The last time I took a Sunday off, there was a flood.
No, that statement does not mean that I haven’t taken a vacation since Noah built the ark. Look back through old blog posts on this site, and you’ll quickly see the value I place on time off!
I was in a city where rainfall began early on a Sunday morning and continued throughout the day. Flash floods were rampant, and increasing inches of water broke rainfall records for the city. I awoke that morning with plans to visit a local church that I frequented on vacation—until I turned on the television. A weather reporter clutched his blue poncho around his suit, the other hand clutching the microphone. He yelled over the wind:
Do not go out unless you absolutely have to!
But I absolutely have to go to church, I told myself. I had planned to go to church. I couldn’t let a little rain keep me from worshipping the Lord. If I were not on vacation, I’d have to be there for my job!
I went outside to discover that streets were closed and cars had hydroplaned. I was in a city that was only vaguely familiar to me, and the dark clouds made even the recognizable roads strange. Back in my room, watching Blue Poncho Weather Guy try to get his microphone under his hood, I decided not to go to church.
The weather can easily be an excuse not to go church, but it also reminds us that circumstances are beyond our control. Sometimes wisdom tells us to stay home, but legalism tells us to go to church because “it’s what we do.”
When I began working on this blog series entitled, “Why Not to Go To Church,” my intention was to listen for ways the church could become a place where people want to be.I wanted to dig more deeply into why people were not attending church on a regular basis. What I discovered was the importance of shifting that question to ourselves.
1. Why do I go to church?
2. Why do I not go to church?
For those of us who are active in the church, sometimes we just need a break. The trouble develops when a “break” from worship becomes a habit. The habit becomes a routine, and the routine no longer includes the worship of God. This is the time of year where rain and cold keep us at home in fear of catching the flu or another bug from one another. We may initially stay away in fear of catching “something.” If we’re not careful, we’ll start avoiding the One who is trying to catch us.
Behind every answer to those questions are stories. The responses are more than mere excuses or reasons. Each word carries a load. As the body of Christ, we should listen carefully to each other’s reasons, excuses, rationalizations, and truths. Sometimes the floods of life, both figurative and literal, keep us from where we most want or need to be. When that happens, God meets us where we are.
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
(Psalm 122:1, New Revised Standard Version)
Are we continually encouraging each other to go into God’s presence? Are we asking ourselves why we go or don’t go to the Lord’s house? Are we really listening to the answers?
On that rainy Sunday morning in a vague city, I returned to my room and pulled out a new CD by Michael W. Smith. I put it in my computer and turned up the volume. I made a cup of coffee, opened a package of cookies and settled into a chair with a book. One of the songs that I heard is in the video below. The chorus says:
Your plans are still to prosper.
You have not forgotten us.
You’re with us in the fire and the flood.
You’re faithful forever.
Perfect in love.
You are sovereign over us. *
We go to church because he is sovereign. We don’t go to church, but he’s still sovereign.
Wherever we are in our answer to, “Why?” let us not forget that the house of the Lord belongs to the Lord. It is a house with no limits, for all are welcome. Will you go into the house of the Lord with me?
I must confess that I gave up my blog-writing time this week for other matters. While I will not be able to write a typical "musing," I do want to offer you something brief and different.
As a Yahweh Yoga teacher, I begin each yoga class with a verse of Scripture as our theme. I read it out loud twice, with silence in between. Sometimes I offer a short reflection on the verse before we meditate on it. I'd like to share with you the verse and reflection from this morning. When you get to the verse of Scripture, I invite you to pause in silence for one minute after reading it. If you struggle with silence, set a timer for one minute, and try the best you can to remain with the Scripture......
When we think of the worries, cares, and burdens we carry, we sing about laying them down. We pray for God to take the burdens away from us. We try to put them at the foot of the cross.
Have you ever thought about God removing you from the burden?
Psalm 81 recounts in praise the way that God delivered Joseph from prison. Listen to how God relieves Joseph of his burden...
"I removed his shoulder from the burden...." (Psalm 81:6, New King James Version)
Instead of God taking a load of off Joseph's shoulders, God lovingly cups his hand beneath the load and sets his child free.
Instead of lifting a weight off of us, sometimes God removes us from the weight instead of removing the weight from us.
What is the burden that you bring [to your yoga mat] today? Try not to fight it off, shake it off, or beg God to take it off. Invite God to tend to your shoulder instead of what weighs down your shoulder today.
