feel that walking in the woods is their “church.“ And to include trees in your personal “congregation” is a kind and compassionate thought. But it is not church. Church is human, exclusively.

The word “church” comes from the Greek ecclesia, whose original use meant literally “to call out.” The word eventually became a term meaning “a gathering of people.” Combined, in my view, it means a gathering of people who call out. Toward what, is the question. That part is an individual choice.

Before we proceed any further, allow me to clarify that I use the word church broadly here. For not all gatherings of spiritual seekers are in, or might call themselves, a “church.” Different faiths have different names for their places of gathering. And it’s academic in any regard, because the word church does not describe the building, but the people inside it. We slightly misuse the word when using it to refer to the building itself. A church is people. There’s a reason for that.

For a moment let’s talk about the worship experience. Every single church of every single denomination or tradition will express itself differently. Even traditions which are prescribed to proceed in a very specific and traditional way have their variance. So it’s impossible to conclude that there is any one correct way.

There is one thing all religious services of any faith have in common, however. It is “the arc.”

The arc refers to the experience of the congregant while in the worship or ceremonial or ritual experience. It is like any storytelling method, be it a book, tv, or theatre. It has a beginning, a middle, a climax, and an end. Church is meant to take you on a journey by first preparing you, then helping to clear and settle your mind, then we intone with others around us through music and prayer to further align our heartbeats, we often make a small sacrifice at some point, and, if all has been well prepared and thought out, we commune as we receive the message together. That is step one.

Step two is the careful practicing of what we learned and experienced during worship. Because it is, after all, about gaining tools for peaceful living. And since we are a communal species, that means it’s primarily about peaceful living among others.

Traditional church life gives a lot of opportunities for figuring out how to practice in real life what we’ve learned in the church service. And it’s a relatively safe space, or at least it’s meant to be. It’s a space of low stakes. It’s not your job. It’s not your outside life. It’s not your outside circle of friends. The stakes are relatively higher out there.

But inside a church community, through committee work, projects, social outreach, etc., we learn, in somewhat remedial fashion, how to engage with other people. We systematically learn how to be in relationship. Committees are where we practice what has been preached.

But it is not only other people with whom we are in relationship, and what we learn covers that as well. There are four types of relationships: with others, with the planet, with a higher power, and with ourselves. Each of these relational types are the study of focus for any religious or spiritual gathering. Make good use of it.

Around the age of 30, I decided to start attending church again. I didn’t think there would be anything there for me. But I was deeply spiritual and I somehow felt drawn to going back and spending time with the church community I grew up with as a child. Preparing myself that I was probably not in exact theological alignment with the things that might be said from the pulpit at that church, I decided to listen for the bumper sticker.

I believe there is a purpose to all things. And so I believed there was a purpose to my sitting there in my old family church. I concluded that there would be at least a bumper sticker’s worth of wisdom that was meant for me to hear that morning. And I listened for it.

As a result, I always heard something of value. It helped get me over my initial discomfort with the idea of being a “churchgoer.” It gave me space and time to see myself in relation to others, spiritually. It ended up being more comforting than I imagined. It ended up triggering my willingness to be vulnerable to these people.

I started getting involved in church life. Organizing events, teaching Sunday school, becoming a deacon, even working as the church secretary for six months as a fill-in. I wasn’t sure what I was getting out of it for a while. But as time went on, and even more so now as I look back, I realize it set me on a path that has brought me peace today. It has brought me my identity and prepared me for who I was always supposed to be.

In my case, I became a minister. But I don’t think it’s limited to that. I think it’s meant to help all of us find out who we were always supposed to be through the systematic practice of the teachings.

It’s a challenge, of course. Because people are a challenge. Being in relationship with others takes practice and guidance. Learning to love our enemies, for instance, or forgiving ourselves, does not come simply on demand. It takes practice. But the benefits are never-ending. No matter in which faith idea or religious thought you believe, you will be better for the exploration alone.

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