Last week I used this space to discuss the question “Why should I go to church?” There are other ways the question could be asked, but “going to church” is the phrase we typically use to describe attending worship or being part of a faith community centered on Jesus or Jesus’ life and teachings.
I wrote that the typical answers I have heard range from going to be inspired, encouraged or fed to “If Jesus comes back, I don’t want him to find me at home on Sunday morning.” Still another answer can be found in Hebrews 10 which reads, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The writer of the letter to the Hebrews wrote two thousand years ago that a person should keep meeting with other disciples to encourage them and provoke them to good deeds. It’s a pretty good answer.
There are other good answers. Ironically, my feelings about worship began to change for the better when I thought I had lost my faith. After working in ministry for 10 years, my family and I were attending the Episcopal Church. We were searching for healing, for a more open-minded community, but I could not understand these liturgical Christians. They enjoyed a good sermon, but they were not there for the sermon. They loved the music, the hymns, and the choir, but it was not their focus. Over and over, I received the message that they went to church for the Eucharist.
The prayers were offered, the scriptures were read, the message was preached, the hymns were sung, the music was played, and the confession was made to prepare them to receive the bread and the wine. I understood their focus academically, but I had trouble relating. I was at church to sing. I was there to learn from the sermon. I was at church to enjoy the coffee hour and invite new friends to go to lunch afterwards. I was fine with taking communion, and I was happy to think about Jesus as I was doing so. Jesus told us to do it, but it was still not why I was going to church.
My focus started to change one Sunday during coffee hour when I had conversation with a member of our parish named Bill Epperson. Bill was a retired English professor, and he had been an Episcopalian for 35 years, but we both grew up in the same denomination. Bill spoke my language. I had told him before that I was at Trinity Episcopal Church to give Christianity one more try. He knew that I was struggling to wrap my brain around liturgical worship and the idea of sacrament.
He said something like, “Tom, when they told you that a sacrament was a mystery, they didn’t mean it was a problem to be solved. What they meant was that if it was true, it was something beyond comprehension. You don’t think about it, you enter into it. You shut your brain off. You listen. You just need to be present.” He went on to say, “Truthfully, that should be your approach to everything we do in worship.” Then he said, “God shows up in silence.”
In other words, I could not understand it rationally. If I really wanted to understand anything about it, I was going about it completely wrong. I would need to silence my mind instead of filling it with explanations.
I wish I could tell you that the next Sunday my mind was perfectly silent and that I was present in the moment and that I had an epiphany. But I discovered it was difficult to unlearn my (at the time) 33 years of habit doing the opposite. Like most things, silence and presence take practice. I did not have an epiphany, but the way I experienced worship did begin to change. Moments of silence in the worship no longer felt like dead air. I was not sitting in worship just taking things in and constantly asking myself if I agreed, or if I liked that hymn, that sermon, or that anthem. Instead I was just trying to silence my brain and experience my participation and everything that was happening.
I am still practicing. But, eventually God did show up. I am so thankful. There are many reasons why I go to church. Coffee is still a big motivator. But the primary reason is to be with the people of God singing, learning and listening around Christ’s table.
See you in church.
Fr. Tom +