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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Truly Transformed Life

The present sanctuary was built in 1980.

One of the things I love doing in England is visiting old churches.  Whether I attend a worship service, or visit during the week, I cannot help but feel awed in the knowledge that people have been worshipping there for hundreds of years.  The same cannot be said for churches in the United States, particularly along the west coast.  Our oldest surviving churches tend to be Roman Catholic missions, planted over a hundred years ago to minister to the indigenous indian population. 

I don’t often visit churches at home, any more than I look for congregations where I can belong.  Somewhere along the way, something was severed inside me, and at this point, I’m not sure it can be mended.  I’ve seen too much casual cruelty, callousness, small-mindedness, and just plain, ordinary indifference.  Oh, people are always willing to donate food, money, and time to various ministries.  But all too often, they’re disinterested in the emotional needs of those who worship with them.  I used to blame myself, thinking that some basic part of me was lacking and needed to be found (see the “Your Personal Altar” series for more, if you’re interested).  Now I know better.

Sadly, the truth of the situation is that most people who join churches care more about the causes and ministries they will carry out there than they really do about people.  They do these things because they enjoy doing them, because it provides satisfaction, and because they believe that their actions benefit others.  But that doesn’t mean that they really care about those they help.  If they can provide a tangible benefit to others, which isn’t too taxing to them, then they will do it.  But to get their hands messy, to try to befriend people and attempt to meet their emotional needs, well, that’s not exactly something they can schedule easily into their free time, is it?  Perhaps, if the person seems just like them, and if they can easily envision having fun with that person, they’ll make the effort.  But anyone who seems too different from them…well, let someone else minister to their needs.

Still, we enjoy visiting churches.  Even if we no longer feel as though we belong, that doesn’t invalidate the beliefs we share, or the benefit that can be derived from the communal worship experience.  In visiting, we provide a benefit to the congregation, as worshippers tend to feel disconnected when hardly anyone shows up for the service.  By listening to the sermon, and thanking the preacher, we celebrate the message he or she labored so hard to prepare. 

A beautiful crucifix
made in Switzerland.
This past weekend, we visited St. Bart’s in Poway.  It was ninety-five degrees outside, and not much cooler inside.  We didn’t sweat during the service, but when we rose for readings, prayers, or songs, we felt a little lightheaded, and sometimes had trouble breathing in enough air.  Although I felt nothing special there, I enjoyed the service.  The priest delivered a thought-provoking message on "working out your salvation."  Light filled a sanctuary decorated with beautiful woodwork, icons, and stained glass.  Their organist played well, and the acoustics were good: the volume was perfect for the building.  I particularly liked the crucifix portraying Christ as King, as all too often Christians tend to focus upon Christ Crucified, and in an effort to not cause him more suffering through their own sins, consequently judge and condemn others for alleged sins and shortcomings. 

Due to a miscalculation on our parts, we arrived after the service had started.  I lingered afterward to take some photographs.  No one spoke to me aside from one of the priests.  As we left, some of the worshippers ate the remaining donuts on the tables that had been set up outside.  I wondered how they could eat them, knowing those donuts had sat outside for three or four hours in such heat.  And I wondered how they justified making no attempt whatsoever to talk with us or otherwise make us feel welcome. 

One of their stations of the cross.

While I realize I'm walking a fine line here, I am not judging or condemning them.  They obviously do good works for their community, as the jars of peanut butter and jam they were collecting for the homeless, and their other numerous ministries attest.  But their lack of interest in us did not signal the transformation that Christians universally claim to have experienced.  They’re not bad people, in fact, they seemed nice, polite, and…average.  In this, they probably resemble their patron saint: so little is known about St. Bartholomew from scripture that we can assume he was nice, polite, and undistinguished.  Average.

While I wish we could praise them more highly, we enjoyed our visit to St. Barts in Poway.  We congratulate them for their accomplishments, and wish them well.  Perhaps some day we will visit St. Bart’s again.  Perhaps, if we arrive earlier, or visit an earlier service, we’ll experience a better, superior St. Barts.  While I doubt that will happen, I live my life in the fervent hope that somewhere, and some time, some group of people will prove me wrong. 

Dragon Dave

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