Archive for March, 2011

Turning Point

I went off Prozac at the end of my sophomore year. God, that was wonderful. Antidepressants numb you and take the edge off your emotions, to stop you from being acutely miserable and wishing you were dead. But they take the edge off all your emotions, and you spend most of your time feeling like a tired, lazy zombie. So when antidepressants have done their work, and you stop taking them, it’s like cool mountain air after holding your breath for six months.

But I was still pretty numb and hesitant. Not about Christianity–like I said in the previous post, I still believed as a Christian, and still tried to basically live like one. I just kept my distance from the emotion of it all. And I felt guilty about the distance I was keeping. I believed, as I always had, that I should have been all in, enthused and excited. But I was worn out. I envied the hand-raisers in chapel, and the people who seemed like they had close, deep relationships with God. I was even a little–not very, but certainly a little–bitter. That sincere, enthusiastic worshipper used to be me.

One time in the chapel, the music team was playing a song. I don’t remember what song it was, or if it was contemporary, or a hymn. I don’t remember if the occasion was the morning chapel service, or the weekly evening worship service. But I will always remember the acoustic guitar being played gently, then building, until the lead singer was basically pounding on the thing. I’ll always remember that when the lead singer started playing really hard, he went from singing the straight melody, and powered the chorus (or bridge or whatever part of the song it was) through an improvised line about a third or more above the melody. I’ll always remember that as he started doing those things, hands went up everywhere. And I’ll always remember all of those things because of one cynical, slightly bitter little thought that popped into my head: are those hands responding to the Holy Spirit, or to the chord progression?

I can’t know what was causing the response of everyone in that chapel. The cynical part of me would like to say that everyone in there was just being emotionally manipulated by the music, but that’s unfair and condescending to everyone in there. But I can say that in that moment, I realized that so much of what I had been responding to for all those years was the music. The presentation. The same songs done by less talented musicians would have evoked so much less of that feeling which, as I wrote in the previous post, I believed was worship. Those sermons, based on the same text, with the same points, but written and delivered by less gifted people, would not have inspired that same tingle that I associated with God’s love and forgiveness. It wasn’t that I had been uber-close with God at my old church, then because of my sinfulness or lack of holiness, I drifted away from Him during college. I had just been deceiving myself about how close I had been to God in the first place. I thought I was feeling the Holy Spirit, but really, I was just feeling the music.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not blaming my old church, and I’m not bitter towards them. They taught me that God loved me, and that though I am a sinner, He forgave me. They gave me my first inklings of the church calendar, of church history, and of theological depth beyond “Jesus loves you, so don’t get drunk and have sex.” I learned to take Christianity seriously in an intellectual sense as well as a personal one. They taught me orthodoxy, and gave me hints of orthopraxy, with the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed and the corporate confession of sin. I met good, holy people at that church, and I am a better person for the time I spent there.

Worship at the Speed of Life

The biggest problem with my conception of worship while I was evangelical was nothing my old church had taught me. It was my understanding of the role of emotion. That feeling that I had during church was, I believed, an encounter with God. And encountering God changes people. So when I had that feeling that a well-executed church service inspired, I believed I was encountering God. I believed I was being edified, cleansed, even sanctified. In short, I treated emotion, or emotional engagement in worship, as sacramental. So of course, going from an exciting, goosebump-inducing rock and roll service every week to Doris faithfully playing the piano every week (just like she’s been doing since the Eisenhower administration) would result in a period of spiritual dryness. If emotions are sacramental, then to be removed from those exciting, emotional services is something like excommunication. My error–which I think is probably very common in evangelical circles–was to treat emotional engagement in worship, and in Christianity in general, as sacramental.

But that’s an exhausting way to live. And it’s divorced from reality. I used to try to get juiced up on Sunday morning, then ride the wave through as much of the week as I could, until the next Sunday. But does that reflect the way of the life for which Sunday morning is supposed to prepare us? Let’s be honest–how often is life really exciting? How often does life produce extreme joy, or earth shattering, life-altering tragedy? Something far less than once a week. Does work produce previously unknown ecstasies of human experience? Does coming home to loved ones at the end of the day bring us to tears of joy? No. Occasionally, life is a thousand foot cliff with jagged rocks on the bottom, or a mountaintop experience rivalling the Transfiguration; but most of the time, its slopes are gentle, predictable, and unremarkable. Life is a largely mundane affair. Even the events that do hit us the hardest are common. The best day of someone’s life, predictably, is the day they got married, or became a parent. And the worst day usually involves a death. How is worshipping in a way that attempts to scale unknown heights of emotion or revelation every week helping us live the life that God has given us? If we’re having life-changing experiences on a weekly basis, is our life actually changing?

This is not to echo the cry of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. Mundaneness is not meaninglessness. Far from it. The mundane is often the most meaningful. Coming home to loved ones at the end of the day isn’t life-changing because we are brought to our knees with waves of love and joy every time we do it. It is life-changing because we do it every day for our whole lives. How boring. How mundane. How beautiful.

