A while back I wrote a blog post about church and reasons, or at least one of them, for why I continue to be believe in it despite its failures. More recently I read Jay’s provocative post. So… this post is again about church but instead of the pejorative angles we’ve taken, I’m recounting some of my more memorable moments. (The word “ridiculous” could replace “moments” if you please.) The church is a place of unspoken rules, a self-understanding culture that often leaves the uninitiated in the dark. By way of confession, I am by trade a churchman, a pastor; one who is not only initiated but runs the risk of being indoctrinated. And yet my past is strewn with anecdotal moments when I have been the uninitiated wandering in the cultural dark wondering when those who supposedly possess the light would share some.
My failed attempts at understanding church culture began early… in junior church. For those of you who do not know, junior church is where kids used to go in order to avail the parents of unimpeded spiritual opportunity. In other words, we were stashed off in a corner of the building with whoever the education director could guilt into preventing early elementary aged children into succumbing to our more destructive urges. During one of these spiraling descents into anarchy and under the watchful eye of our dear pastor’s wife (who really tried, dear lady), I was phonetically enlightened into sounding out my first ever cuss word.
My friend Troy, who was the latest progeny of our church’s ruling family, spelled out the letters s-h-i-t with a companion instruction to the effect that such a word should not be spoken in church. I am and always have been unimpressed with attempts to lord enlightened, educated status over the uninitiated, at least when I am the uninitiated. Troy’s condescending tone and superior knowledge pushed me to seek counsel. I approached, much to Troy’s horror, our junior church’s fearless leader and sounded out the three incriminating consonants and single vowel. I was immediately whisked a way to a holding cell to remain incarcerated until arraignment could occur in a manner that would not “enlighten” other more innocent children.
I still recall my bewildered and innocent confusion as to why a question on such a morally charged topic should require my being quarantined. Whatever sin I had confessed to seemed highly contagious or so I assumed. I still wonder what better context could be found for moral questions of this nature than church.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, my imagination travels between time zones recalling other moments of epic fails when the church’s understandings eluded my grasp. Early in my theological education I was compelled by a professor to journey to Chicago’s most noteworthy Roman Catholic Church—Holy Name Cathedral.
Sitting through an organ recital I was completely shocked by when the congregation, hundreds strong, left their pews to stream forward receiving something from the vestmented priest. I had no choice but to join the line wondering what I would find when I reached the front. The priest softly and quickly spoke words to me that seemed like a mystical and secret spiritual phrase as he held out a small wafer. Unhearable as the words were, I surmised that my only option was to take the wafer as I had seen others do.
The priest’s response, in front of hundreds of onlookers, still brings red to my face and tears to my eyes. He pulled back the wafer sternly looking at me as though I had been caught with my hand reaching for a forbidden sweet. I reached out again and this time he elevated the wafer above both our heads as though I was a canine pet awaiting an after dinner treat. I wondered what I must do in order to receive the body of Jesus which had supposedly been broken for me. He again spoke the words, this time annunciating them as to a child: by hand or tongue was the question. I quickly placed my hand out open-palmed and received my sacramental reward. As I walked away, ungracious mutterings could be heard by onlookers who had observed my ignorance.
A final story, this one cast in a quite different setting. Baptist junior churches and Catholic masses are difficult but ethnic divides may be an even greater challenge. After my theology degree I became gainfully employed for a financial management company. One woman I worked with became a friend of sorts. She, an East Coast African American, and I, a Midwestern, small-town Caucasian, we talked often about faith and our struggles.
Once, on a Friday evening, she invited me to her church’s “Hour of Power.” I came out of loyalty and curiosity. Chris kindly introduced me to her friends and it became clear that I was almost the only white person present. Many persons live this reality almost constantly as Chris likely did in her vocation. Yet this may have been the first time I had experienced, albeit briefly, being a minority. Again, as previous experiences should have forewarned, my ignorance would embarrass me. Chris invited me to sit in her pew towards the front but being uninitiated and by nature conservative I sat in the last possible seat at the very back.
Collections are taken in all churches; even my junior church supported a missions project with our pennies and nickels. The worship and sermon wound up and down and I became enraptured with what I was witnessing; beautiful and poetic the service had a quality that appealed more to the ears than the eyes. In my rapturous state I failed to note a small can that had appeared on the altar towards the front. The music came to a silent pause as the congregation sat still, no one moving and no one speaking. I wondered for what we were all waiting. One gentleman, who happened to be standing at the end of my row, coughed softly and I could feel a tremulous squirming inside. People began to look towards the back although too polite to make eye contact with me. Again, the gentleman at the end of my row cleared his throat this time more forcefully. I looked over to see if he was in need of medical attention and he gestured with his whole upper body leaving no room for doubt. These people, and he as their leader, were trying to communicate with me in some non-verbal way that mystified me.
The silence now so uncomfortable as to change the room’s temperature, I wandered through my ecclesiastic experience searching for what I might be missing. It occurred to me the one key component of church I had yet to witness. So unsteadily and hesitantly I arose watching the apparent usher’s eye for any sign of disapproval. I searched my pocket praying harder than ever before that I might have a dollar available. Securing the currency I walked to the front and placed it in the can, the first of many who would follow.
Failure births an alternate variety of grace, one more accepting perhaps. Sometimes, amidst those of us so freely offered grace, it is a hard-to-find commodity. Our failures must be mined to fuel the smile that plays at the edges of all the doctrinal accuracy and liturgical sincerity. We want to get it right but we so often don’t. And when we don’t maybe we join God when we smile a bit laughing at our foibles and realizing that our most sincere attempts fall short.