Caught in the Middle


If I don't go to church on Sunday morning, I feel that I've missed something. If I do go to church on Sunday morning, I often find that I don't necessarily want to wait a full week before I go back again.

But there's a catch (and you knew there had to be one); going to church often frustrates me. For the sake of simplicity, I can divide churches that I would consider attending into two broad categories, although this is obviously a gross generalization. In strongly focused, heavily sacramental and liturgical churches, I often enjoy the high symbolism (to varying degrees) but at the same time I can often feel out of place for reasons of theology. In more loosely focused progressive churches that don't stress the symbolism or sacraments so much, I often (to varying degrees) feel more theologically comfortable, but I miss the more focused symbolism that can draw me deeper into a connection with the Divine.

Of course it isn't that simple. Some churches that are big on ritual and sacrament are quite progressive, and some very down to earth churches are theologically conservative. And then there are the intangibles. I once went to an Episcopal service at a church that has a densely theological monthly newsletter, full of ideas about progressive Christianity, which ought to be right up my alley. But the service left me cold, probably for a host of reasons; I thought it was dry, I didn't feel particularly welcomed as a visitor, it just seemed like everyone was going through the motions, and none of the ritual worked for me. That isn't a knock against Episcopalianism per se; I found some enjoyment in attending Saint Gregory's in San Francisco for example, especially their evening candlelit service.

An example of what I mean with respect to feeling out of place with respect to theology is the recitation of creeds. I just can't do it. I know that many progressive Christians have symbolic interpretations of those creeds and have no problem reciting them. But that just doesn't work for me. I have discovered over time that this is less of a problem for me than it once was; I know now I really can just skip over that part of a service, and simply wait silently for the recitation to end. But I feel, when I do that, that I am not fully committing myself to the service, that I am in a sense missing out on the full experience.

Unitarian Universalism would be the ultimate example of the second category of churches: not sacramental, not creedal, theologically open. In theory, the theological openness and commitment to pluralism in such churches ought to appeal to me; but in practice, I feel a lack of spiritual depth when I go UU services. Having attended a UU service in which the word "God" was never once used, and having encountered some negativity towards Christianity among some UUs, I realized that this just wasn't going to work for me either. Again, it is not a knock against UU churches per se; it is possible that if I found the right one, I might like it there.

When I began embarking on this process of spiritual exploration, I felt caught between the Scylla of Christian tradition and the Charibdes of heresy. I still feel that way a year later, although I have found greater clarity on the issues involved, and I feel that I have spiritually grown despite the issues that haunt me; I am more willing to stretch the boundaries of what kinds of church services I will attend. Some of my hangups are, as I freely admit, related to my own baggage and my scars from my religious upbringing. I just can't ignore them. I can't. But trying to deal with them, trying to find God despite my scars, has been a challenge that has kept me occupied.

I said at the beginning of this post that I often want to experience the Divine more than just on Sunday mornings. This could be because of a deep religious longing on my part; or it could be because when I get interested in a subject, I get interested whole hog; I immerse myself in it, I read everything there is to read on the subject and I think about it often. Maybe there is a hole in my soul that leads me to do this every time I take up a new interest; whatever the case may be, I do find myself trying to reach out to God in more persistent and meaningful ways.

Last Sunday morning, I made my way to a certain mainline Protestant progressive church in my area that shall remain nameless (having identified myself to them, I could potentially give away my identity if I revealed its name here.) The church had a lot going for it, and I would go back, but at the same time my spiritual restlessness continues unabated. I don't expect to settle into that church or any other as a single spiritual home. I can imagine myself bouncing around from church to church, possibly perpetually "church shopping", seeking a little of this from one church and a little of that from another. Maybe I just have commitment issues.

As for fulfilling my spiritual needs between Sunday mornings, there are a few options. I have found a quite, contemplative value in attending Wednesday night Taize, for example. But other kinds of services have proven to be problematic. I wrote recently about walking inside Grace Cathedral last Memorial Day with the idea of attending Morning Prayer, before I chickened out because I saw would have been the only attender. There is a follow up to that story.

