What is Church For? On Being Boring

How are we supposed to experience church? What does it mean to encounter the “holy”?

For some, church is supposed to be a time of reflection. While words and music float through your mind, you consider your failures, your losses, your hopes; the laundry and what’s for dinner; your old friend you haven’t called back.

For others its a time to let go of all the things you did wrong that week. Or to feel more self-righteous.

For others, Church is where I, the priest, tell you what to do. Like, if I were to say, “Please bring the rector a steak and a 2005 Bordeaux, now! It’s good for God, and good for me.” Or, more traditionally, “stop having a good time” or “don’t put a whoopee cushion on the rector’s seat, Jack.”

When I was vicar of the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul, I asked the American Ambassador, James Laney, who was also a pastor, if he would preach before he left town. “I appreciate the offer, but when I come to church, its a time for me to just sit and do nothing. I am always preparing during the week, and I’m always pleased just to listen.” For him, Church is a place to do nothing, to sit still. We’re always doing something, and church is a place to do the opposite.

Unless we’ve made you an usher, a Lay Eucharistic Minister or a member of the altar guild. Or put you on the vestry.

For some, church should be boring. James Alison, the theologian, says “When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it is, in terms of excitement, a long drawn-out let-down.” Excitement means we’re ready to go burn something down or creat a lynch mob. The mass is about becoming unexcited.

Sometimes, we experience the holy as a kind of enchantment. That’s how kids experience Disney, or I experienced Michele Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. To some extent, the mass is like that: a time to become a child, or to be crooned to by God’s holy, loving, intimate voice.

The eucharist might be also disenchanting, revealing the world for what it is, our own hands of love exactly what God has given us to get through this world. There are illusions all around us: the immediate promises of wealth and power, opposed to the simple symbol of people sharing bread and wine, now connected as one body.

But in either case, the holy is a time where we are awakened. Suddenly we see the world a little differently, in a new cast, in a different hue. All God has done is change the lighting. We saw dimly, but now what is real is apparent, heightened and lovely.

The holy is not about getting the world right; it is not about perfecting our souls, as if we could do that. It is not about doing what the priest says, no matter how I would enjoy that power. It is, perhaps, a state where we see the world differently, suddenly enchanted when we are despairing, or disenchanted when we had been fooled.

And then we are invited into the understanding that we are a bit more powerful than we thought we were, and not simply taken along for the ride.

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