Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What do I get out of church?

This is an interesting question that has been knocking around the empty space inside my skull for a long time. My wife asks me every Sunday upon my return from church how it was.  Thankfully the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is pretty reliable, and so I can typically explain how I enjoyed Fr. Benedict's usually excellent and useful sermons.

But the question remains, what do I get out of church?  Well, I get to worship with other Orthodox Christians; I get to sing very loudly some of the finest melodies that I know; I get to partake of the precious body and blood of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.  That is what I get.

The followup comes like this, however: how did it make you feel?

And this is a question that I don't know how to answer.  And the fact that I can't answer the question leads me to an intuition I have had for a very long time that my friend Preston Salisbury identified on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  What does it mean to worship God?

In the Orthodox world, it is work.  Worshipping God is our daily job.  This is a labor of love, but like all labors of love it is work.

I have a quip I like to throw out to people who have asked me if I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I like to tell them that I have a professional relationship with Jesus Christ.  My relationship with Christ is a vocation; it is a career.  And right now, that career consists of prayer, and fasting, and going to Church every week.

It does not consist of ecstatic visions of angels.  It does not consist of feeling warm fuzzies when I complete the Prayer of the Hours during the Sixth Hour.  I don't experience rapturous joy at taking Communion.  In the Orthodox Church, we are welcomed to communion with this prayer: "With fear of God, with faith and love, draw near."*  Fundamentally, just like at my saecular job, church is not about what I get out of it.  It is about what I put into it.

Going to church is like mowing the lawn, in a sense.  It is in the Orthodox view necessary for the proper maintenance of the human being.  I go to church to worship God and partake in the Eucharist.  I do not go to church to feel aglow with happy thoughts.  When I am at church, I am at my work.  Mowing the lawn of the soul, if you will.  Once the lawn is mowed, I am ready to edge the lawn, and clean up the crepe myrtles, and cut back the azaleas, and maybe even plant that garden.  But I have to mow the lawn EVERY WEEK.

Does this mean that going to church is a chore?  Well, it can be.  Some days it's hot in church.  Some days, there are only you and the priest's family and the choir director in church.  Some days, everyone in church has a cold, or a sinus infection.  Some days, there's a memorial service after church and you really want to get back to Hattiesburg.  But that is part of the job of being a Christian.  In the immortal words of the narrator of The Big Lebowski, "Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you."

The saints did not come to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by accident.  We read how in the monasteries they worked, and suffered, and fasted, and prayed.  We read how they were tempted by demons, and how they fell victim to the seven grievous sins, and repented, and were healed.  In the Brothers Karamazov, Elder Zosima, an undoubtedly saintly and pious man, dies and his body, in the utter defiance of the conventional wisdom and hope of the townspeople, rots foully, instead of being preserved incorrupt.  The world is a harsh and terrifying place for the holy; how much more so for us?  Through it all, however, they worked at being Christian.  They did not wonder what they were getting out of it.  They concerned themselves with what they were putting into it.

The work of the church is the work of the church.  And we are all called to it.  Just because it is sometimes unpleasant doesn't make it any less necessary.

* Both in ROCOR and at St. Tikhon's Seminary, there is no love.**

**This is inside baseball.  But then, this is a blog about being an Orthodox Christian in Mississippi married to a Protestant whose theology is best summed up by Oliver Cromwell.***  So this whole thing is inside baseball.

***I am not kidding about the Oliver Cromwell thing.  She thinks he may have been a little soft when it came to his approach to eliminating bear-baiting.

1 comment:

  1. I am not a Protestant. I am Christian, one who wishes for no factions in the Church. I grant: I was informed as a Protestant in my early years.