Some folks love the Church. Some folks hate it. As for me, I’m conflicted. Philos/ a-philos the Greeks called it. It’s like this:
Sometimes I see folks in Church who have been doing this thing for a long, long time. Yet, their hearts are small and often bitter. They say they want more people in the church – subtext: so long as they are white, English speaking, large contributors, do not have any bad habits or a questionable history, and do not bring any unruly children with them. Anyone who does not meet those criteria is shown the door. They fret over making sure the Church does not spend any of “their” money for anything they disapprove of. Not surprisingly they are afraid for the Church to do anything for the world outside their walls lest it run out of money. Faith is forgotten in the budget. Love is forgotten as hospitality and evangelism are shuffled to the rear. Years of Christian practice have left them miserable and mean-spirited.
Disasters do not shake my faith in God, but some Church members do shake my faith in the Church. In the eastern states, we still have cultural Christianity. People attend church because it's expected. There I was not so surprised to find people in the pews who not only did not get it but also had no interest in it. However, here in the West, attending Church is countercultural. Our small-hearted congregants have chosen of their own libertarian free will to waste countless hours of their lives with us. I am simply mystified. And when young adults say they want no part of such a Church, I silently acknowledge that’s ok because such a Church wants no part of them either. It just wants to die in peace and in control.
But then there are the other folks – the ones who “give me hope, help me cope.” I’m not going to name this congregation or any of the people. But they will see themselves. One of our congregations was stuck in greater or lesser levels of acrimony in their ongoing conflicts for a long time – years, in a sense, decades. It culminated in one of the two bloodiest breakups of a congregation I’ve seen in my time here.
But the last time I visited them, the room had a different feel about it. Friendly but not intrusive greeters at the door handed newcomers a small tri-fold brochure. As newcomers left someone else introduced himself and invited them to fill out a contact card. (I imagined someone might actually follow up with them. It had that feeling.) During the offertory they collected food for poor people and at the announcements they announced a service project in the community.
At the potluck, I overheard a conversation between a new lady in her 60s and two women of the congregation. They invited the newcomer to tell her story. It was a colorful story with some real ups and downs. She was not afraid to tell them because they made her feel safe, accepted unconditionally and yet appreciated personally. She had recently had major orthopedic surgery. She said “I’ve been coming here these last few months. And every Sunday I see the same faces. I don’t know many of them. But it feels good just to see them here. And when I couldn’t come (after my surgery) I missed being here.” And the two women from the congregation said, “When you weren’t here, we noticed it. And we missed you too.”
The vestry of one of our rural congregations with a decidedly conservative reputation in a decidedly conservative community recently voted unanimously to host a meeting of an LGBT support group. They said it was simple. “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” Other congregations in town had turned the LGBT group down flat. That same congregation, which a few years ago was in the aging mode, some Sundays these days has the largest percentage of children in the congregation of any of our Nevada parishes.
I lead worship sometimes at our medium security prison. Later I see former inmates in the pews of our congregations on the outside being welcomed and included.
When a ministerial association voted to exclude the Mormons, our Episcopal clergy walked out in solidarity.
When Clergy & Laity United For Economic Justice protested unfair labor practices at one of our casinos, two of our priests were arrested as part of the civil disobedience.
We put out an appeal to buy 100 solar lanterns to send to Kenya to provide light in rural village households where there is no electricity. That project tis still under say but it looks as if we will be able to buy several hundred lanterns.
While one of our congregations was adopting a deficit budget trusting that if their mission was true God would provide, they expressed concern about other congregations that might need their help.
So often the Church actually works! So often the Church actually is “the hands of Christ, the feet of Christ, the eyes though which he looks compassion on the world!”
Back to the Church that had been bitter but became loving: how did they do that? I don’t know. If I did I’d sure like to bottle it. Some of the combatants left. But that had happened before and the conflict did not abate. Each side in years past had just replaced their lost, closed ranks, and fought on. I can say they did one thing different this time. They went through a Lenten study, using Canon Chuck McCray’s 4T Days curriculum, to discern their own identity and mission. They did not make up an identity and mission to suit any external expectations. They did not make up what I would have made up for them. They did not choose the ministry model I would have prescribed if I had been prescribing – I wasn’t. They figured it out for themselves and claimed it. It was a smaller, simpler vision. But it was from the heart. They are doing it from the heart to the glory of God.
What would it take to get people out of the small-hearted bitter mode to become open, caring, generous, and courageous? There are theological and philosophical answers that persuade me: things about God’s Kingdom and growing toward likeness with Christ. But I have a feeling that sort of talk won’t actually motivate much change. They’ve heard that all their lives an it isn’t getting through. Even the promise of heaven and threat of hell seem to have lost their persuasive punch. So what can I promise people if they will just open their hearts and truly live the Christian life in all its wild freedom and love? Dopamine.
Yes, dopamine – that feel good drug naturally occurring in the human brain. It’s the chemical word for happiness. It’s all quite naturally wired into our brains. You can read all about it in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. We have the capacity to give each other a great deal more happiness in life than we would otherwise experience. Joy is contagious. If we give it to others, they will give it back to us – not every time on an individual basis – but on the whole living in healthy happy relationships not only ups the dopamine, it strengthens the T cells of the immune system. All this is theologically dubious. But at this point, I don’t really care about the theology. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Is it lawful to set people free with dubious theology.
It is simply true: We can make each other’s lives better, happier, healthier. “And the world will be a better place for you, for me.”
That is why I have recently committed to memory the blessing my Brother Bishop Brian Thom (Idaho) gives at the close of every Eucharist:
Brothers and sisters, life is short.
There is too little time to gladden the hearts
of our fellow travelers on the way.
So be swift to love.
Make haste to be kind.
So here I am definitely trusting in God, often not so sure of God’s people, but in the end realizing they are my people too. We are a mixed lot, but we are all each other have. Even the folks who challenge my faith need my care and understanding – yours too. If we cannot persuade them of the value of faith, hope, and love, even with the promise of dopamine and T cells, we can tweak their mirror neurons by living in Christ ourselves.