Last Saturday, I drove to Grace Cathedral again, thinking that I might attend their 3 PM Evening Prayer service. I hoped that there would be more people there this time. Inside, there were the usual tourists walking around, and there were two or three people sitting in the pews of the main chapel. One man was sitting in the corner chapel where the evening prayer was to be conducted. I decided to sit in the pews of the main chapel and watch from a distance. When the service began, I could not hear what was said too well, although occasionally some of the words were audible. At one point, the worshiper and the man conducting the service both knelt. As I watched that, I thought--who'd have known that you were supposed to kneel then? Or, for that matter, that you are supposed to use those little kneely-things? I don't come from an Episcopalian background. I would have had no idea. I had been interested in attending because I ached for some way to reach out to God--but somehow I felt like an idiot, sitting there in the pews, watching a service in which I wouldn't have known what to do. (And I'm not sure how I feel about kneeling in a service anyway, but that's another story.)

There is a fundamental question that underlies all this business of attending churches. What is the point of going to a worship service, anyway? To me, being part of a community worship experience in a structured setting just gives me a spiritual sustenance that I can't find through solitary disciplines, or for that matter through writing blogs or communicating on the internet. It is for me both scary to be part of a group of worshipers, and also necessary. Maybe it is necessary because we humans are social creatures. Yet when I visit a new church for the first time, I would often rather just slink into a pew in the back unnoticed. Attending a morning or evening prayer where I am either the only, or one of just a handful, of worshipers, is an example of something that is a little frightening.

But then, so is this entire process of religious seeking.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

I really resonate with what you said about wanting to slink into the back pew. I'm usually pretty gregarious, and I've been a "church girl" for a number of years... and even so, when I've visited churches for the first time, I have not wanted to be noticed and I NEVER stuck around for coffee hour.

I think there's something to be said for wanting to get a sense of how the place works before doing anything that feels like committing oneself. Like wanting to know which way is up before starting to dance.

I also wonder if this has to do with a sense of the transcendent that the more "mystical" among us may have--and maybe a resistance to wanting to shout it down too fast with yappy social stuff.

Ray said...

I am interested in what "church" means for you. it sounds like you feel quite solitary in your journey.

I speak as a buddhist who meets formally each monday with a small sangha (community) for a pureland service involving sitting, walking, prostrations, chanting the nembutsu. The service is very nourishing, supportive - a communal expression of gratitude to the Buddha.

But sangha is much more. We share meals, get involved in social action, community work, we study together, laugh and cry together.

I wonder if communal worship alone is enough for you... that maybe it is a true sense of belonging that you are searching for... with all the messiness that comes along with it.

With love

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

As you know I speak as a pastor -- and thus a professional church goer -- My sense from reading your posts over these last months is that this is a solitary journey for you, but while church is about one's experience with God it is also about one's experience of communion with others. If you were to come to my church just one Sunday you'd probably find us to be, well a bit odd. I mean we're a bit folksy. But if you were to continue worshiping with us, I think the community would grow on you. Diana Butler Bass talks about moving from spiritual nomad to spiritual pilgrim. The latter is the experience of God in the company of fellow travellers. That of course is risky because we're not always good fellow travellers!

Greg said...

I'm not one for "high church" structure. I can handle only light doses of liturgy. I can understand and appreciate the connection to believers of "old" that a recitation of prayers of old and creeds that are even older may give, but too much of it, in my opinion, can result in superficiality and somewhat out-dated modes of worship, resulting in concern over what I will be eating for Sunday lunch rather than focusing on the worship of God at hand.

But, that's just me, one who grew up in the independent Baptist tradition with ties also to the pentecostal tradition as well. So, go figure. =)

Even though I no longer identify with those traditions, choosing rather to identify with much more progressive Christianity, I presume certain characteristics from those "childhood" traditions will always remain a part of me.

Mystical Seeker said...

Ray and Bob, it is true that I this is a solitary process for me, which does make it difficult.

You raise an interesting question, Heather, about whether mysticism tends to correlate with solitary religious exploration.

Bob, if I am ever down in Lompac on a Sunday, I'll have to visit your church.

Greg, I understand where you are coming from. I was brought in a church that was similar to the Baptists in many ways. I think I have become more drawn to higher church concepts more recently, although perhaps only to an extent. Sometimes my old protestant background rises up and rebels against too much of that sort of thing.