Ashamed of the Gospel
I left the service limp with amazement, and not the good kind.
First of all, the entire worship experience was so elaborately casual as to be downright sloppy, and much of that the fault of the garrulous visiting minister, who seemed far more committed to coming across as a Really Nice Guy than to bringing a meaningful message or serious Sabbath experience to the gathered people. Worst of all, they just looooooved it! They loved the message. They loved the shared, self-satisfied smiles. They even loved his biting sarcasm during the Story for All Ages, which appalled me. A woman turned to me after the service (she knows who I am) and said, "Isn't he great?? He is so good."
I thought he was far from great but just smiled.
The lector, before giving the New Testament reading, gigglingly confessed that she had been so happy to return to church after a vacation that she forgot to come up and adjust the microphone. While she adjusted the microphone we got to hear all about how she was adjusting the microphone because she had forgotten to adjust the microphone earlier. Is your brain numb yet? You get the idea. The reading was incidental to the jabber.
Woman, you are bringing the Gospel. Bring it. Give it. One can be warm and loving without wholly crushing whatever sense of solemn joy has been generated among the worshipers and making the moment entirely about YOU.
The singing was lackluster and mumbly. The hymns, I regret to say, were of the awful Fanny Birney variety, so Victorian-sentimental blood-of-Christ-y with piercing high notes, that I wondered that any men would bother to open their mouths at all. Had I one more drop of testosterone in my own body, I couldn't have managed it myself.
It was the ceaseless prattle between and during worship elements that most distressed me. I thought only Unitarian Universalists fell prey to the "over-explaining" syndrome, where we can't let the next thing happen but must intellectualize, analyze and contextualize every blasted action, whether corporate or individual. Actually, I'd rather have earnest over-explanation over pointless, distracting blathering any day. The subtext to it all was: now we have to get through this next silly old tradition, but you'll humor me, won't you?
Worst of all was the preacher, who preached not only a highly disorganized, meandering feel-good piece straight out of the Religion Lite Manual ( I swear he got the whole thing off the Internet), but who managed to insert a sort of meta-narrative about how he was preaching into his actual preaching.
The Rev repeatedly reminded us throughout his sermon that he was retired and hadn't preached in over a year and we would have to be forgiven for going on for too long and being scattered, all the while smiling with such winsome old-boy charm that we were bound to eat him up like a dish of vanilla ice cream. He practically contorted himself to avoid seeming like a Christian leader with any authority. This could be because he was a guest in someone else's pulpit. I notice, however, that this fact didn't keep him from insulting the absent minister with several sarcastic remarks (eg, "Well, your Pastor told me there wouldn't be any children here today, but she was wrong! I guess that means you like ME better than HER! Heh heh heh"), so I doubt that his deprecating moues were anything but devices to avoid responsibility for what he was saying and doing.
Brother, I didn't come to church for a dish of vanilla ice cream. I asked for bread and you gave me stones.
Authentic vulnerability is one thing. Authentic garrulosity is one thing. They are charming and human qualities. But sarcasm, pandering and theatrical displays of humility are another thing entirely: they are manipulative, exclusionary and prideful. In the end I was left remembering Paul's beautiful, raw confession: "I am not ashamed of the gospel." Every word and gesture I had heard that morning made me think that this was a people ashamed of the gospel, and none more so than their visiting minister.
"This was so great," continued my neighborly greeter in the next pew. "Our services can get so negative, with confessions of sin and everything. We think that's why we're not getting any new young people. You're getting new people, aren't you?" she asked.
I replied that yes, we're getting some new young people but to my knowledge, it wasn't a year of great growth in any of the neighboring congregations, UU or Catholic or Protestant or otherwise. I said that I liked their liturgy very much because it did allow for the confession of brokenness and need before moving into the contemplation of God's love and Christ's redeeming work. I told her that we had nothing like a confession of sin in our own church and that frankly, I tried to sneak it in on ocaasion because it's good for the soul.
"But," she fretted, "we need something to make us feel good! I mean, we come to church and we need to go away feeling good."
"I have to disagree with you." I responded. "You need to go away feeling that you can do good."
That's what made me feel the most sick. We have every drug in the world to make us feel good: television and movies, computer games, drugs, food, shopping, comfortable cars, spas, self-help gurus galore, and guilt-free sex. Church doesn't need to be another drug. Imagine thinking that what you most want out of church is to "feel good."
Jesus didn't bid us take up our lawn chairs and follow him.
I'm not saying we have to be solemn, miserable martyrs. My own congregation and I laugh together a LOT, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But the church doesn't exist just to comfort the afflicted but also to afflict the comfortable. All of which can be done in a spirit of love and joy.