"I removed his shoulder from the burden...."
Close your eyes. Breathe. Sit with these words. Meditate upon them as God lovingly speaks them to your heart.
"I removed his shoulder from the burden...."
Pause. Breathe. Soak in the knowing that you are loved.
"I removed his shoulder from the burden...."
Go in peace, and the peace of Christ go with you.
I look forward to writing with you next week for the last piece in the current series, "Why Not To Go To Church."
Disclaimer (again): As I continue this series on “Why Not to Go To Church,” please remember that I’m not pointing fingers at any specific congregations. These are general musings about churches. Also, I have changed names and some details to protect confidentiality.
I walked into the gift shop, but I wasn’t buying a gift.
Patsy was a church member whose relative had died a few months earlier. The last time she’d been in church was for the funeral. I hugged her. As we pulled away from each other, she took my thin, cold hands in her bony, colder hands.
“I want to come back to church.”
We stood in silence as she sighed and looked me in the eye.
“But I’m afraid I’ll cry.”
Patsy was not the first person to offer this reason for not going to church. I’m sad to say that she was also not the last. I hear these words often, especially from people grieving a recent loss. Depending on the relationship I have with each person, I offer different responses.
Come back when you’re ready.
We’ll be so glad to see you when you return.
It’s okay to cry in church….
As I’ve shared previously on this blog, I grew up in charismatic churches where emotionalism was as routine as the Lord’s Prayer in a more traditional service. One of the distinguishing features of the Pentecostal movement was the expression of emotion that had been largely absent from worship services. To witness tears in church was not an oddity. It was a routine part of the order of worship. It was a natural response to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the emotions overtook the service as people walked forward for the laying on of hands.
In some of our churches, we’ve mistaken stoicism for reverence. We’ve come to believe that we worship God by not expressing emotion. We’re hesitant to laugh as much as we are to cry. We feel like we’re honoring God by withholding our tears and laughter. We feel like we have to avoid any characteristics of contemporary worship in order to remain a traditional church.
Of course, we’re also concerned about what people will think if they see us crying.
A couple of months ago, I attended a conference at The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. On our last day together, the worship team led 2,500 pastors and church leaders in song. When we began to sing Matt Maher’s contemporary worship song, “I Need You,” I was overcome with emotion. Tears rolled down my face. As soon as I wiped them away, more would come.
My immediate reaction was to ask questions.
Why am I crying?
Is anyone watching me?
Are these tears of joy from seeing friends this week?
Do I need to let go of a weariness that I didn’t know I was carrying?
I soon realized that this was not the time for questioning. This was a time for being.
The tears flowed simply from being in the presence of God. The tears were not about me. They were a response to God’s love felt in the words of a song, in the community of believers, and in the power of music. The tears were a natural part of worship.
If I had to guess from what I knew about her, Patsy’s greatest fears were the same as mine. How would people respond to her crying in church, and how would she would handle their responses?
With such a spectrum of unknowns, it seems easier not to go to church.
Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground...
All the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction…*
After years of destruction, exile, rebuilding, and restoration, the Israelites worship in their rebuilt “church.” The priest, Ezra, steps forward to read God’s Instruction, and emotion overwhelms the people. In this beautifully detailed chapter, emotions run from joy to tears. No one is afraid to express their feelings—because of what they endured together.
Our communities of faith are strong because of what we’ve endured together, too. When Patsy hurts, we can reach out to her but also give her space. We can encourage her to return to church without showing up at her door on Sunday morning to offer a ride.We can remind her that she’s not alone—that many of us have endured the same pain. We can let her cry when she needs to cry—in church.
A few weeks after I saw Patsy, she walked into church with her brother. They took their seat. I shook their hands. Friends hugged them. Fellow members told them how glad they were to see them. An usher discreetly placed a box of tissue on the ends of a few pews, including where they sat. During the service, I glanced frequently at Patsy. She and her brother did cry throughout the service, but no one stared at them. No one made a big deal out of the emotional expression—because many of them were crying, too.
Let us not be afraid to express how we feel. Let us also not be afraid to feel God’s expression of love for us in worship. Let us not be afraid…
In the days of yore, I rode a bicycle, and I took it very personally when people chose long bike rides over church on Sunday mornings.