And that is why I like boring churches. It is worship at the speed of life. It doesn’t attempt to get a lifetime’s worth of soul-saving done in a single moment. It understands that its work takes years–in fact, it takes a lifetime. When people read the Bible and don’t sound excited or urgent, maybe its because they don’t care about Christianity. Or maybe because they are content to let the Bible soak and take time to do its work. (Or maybe because they didn’t sleep well last night. Why are you judging them?) In Peter Pan, Peter is a hero because he flies and fights pirates courageously. But we forget that the kind of courage we are called to is far more like that of Mr. Darling than Peter Pan. The worship I desired was the type that would prepare me so that in an epic spiritual battle, the Devil couldn’t take my soul. But I didn’t know that the Devil prefers to take souls with heavy courseloads at school, or relationships gone sour, more than with epic spiritual battles.

So here’s to worship that doesn’t try to change your whole life all at once. Here’s to worship at the speed of life, even if that speed isn’t always exciting. Here’s to remembering that still waters run deep. Here’s to boring churches.


Read Full Post »

I like boring churches.

I like it when the person giving the sermon isn’t very engaging, or has an awkward speaking style. Part of me feels warm inside when a priest reads a prayer, and he sounds a bit sleepy, or bored. When the Bible is read, and there are arbitrary pauses, after every few words, regardless, of the sentence structure, of the passage…I feel a little bit safe. Songs with melodies that weren’t catchy at any point in the 20th century, sung by someone with an okay voice and the stage presence of a three-toed sloth, will never let me down.

Growing Up

Through middle and high school, and for about a year and a half after college, I went to a church that increasingly was a production. Now don’t get me wrong–as far as contemporary, evangelical churches go, it’s solid. The people who run everything there are all very godly people. The theology was pretty deep, rarely trite, and nearly every sermon came back to the love and forgiveness of Christ. The church’s overall vision is not the masturbational model of building the Kingdom by building itself into an enormous juggernaut with more amenities than a YMCA. The pastors frequently encourage people to get into local community ministries, and the money that could have built a gym or a state of the art sanctuary went to India to build a school. But, the services were definitely a production.

The musicians were very talented. The music director had played professionally for over 20 years, and was a genius on guitar, and drums, and keyboards. At first, he was the only really, really good one out there. But by the time I left, the entire band was made up of professionals, and they’d played together long enough to build a really good rapport. Whatever feel they were going for–fun, or rocking hard (I mean, for evangelical baby boomers), or emotive, or quiet but beautiful–they would nail it, and sound damn good doing it.

The pastors all gave pretty good sermons. They caught your attention. They were honest and reflective. They were creative and unpredictable. And they built into a powerful, fairly energetic, extremely sincere reminder that God loves you, that He died for you, and that your sins are forgiven. They were moving. And after the sermon had pretty well softened you up, the band would come on and play the perfect song, exactly the way it needed to be played, for maximum emotional impact. Quick benediction, and out you went, reeling from the experience.

I loved it. I craved it. I thanked God for that church. Every Sunday, I tried my best to savor the way I felt, and to sustain that feeling through the week. When I prayed during the week, I remembered the impact of Sunday morning, and tried to cultivate that feeling in my prayers. I wanted the words “You are forgiven,” to be as impactful on Thursday afternoon when I prayed or thought them to myself, as when they were spoken with sincerity, assuredness, and carefully restrained passion at the climax of a sermon. And every Sunday, I would go back, and feel that way again.

That feeling, I believed, was worship. It was the presence of God’s love and approval. It was that for which we had been designed. It was the height of what a human could experience, and in a sense, the entire aim of the Christian walk.

Then, College

Grove City had churches aplenty. There were three Presbyterian churches within a five minute walk of the campus, and a fourth was started by the time I graduated. And that’s not even getting into the other denominations.  There were plenty of options, and I looked at a lot of them.

But none of them offered the experience that my old church offered. Some of them tried to go that route, but they weren’t half as polished, and even less effective. And some of them didn’t even try to create an experience. They’d have hymns, with Doris or Mary Ethel banging away the melody and chords on the piano like she had for the last 62 years, and a sermon. That was it. The traditional stuff briefly had a bit of cool factor, because it was different and quaint. But once I got used to the format, it ceased to make an impression. I missed my old church for the passion it engendered and for the energy it had put into my daily spiritual life.

Because you see, my daily spiritual life had started to fade and dwindle. Without that weekly energy shot and reminder of God’s love and forgiveness, daily prayer became dry. When I felt evasive, it was a chore to be shirked; when I stopped and actually allowed myself to be open and honest (which was becoming increasingly rare), it was a mirror that reflected back a barren, unsatisfied image that I did not enjoy viewing. It used to be that I really, intensely, almost palpably, felt God’s love and forgiveness. Now, I felt like something must have been wrong with me to have forgotten that feeling, that worship, that closeness with God that had been so ever-present at my old church. That guilt made me hate daily prayer. So I avoided it, and promptly felt guilty about that. The spiral consumed me, and there were points when I truly wished I was dead. I spent most of my sophomore year of college on antidepressants.

Despite all this, I still went to church every Sunday. It wasn’t like I ever started hating church; it had just lost its relish. Now that I think about it, it’s very possible that, if it hadn’t been something I did every week with my girlfriend, nonchalance towards church and laziness in general might have caused me to stop going. But I did still go. I was still a Christian, and it was a habit. I didn’t have any high expectations of the service–no mind-blowing spiritual revelations, no powerful, intimate moments with God during the music, or anything like that. Just okay songs, done by okay musicians, and an unengaging, but not especially boring preacher saying things I already knew. I didn’t care that the services were nothing special, because I was a bit burned out on spirituality. (And because making you not care is what antidepressants do.)

Read Full Post »