In what follows I ask the reader to accept rather much of the vertical pronoun; please forgive.
I am not a pious man, but a crooked man to whom ours is a very wily god (Psalm 18:26–27); a sinner in a relationship with God that reflects the fact: thick, and loaded with ironies.
When I joined my Episcopal parish, I hoped the other members’ acceptance implied communality in some large matters. There is little reason to think so, because we seldom actually discuss ideas—especially not theological ones; as with politics, it’s bad manners to do so. However that may be, I suspect this is more than the predictable letdown the morning after the prodigal’s arrival.
I probably helped create my own estrangement. (Possibly this writing adds to my problem.) I’m told I have mere “head knowledge,” and lack “heart.” I am “afraid” of a certain taste in music. I would sacrifice the comfort and hence the lives of potential new members for my stodgy preferences. I am as susceptible to these slights as the next man, but it is best to give no answer. I don’t need any human judge, least of all should I be my own. We all rely on Jesus Christ the Merciful. So I stand without wrangling, knowing Abel’s blood eventually cries out from the ground.
But that is melodramatic nonsense. The truth is, I am Cain as well. Like some of my unbelieving friends, there are times I would like to rid the world of smug, complacent Christians in one great rage. I call them fools as often as they do me. There is nothing but the mercy of God between me and the abyss. But that makes us brothers and sisters. Leave it at this then: An adult in the faith should expect to sit in company feeling estranged. I don’t expect many others to admit being Cains alongside me.
The parish exists in comfortable relationship wit the surrounding culture. It does not nourish but displaces resurrection faith with the usual moralistic and emotional substitutes. Whether to embrace or reject the standardized thing depends only on which side of it is held toward them. But authentic Christianity entails a specific kind of world rejection, never mistaking the world, including the parish, for home.
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Having said all that, one hopes to prove faithful in the long run. The life of faith can be described in three parts: work, study, and prayer.
The Day Job
Before retirement, my day job as a Rehabilitation Counselor was my most obvious contribution to others, if I made any. It was a constant chastisement. It forced me uncomfortably against gritty realities quite foreign to my fellow parishioners. Some they would despise, and others actually fear. Contrary to what I heard in preaching, County Mental Health is not such a strange place. My business took me there, and to less savory addresses. Maybe I only make a virtue of my necessities, but I think a faith which does not seek out trying experiences is missing a key element. This is a point of cognitive dissonance between me and church. I share this part of life with my office colleagues more than I do with Christians.
As I hope my writing reflects, I give some study to the Bible. I also read history, literature, and theology. I hope someday to have something to say to intelligent laymen.
Partly to get acquainted with that audience, I have visited Bible Study groups, where one finds a sad pool of ignorance. People don’t know how to study; they use scripture as a Rorschach test, a stimulus to free association. Two themes arise this way. First, there ought to be no inequalities, no hierarchies, no authorities, nothing to resent among Christians. Second, the Lord Jesus holds us in the palm of his hand, but things look pretty bad right now. if Robert Fulghum is right, the first of these can be learned in any kindergarten. The latter appears to be a bromide against depression, since it is often accompanied by tears. In these circumstances we have little that is rich or truthful to say to each other. The function of such groups is to dramatize the pecking order among the pious.
I worship in the parish’s house, but I don’t conform well. I need the church’s prayers as much as the next man, but I wonder how efficacious can the somnolent mumbles that make up Prayers of the People be? We that we are getting too close to judging others, so it is best to leave that question in suspense.
As they pray, people evaluate themselves. To compound the problem, they use mostly affective criteria, but what feelings as such could possibly correspond to communion with the Lord? People using such criteria might easily think they fail at prayer. We can hope they are wrong; that they have been praying without knowing it—an odd twist on praying without ceasing.
What feeling do people expect to get from church? Probably it is the simple comfort of having a home and friends and giving service to each other. Lacking these things, people can suffer the same loneliness as a group that I do among them as an individual: the estrangement of this odd thing, a body which goes by the name of Christ, though it may not know why. We on the inside can pull up the drawbridge and huddle inside. Doing so, the parish replicates its fragmented culture. Is ours any more than a peripheral effect of that? Aside from our intramural dramas, what do we say of the Christ who brings us together and sends us out into his larger world?
Our true foundation
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has it in Life Together, (1954, page 23):
. . . a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ . . . . Without Christ we . . . would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. Christ opened the way to God and to our brother. Now Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by way of Jesus Christ.
That is the opposite of what we usually hear: that we find Christ through each other; that by exercising love among ourselves, we strive to apprehend God’s love. If Jesus Christ is not at the center, there is no point in walking the periphery.