I floss my teeth because I was once read the riot act by my dental hygienist and decided that daily flossing was easier to face than her wrath. (Also, I’d like to avoid gingivitis.) I drink Coke (not milk) with chocolate chip cookies because I enjoy the acidic zing of a soda against the buttery richness of the cookie. I drive in the passing lane most of the way to work because I eventually exit on the left. I don’t wear big earrings because I don’t to have saggy earlobes when I’m old. See?
But prior to last weekend I wonder why I would have said that I go to church. Don’t get me wrong. I’d have had a reason. It would have been rambling and circuitous. It would have included mentions of my faith, the benefits of the church community, and habits established during childhood. And, if I’m being completely frank, it probably would have been largely uncompelling. It’s a little embarrassing to think about, actually. I’ve been going to church more or less weekly for 34 years and didn’t know why? How is that possible? For a smart and thoughtful person (if I do say so myself!) that really shouldn’t be the case.
It’s not that my rambling and circuitous answer would have been false. I do try to keep a strong faith. I do believe that for me (and probably for most people) faith experienced via community is stronger than faith experienced alone. And we did go to church weekly when I was a kid and that ritual is a big part of my life. But those reasons pale in comparison to the big one. And I didn’t entirely understand the big one until this past weekend.
I’m actually surprised I absorbed it. We were running late (normal), and I’d rushed to drop SSP off in the nursery while GAP dropped IEP off at Sunday School. I’d missed the processional hymn, the acclamation, the opening collect, the Gloria in excelsis, the first scripture lesson, and half of the psalter reading.* (Okay, we’re not usually that late). So I wasn’t exactly in a peaceful and contemplative state when the sermon started. But somehow the priest’s words managed to cut through the din of my busy mind.
He talked about the Holy Spirit (a slippery subject even for the most confident of Christians). The Holy Spirit helps us talk to God, he said. And the Holy Spirit is present in the liturgy and the liturgy is our path. The liturgy is the set of footprints that shows us where Christians have been before. It tells us where to go and what to do. Get on the train of the liturgy, he said, and it will carry you.
And all of a sudden, sitting in the sanctuary, I got it: This is why I come to church. Sometimes I can’t get to God on my own. I need the liturgy to carry me.
Many of us can’t always get there on our own. We need the church, the service, and the liturgy to show us the path and usher us down it. I need the structure, the guideposts, the emergency footpath lighting that shows me where to go if the power of my faith fails. Is it a crutch? Maybe. Probably. But does that matter? I don’t think so. I want very much to feed my faith and make it strong. I fear, much of the time, that I don’t. I worry that my doubts about large swaths of Christian doctrine make me a wobbly Christian. Or, perhaps more frighteningly, a really good person who isn’t a Christian at all.
And I think this is why I go to church. It is why I don’t like skipping church two weeks in a row and get antsy if I haven’t been in a while. It’s why even through college and those tenuous early adulthood years I’ve always gone to church. I don’t want to be far from God, but without the liturgy that’s where I seem to end up.
Our priest told a story of someone in government (I don’t recall whom) who had prior involvement in diplomatic negotiations of some sort. She said that 90% of the work is getting both sides to the table to talk. That is the hard part. Once you get everyone to the table, the rest of it is relatively straightforward. And while I think that his analogy oversimplifies matters quite a bit, I get his point.
When I show up to church I’m there for a conversation with God. I’ve carved out time and mental space to make my faith a part of my life. Once I’m there, I have only to climb aboard the liturgy train and let it carry me the rest of the way.
*Granddaddy, please don’t judge me!