I remember the question being asked by the teacher in my upper elementary Sunday school class – “What is godliness?” Godliness? I hadn’t heard that one before. Was it a good thing – like being holy? Or was it a bad thing – being holier-than-thou? I guessed it was probably a good thing. But it seemed like a sort of careless word…
But before my nine-year-old brain could even fully grasp the question, one girl answered, “It is like when you close the door when you are going to the bathroom, even though there is no one else in the house.” Whatever godliness meant, that couldn’t be it, I thought. That was ridiculous. But the teacher said, “Exactly!” Then she went on to say, “Some people have said that cleanliness is next to godliness.” And we spent the next 40 minutes or so talking about personal hygiene and keeping our “private parts” private.
This was a lesson that could only go over with children who had not actually read the gospels, which I had. I didn’t speak up to contradict the teacher that day – but it may have been the last day on which I held my tongue. The curtain was pulled away, and it was revealed that you did not have to be a wizard to teach Sunday school, you just had to be willing to show up. (Disclaimer: my daughter’s Sunday school teachers are indeed wizards, for which I am deeply grateful.) Looking around the table at the eager and attentive faces of my fellow students that day, I felt very lonely.
Lonely in the church. It is a way that I have felt very often in the years that have followed – and I am realizing now that this is because there are no special qualifications for church attendance. Anyone can do it. We don’t question people at the door, make sure that they are kind, or believe in Jesus, or read the Bible. This is something that gets missed when people ask “how could someone who goes to church [do/believe] [some outrageously unloving thing]?” How could anyone? If you can answer that one, then you have your answer, because anyone is welcome at church. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Church should be a place where anyone can come and ask any question and get a Christian answer, given Christianly – with warmth and generosity. The trouble is: if you can find any kind of person at church, even people without [m]any answers, then how does an inquirer know who to ask?
My Dad had a children’s sermon that he loved to do (it wasn’t his idea – he got it from a book, but it was years ago, so I don’t know which one.) He would invite the children up to see his beautiful new bird. He would whip the sheet off the birdcage in a “ta-da!” sort of motion, and inside would be… a kitten. After a good deal of banter back and forth, the point would be made that just as you can’t put any animal in a birdcage and call it a bird, you can’t put any person in a church and call them a Christian. There are any number of cats in our collective birdcage. Which leaves us… where, exactly? Well, lonely in church, sometimes, if you are looking for a community of gospel-delvers.
So over the years, I have found myself making pilgrimages to the holy sites of my faith. Which, as a believer in the Body of Christ – Christ embodied through a Christian community – has meant the places where professing Christians travel to gather and celebrate God together: District Clergy meetings, Annual conference, retreats and continuing ed events… seminary. While I have found Christ embodied sporadically in the local church, I have found Christ reliably in these places. It is not for nothing, I am realizing, that the annual gathering for teenagers from all over the NC Conference of the UMC is called “Pilgrimage.” Any teenager who will take a weekend to travel to sing about Jesus with other teenagers they won’t see again until maybe next year is making a clear statement about her/his priorities.
There’s a catch, though: even travel and time commitments do not serve as some kind of perfect filter. Even the burdens of seminary: the financial commitment, the loss of free time – do not guarantee that even clergy (or seminary professors) know what is what. The scriptures have warned us that not many should teach. Which warning comes with a clear undertone: some who shouldn’t, do. (Witness this egregious use of pastoral power to exclude an interracial couple. Not in the 1950s, but in 2011.) Nevertheless, the commitments required in such environments means that there is a critical mass of people who (with integrity and love and thoughtfulness) are trying to figure out what it means to live a God-haunted life. I may have been disheartened by a handful of my fellow travelers from time to time, but I have never been lonely on pilgrimage.
So if you are someone who (like me, I must admit) has been quick to judge “church people,” consider that many people find their way to church because so many churches are slow to judge. This is how I ended up in the congregation I am in, incidentally – I was impressed by the welcome received by EVERYONE who comes in the door. I hope that, if you are a church skeptic, you will come visit Trinity UMC in Durham, because you are welcome, just like everyone else – the Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and Independents, those in second hand coats from the community coat closet together with the fur-coat wearers, the ex-convicts and those who somehow sincerely believe they have never done anything wrong in their lives, the seminary professors and the high school drop-outs, the pacifists, the veterans, and the pacifist veterans… Radically welcoming is something Trinity does well, praise God. Not that it has been easy for me – most human beings have people that we struggle to include. I am trying to do better, not least by remembering that for some of my sisters and brothers, I am an equally difficult person to include.
On the other hand, if you are someone who is going to church and nonetheless feels lonely – if you are someone who wonders how many other God-haunted people there are out there under their “Sunday best” exteriors, it may be that you just need to engage more in the small group ministries of your local church. But it may be that you have tried that and are still coming up empty. Do you try a different congregation? Maybe. On the other hand, this could mean that it is time for you to go on pilgrimage. Godspeed!