A local cycling group had a Facebook page where the administrators would post information about upcoming group rides: where to meet, what kind of pace, and how long the journey would be. Since I was a fan of Facebook way back when, I kept up with the pedaling opportunities but never attended. I preferred cruising with a friend around the neighborhood to the “moderate pace” of a 20-mile journey across the county.
One Saturday afternoon, a post appeared about a ride that would begin at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning.
What?! I said to the computer screen. That’s when you should be in church!
I typed a long, Scripture-filled response. I re-read it and realized how un-cool it was. I deleted the response. Then I typed a snarky, short sentence about how everyone should just ride on over to my church since worship began at 10 a.m. I re-read it and realized how angry it sounded. I deleted the response. Responding in religiosity and condemnation would only make people pedal further away at a faster speed.
I called a friend and vented about people choosing to ride bikes over worshipping God, and his response was only silence –until he confessed that he, too, planned to go on the bike ride.
When I hung up the phone, I realized that frustration had become hurt. Why was I taking it so personally that people, many whom I didn’t even know, were going on a bike ride instead of going to church? I didn’t know their stories. Perhaps they were Roman Catholic and attended mass on Saturday evening. Perhaps they were going to attend an early worship service.
I didn’t care where or when they worshipped. I just wanted them to choose worship.
Years have passed. I’m no longer on Facebook. The only part of the bicycle I still own is the helmet (Who would seriously want a used helmet?). I no longer yell at the computer screen when I read about activities scheduled at the same time as worship services.
While a lot has changed, the desire I had for all of those cyclists to be in church has not. I still long for people to worship in community.
I also understand why we choose bike rides over worship. Many cyclists declare, as I once did, that life is better on a bicycle. The mind and body have to work sharply with each other to stay safely balanced on two wheels. The wind on one’s face awakens our breath. Movement through Creation testifies to a magnificent Creator. The riders are comfortable with a fellowship of silence. There is indeed a “high” we experience after physical exercise that makes everything feel right in the world.
So often church services leave us with the opposite feeling. We feel closed in rather than free. We are uncomfortable with each other. We leave feeling no different than when we arrived. The Holy Spirit has the power to leave us with a feeling that far surpasses a “runner’s high.” Our congregations have an awesome yet difficult responsibility each week: to take a ride through the greatest story ever told.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus…. Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith… Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering… Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds… Let us not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some…. *
Neglecting to meet together with the body of Christ can easily become a habit. It is so important for us to have our different communities of friends and family, our “bicycle groups” with whom we enjoy life and participate in activities. Let us be careful not to let any other group replace the fellowship centered in worship of God.
How can we truly enjoy creation if we don’t praise the Creator?
How can we find balance in a chaotic world if we don’t depend on our Savior?
How can we appreciate the air we breathe if we don’t listen for the Breath of Life?
Life may be better on a bicycle, but life is best on the wings of the Holy Spirit. May we be open in our worship services to be changed, and to be better, than we were before we gathered. May our congregations be places of such life, love, and joy, that the choice of where to be is an easy one come Sunday morning.
all good things to each of you, Pastor Darian
*(excerpts from Hebrews 10:19-25, New Revised Standard version)
Disclaimer for Members of St. Luke UMC and Shipman Chapel: This musing arose from a comment I heard outside of the church earlier this week. This comment was not about a specific congregation or a particular pew. It was a general observation. I will not ask you to change seats this Sunday. I will not institute assigned seating. This is the first in a series of posts intended simply to make all of us, in local churches and beyond, think about why so many people choose not to attend church.
“I know how churches can be. I wouldn’t want to take anyone’s pew.”
I hear a lot of reasons why people don’t go to church: everything from theological differences to work schedules to football games to a desire to sleep late. What I did not expect to hear was this statement: a fear of entering a new place with new faces and sitting somewhere that someone else regularly sits. Many of us churchgoers probably have stories of being on one or both sides of the pew: as the person uncomfortably sitting where someone else is staring or the person uncomfortably staring at the person who is sitting.
Why do we in the church care so much about where we sit and stand?
Some of our answers to that question are practical. Those with hearing difficulties want to sit closer to the speakers. The person who has to leave during the final hymn to help direct traffic in the parking lot wants to sit towards the back for a less disruptive exit. The parent with a young baby in the nursery wants to be close to the aisle in case the nursery worker comes looking for him or her.
There are also sentimental explanations. The grieving widow wants to sit in the place where she sat for 50 years with her late husband. The great-granddaughter of a charter member sits on the pew given in memory of her relative. We want to sit with our longtime friends, some of whom we only see on Sunday morning.
