Sea of Strangers

I knew a man who decided enough was enough and abandoned the Church. He never turned his back on Christ, but although an ordained deacon and amateur biblical scholar, he was unable to justify discrepancies in church leadership and allowed the perceived hypocrisy to drive him away. His retreat became increasingly pronounced and eventually translated into clinical depression that ultimately led him to exit life altogether. Sometime after his passing, his widow gave me a set of his commentaries, complete with his handwritten notes in the margins. I’ve never been able to erase the memory of that devout believer’s turmoil evidenced by his rejection of church.

Church has taken a black eye over the years, but she’s given out more than a few of her own. Since no human being is perfect, no group of them will be either; but as the song says, “We were made for so much more.” We take a hit on our intended identity when we pay more attention to how many attend our services than to how well we love before and after them. I feel sorry for those believers who’ve never known anything other than the anonymous church. It’s hard to experience and express God’s love to strangers sitting next to you. Sunday after Sunday in what amounts to the ecclesiastical equivalent of a concert hall, many tread spiritual waters midst a sea of strangers–unknown quantities, mutual anonymity.

The reason, I think, that so many find it hard to go to church is that we’ve largely lost the notion of what it means to be church. We confuse participles for the noun. Singing, praying, dancing, preaching, teaching– these are all but modifiers of the real thing. I enjoy a measure of pageantry and am a person of habit, so I like ritual in worship. I thrill to soul stirring music. Good preaching always moves me and bad preaching perturbs me (not to say I haven’t done my fair share of it). But all these may be experienced alone and in private. What makes church “church” is that I am present with other pilgrims, connected physically as well as spiritually, and it is relationship that morphs worship into transformation. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder; it cools and dulls the spirit. Me loving you, and you loving me, liberate both of us to love and worship God.

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