Church was never meant to be a hall of fame for Saints; it was meant to be a hospital for sinners!
More than thirty years ago I came across an Erma Bambach story that still resonates with me today. Whenever I witness its theme being played out in church, I recall the story. Paradoxically in life, we can place far too much value on our outsides and thereby miss what is happening on our insides.
Bambach told of a time at an Easter service where all the kids were dressed to the max. It was packed in her church, way more than usual, and it was hard for both kids and parents to keep themselves from being distracted by the flowers, music and all of the new faces. One family stood out up front as having gone to extreme measures in terms of fashion; in fact, the family looked more like an Easter egg than anything else.
Their youngest child was a beautiful toddling girl, who sat just two pews ahead of Ms. Bambach and was turned around facing the back of church and more than 75% of the congregation. Less than a third of the way into the service, the precocious toddler suddenly sensed that many were paying attention to her rather than the preacher’s sermon. She was making faces and gestures that drew smiles from all those watching her innocent theatrics.
Just getting started her number of admirers grew rapidly and before long you could sense that the congregation was hooked more on the little girl’s impromptu displays and gyrations than they were focused on the minister’s soliloquy. It was all so innocent and sweet; the congregation had become her voluntary orchestra waiting for her next queue. The distraction was pure and not overdone and many individuals were nudging anyone that was not yet following along to tune in to this young girl’s original score.
Just about the time she had really found her groove, her pious mother caught site of the free-spirited display. Appalled and mostly embarrassed, the mother pulled her daughter down by the arm to sit on the pew for an appropriate scolding. After giving her youngster what she perceived to be a well-deserved “what-for” and a “I’ll have you know young Missy”, she spanked the child on her ruffled bottom and reminded her that she “was in church and that she should act like it.”
After her thirty-second rant—the now red-faced mother again turned to her wailing child and said loud enough for others to hear, “Now that is more like it, young lady!”
I can imagine the arrow that pierced and broke that young girl’s spirit that day. The message, distorted in many ways, likely would long cripple her perception of God, Church and what she should expect of her broader faith community. I am potentially the wrong person to comment here, since my wife and I muscle a nine-member tribe ranging in age from 15-2 years of age to Catholic mass every Sunday. Certain days, it can feel as though we are herding cats. The fact that as our priest processes we are in the pew with shoes that match, is sometimes in itself a miracle.
Getting all fuzzed-up and worried about how we are looking and acting on the outsides while attending mass sends the wrong message to our kids. Sure, they need to settle in and focus while in church. They should be able to sense the real reason we are there each Sunday. They need to feel how important it is for us to get perspective on where our lives are headed and will benefit long-term by learning how to ask for divine help and guidance along their way.
If we are not careful, we can lose sight of the longer view. The ritual is a gift given to restore and minister to us; not to unnecessarily accuse or burden us. Matters of faith and spirituality are not the kinds of races we are used to competing in. We are not out to prove anything to anyone. When it comes to my faith journey, I am not striving to finish ahead of anyone else; it is my race to run… alone.
A friend is fond of saying that going to church every Sunday doesn’t guarantee you will become more Christian. In fact, it has about the same likelihood of transforming you as does sleeping in your garage each night will of making you into a car! Going to church does not guarantee that I am participating in the Great Reformation that God has planned for my life.
Gathered together on Sunday, we should be comforted knowing we are all torn in some way and in search of mending. Nothing can be merited within me to warrant the gifts bestowed. We don’t attend mass every weekend for God’s sake or to be checked-off of some cosmic attendance record.
We lose our way; we forget the plot, we are duped into turning away from what we know is best for us. Going to mass keeps us tethered to the eternal message of restoration. It offers us the reoccurring opportunity to reconnect with the Divine.
Thomas “TD” Dierker
Live like you’re dying…. cause you are!