We also love “our” pews because they are as familiar to us as the Apostle’s Creed or the Doxology. To sit in the same spot with the same people and sing the same songs can be spiritual comfort food. The world may be rapidly changing, but on Sunday morning we discover familiarity in our traditions—which come to include our seating.
All of this to say: I understand why we love our pews. The explanations are as complex as we are because human beings are complicated. But….
Do we love our pews more than we love the people who sit on them?
Are we more concerned with familiarity than we are with hospitality?
I am immensely grateful for the honesty of the non-churchgoer who told me why she didn’t go to church. We laughed about the way we can be about “our” pews. We confessed to the ways that both of us have been territorial about “our spots” in classrooms and churches. But there was a deeper truth in her observation.
She was afraid of causing a disruption.
She halfway expected rejection.
She saw herself as an outsider.
We in the Church have an awesome and difficult responsibility to counter these preconceptions of fear, rejection, and exclusion.
Leaving the crowd, they took Him along with them in the boat, just as He was; and other boats were with Him. (Mark 4:36, New International Version)
Just as he was: A weary Jesus gets in the boat with no façade.
Just as he was: The disciples welcomed him and organized their journey.
All Jesus needed to be was “just as he was.”
The church needs to be a place where we can be just as we are—and welcome each other just as we are. Through worship, God transforms us to be more than we could be on our own. Worship is not about our power but rather God’s power imparted to us as his hands and feet in the world.
There were no pews on the disciples’ boat, but I do wonder if they had their favorite spots. I wonder if they argued as much about who got to sit where as they did about who would sit at Jesus’ right hand.
A storm arose. Jesus told it to be still. The wind ceased. The water obeyed him. A powerful stillness settled around the boat. The exhausted man who had been sleeping next to the disciples was now the same voice that spoke the water into being at Creation.
When they reached the shore, I doubt that they discussed who had been sitting where.
In season 4 of Friends, one of Monica’s dreams comes true: Chip Matthews asks her out on a date.
Chip and Monica went to the same high school where Chip was the “it” guy. Good-looking and football-playing, Chip was the guy the girls wanted to date—including Monica, who ran in a different circle from Chip. More than a decade after graduating, Monica and Chip run into each other in New York City. He asks for her number. He calls her. He asks her out. She giggles and claps her hands. And we’re less than five minutes into the episode! How different would our lives be if we moved at a sitcom pace?
The night of the date arrives. Monica gushes about Chip’s motorcycle and giggles at everything he says—until they sit down for dinner. The more Chip talks, the more Monica begins to wonder how old he actually is. He talks about pranks he and his friends recently pulled. Monica grows weary and tries to change the conversation.
Monica: Enough about high school Tell me about you. I don’t even know where you work. Chip: You know where I work. The movie theater. Monica: You still work at the movie theater? (cue audience chuckle) Chip: Yeah, why would I quit such a good job? Free popcorn and candy! (cue audience laughter) Monica: (pause) You don’t still live with your parents, do you? (cue audience chuckle) Chip: Yes, but I can stay out as late as I want! (cue audience laughter)*
Ten minutes later, Monica shares with her friends that she dumped “the most popular guy” after dinner. In the course of trying to go back to a high school dream, she realizes how good her current life is.
During the month of October, the Old Testament lectionary on Sunday mornings has focused on Moses. Physically, Moses had to lead and organize a throng of people on a trip across seas and deserts. Spiritually, he had to serve as a mediator of God and the people. Emotionally, he had to listen to the regrets and “what ifs” of people who wondered what it would be like to go back to Egypt. When temptation would arise to turn around and go back, he had to help the people see how much better the present was than the past.
Monica had to dip her toes into the past to see how blessed she was in the present. She discovered that what had once seemed so glamorous was actually a turn-off. Sometimes we have to do the same in order to learn. God is merciful to us just as he was to the Israelites in all of their hindsight wonderings and wanderings.
When we find ourselves dwelling on a world that used to be or might have been, let us take a moment to look around at the beauty of today. For what are we grateful that’s right in front of us? If would could bring a Chip Matthews of our past into the present, would we really want for him to stay? Let us look back in gratitude and look forward with anticipation—especially when we have an eternal “Friend” sharing the present with us.
all good things to each of you, Pastor Darian
* YouTube clip of Chip's and Monica's date: http://youtu.be/O2L4Z8WGi1c