Thursday, August 25, 2005

Ashamed of the Gospel

I attended services a few weeks ago at a nearby Protestant church. The minister, a friend of mine, was on vacation and a retired clergymen was filling in for her.

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.


Blogger Peregrinato said...

Preach it, Sister Peacebang. This is an excellent observation on the hubris of our liberal religion (whatever form it chooses to take).

For the record, I try to sneak confession into the pastoral prayer, under the classic "ACTS" model, and because it is about the only place that people seem willing to accept it if there is no corporoate confession of sin--something I have always respected in Presbyterian worship.

Yes, we are a broken, imperfect people, and it is not dwelling on the negative to acknowledge our wrongdoings, the sins of what we have done and not done. We can only improve upon what we acknowledge needs improvement.

Blogger fausto said...

Are you perhaps indulging in some misplaced projection? The "vanilla ice cream" that you saw that one time might not be great as a regular diet, but I wonder if there isn't something unsatisfying about the regular minister and the regular worship style that made the temp seem like a needed breath of fresh air to the regular congregants.

None of which detracts from what I take to be your larger point, though: that we UUs ourselves are overly prone to indulging a vanilla ice cream addiction.

Blogger Clyde Grubbs said...

Some folks do see church as a filling station. Come in for inspiration, go out and face the cruel world. It isn't just liberals. The megachurches have it down to a science.

Blogger Paul Wilczynski said...

So ... how did you really feel about the service?

Blogger PeaceBang said...

This wasn't a service at a liberal church, gang. I said Protestant. I didn't say Liberal.
And no, Fausto, I wasn't projecting. I've worked too long and hard on such issues to be very prone to projection in that particular arena.
And... you did miss my larger point. This wasn't meant to apply to UU churches. It was meant to be a scathing criticism of ANY church that squirms to avoid deep engagement with its gospel(talk about projection, dude!!).

I wholeheartedly agree with Clyde about some of the mega-churches, btw.

Blogger Oversoul said...

This experience reminds me so much of my most recent UU worship experience, and explains why I decided not to join the congregation. I need depth-I didn't get it.

Blogger Adam Tierney-Eliot said...

I enjoyed this a great deal. As someone who often feels like a tightrope walker during Sunday services (perhaps over-concerned with the importance and sacredness of worship) I appreciate it that there are others who are bothered by the casual feel-good thing. Worship DOES mean something, after all, it should be done well and with respect for God and Congregation.

It also reminds me that I have been that preacher (well, not the retired part, obviously) from time to time. Thanks for stiffening me up as I prepare for Sunday.

God bless you PB!

Blogger Jesus del Norte said...

Keep preaching the truth, sister. We need to be a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness. We need to quit eating vanilla ice cream and get on a diet of locusts and wild honey. We need a baptism of holy fire. We need to put some meat on these old dry bones and then these dry bones need to get up walk.

Sorry, I guess I should be using "I" language.

Blogger Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...

PB said: "It was meant to be a scathing criticism of ANY church that squirms to avoid deep engagement with its gospel"

Does this also refer to UU clergy who claim to "SNEAK" elements into a service of authentic worship? I fail to see how sneaking is a form of deep engagement with the gospel!

It's one thing to see the moat in our "brothers" eye, but miss the log in our own.

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Blogger fausto said...

The piece I'm still missing is why so many of the regular congregation were so effusive. I'm inferring that it must have been a very different type of service from what they were accustomed to, and satisfied a need that their usual worship style did not.

I'm right there on the need for depth, challenge and engagement in any denomination. I don't see Peacebang as the type of UU (we've all seen them) who takes cheap shots at other denoms while thinking her own is above all that, though. That's why I assumed there was a lesson meant specifically for us UUs in her dudgeon.

Blogger Denise said...

"I'm saying that 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."

I loved this. Thanks!

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Denise, please don't credit me with that quote! I wish I was that clever! I don't know who said it, but it's a popular saying among church folk...

That said, in response to Fausto's response, sorry if I was defensive but I wanted to make sure no one thought I was impugning UU worship, which I think has improved so very much in the past 20 years. I visit as many UU churches as my summer months permit, and even when the service doesn't minister to me at all, I still find that folks mostly are very sincere in what they're doing and offering.
Even if some of their choices make my teeth itch, I can't fault their sincerity.

Integrity... well, that's a different subject. Don't get me started or I might have to tell the story of the UU congregation that passed out paper dots to everyone and instructed them to wear them on their foreheads as bindhis for "Hindu Sunday."

Blogger UUpdater said...

"when I do good, I feel good, when I do bad, I feel bad and that's my religion" - Abe Lincoln. When I walk into church I know I can do good, this is not something that needs to be instilled on a Sunday morning. What I mainly look for on a Sunday morning is community, and if people are turning to eachother with appreciative smiles it sounds like he did a good job of fostering community. Wanna call it a drug, fine. But allow me to point out some other "drugs": excercise, time spent with loved ones, intelectually stimulating conversation, reading poetry, and being as some of us are in deeply commited relationships I would hope the sex is guilt free. In fact check out the movie "What the bleep do we know" and you will see several folks basically argue all human conditioning is a drug like reaction. Deep engagement with "gospel" is part of a day to day routine, not a Sunday morning activity.

Oh, and I may not be perfect, but my flaws make me human, not broken. If you feel broken I am glad you have found a drug that fixes you, but please realize not everyone shares those feelings.

I think engagement, depth, etc. are essential, but not for every service. There is a time to laugh, a time to cry, a time to celebrate, etc.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Contribuutor, I agree with everything you've said. I guess what I didn't make clear enough was the disconnect between the smarmy DISRESPECT of the worship service (it was like worship led by a casino greeter) vs. what they claimed to believe they were doing there.
Believe me when I tell you it was super icky. I truly think the woman who grabbed me to insist how "great" it had been was trying to convince herself, too. The soul knows when it's been duped.

The whole thing reminded me of a high school pep rally. The so-called "drugs" you've named are healthy drugs; they strengthen in some way. This one surely didn't. It enfeebled. Thanks for the movie recommendation.

Blogger The Emerson Avenger said...

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