The whiskey-smooth professor voice muses, “I wonder how these aesthetic choices—the music selection and the candles and the communion table cloths—contribute to the overall phenomenological experience of today’s lectionary readings and the sermon? Are the hymns and the emphases in the sermon complementing the church’s ongoing narrative, or compromising it? What are the gender conventions of this congregation and how does gender parity reveal itself in the rhythms and practices of the service? What makes people raise their hands when they worship? Is it a socially constructed gesture they assimilated via youth group culture, or is it a newly learned trait that developed…”
I try to turn it off, but six days of analytical jargon, deconstruction, and theoretical paradigms don’t rest quiet on the seventh.
I like being detail-oriented. I like picking a thing apart so I can better see its meaning. And I am proud to be an academic. But these questions rush through my mind during Sunday morning worship like a relentless broken water pipe. Every moment is a kind of case study. My synapses flood and the juices boil and the guilt takes over because I know I’m not experiencing things deeply and (before I know it) we recite our benediction and have lunch. On the ride home, B. J. asks what I learned from the service and I think, Learned? I can barely pay attention.
And these questions, these fixations, they breed such cynicism. Cynicism about my own spiritual experiences and cynicism about my own commitment to faith. The critical posture serves me well in my research and my writing. Sometimes it even rouses a kind of God-crafted sense of holiness when a literary text seems to offer a breakthrough just for me and no one else. Those moments are wonderful, intimate, and quietly holy.
But, goodness, why can’t I just let church alone? Why do I have to subject it to my critical lenses, my theories? I spend enough of my time playing the role of critic.
In church I want to be the caller, the responder, the reciter. Sometimes I wish the whole of church was a scripture reading and the call-response of This is the Word of the Lord : Thanks be to God over and over and over again. I want a liturgy that tells me what to say and when to say it so that my mind can just be still.
Today I was working hard during worship to focus on the moments where I just have to read along, repeat, or respond. Those are the easy moments for me.
But I’ve been wondering if there is a silent fraternity of church-goers who also can’t get their critical postures to relax. They aren’t just academics, I bet: people in seminary, people who’ve had too much seminary already, people who’ve had eons of “church experience,” people who are nit-picky on principle, people who work on staff at a church, and people who understand the great magic of it all but are just plain frustrated with its conjuring. It’s not so much doubt that frustrates them; it’s their inability to just soak up a service without questioning every moment, decision, or ritual. The ritual of call, response, repeat is probably easier for them, too.
Realizing this has made me reconsider Emily Dickinson’s poem about the Sabbath, which is a poem I usually love. I tend to read this poem as playfully triumphant, a celebration of Sabbath beauty without the need of church. But I think I need the church with all its bells and whistles, especially the moments when the liturgy tells my voice what to say. And I wonder now if there is a little sadness in this poem, maybe a little frustration with how, sometimes, a backyard sanctuary lets our minds rest silent better than a beloved brick and mortar one.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –I keep it, staying at Home –With a Bobolink for a Chorister –And an Orchard, for a Dome –Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –I, just wear my Wings –And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,Our little Sexton – sings.God preaches, a noted Clergyman –And the sermon is never long,So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –I’m going, all along.