sunday sanctuary: why i still go to church
As I’ve traveled around and talked about The Invisible Girls, and about my own journey of faith, I’ve often been asked why I keep going to church. When God sometimes seems to hide, when people are not the best versions of themselves (and, worse, do it in God’s name), when it deprives you of a good Sunday morning spent in bed, when “organized religion” imposes more rules than are necessary……. why go?
I’ve asked myself that question. A lot.
I’ve been going to church since I was about a week old. Seriously, my dad is a pastor and my parents took me to church right after I was born, and I’ve been going ever since, with the exception of the seven months when I was going through treatment for breast cancer.
Why do I keep going?
I think I keep going to church because it’s familiar to me. I like singing old hymns, flipping through the thin pages of my Bible, hearing someone talk about beloved sacred stories.
I keep going because even though sometimes in church I’ve seen people on their worst behavior, I’ve also seen them at their best. I’ve seen them donate money to national and international causes. I’ve seen them give soup to hungry people and shelter to people who otherwise would be left to sleep on the streets. I’ve seen them bring my family meals when my little sister was in and out of the hospital with multiple heart surgeries.
I keep going because it grounds me. Hearing the same message of God’s love and vision for the world keeps my focus on the bigger picture. It keeps me wishing and praying and hoping and working for a better world. Or, as Jesus said, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
But there’s another reason that keeps me coming back: Communion.
Churches do communion in different ways. For most of my childhood I went to a church where they had communion once a month. We sat in the pews as ushers passed plates of small crackers, then trays with small plastic cups of grape juice. Then I went to a church where we’d walk to the front and dip a piece of bread into a cup of wine.
Six months ago I moved to Santa Barbara and started going to Trinity Episcopal Church (which I love). They have communion every week. We walk to the front and stand in a semi-circle with our hands cupped in front of us. A clergy person puts a morsel of bread in my hands. Then another clergy person comes with a silver chalice of wine, and I bring it to my lips and take a small sip.
"The gifts of God for the people of God," the rector says every Sunday.
“Amen," I whisper, and walk back to my pew.
I’ve traveled more the past 18 months than I’ve ever traveled in my life. When I get back from a trip, I’m usually spent because of all the energy it takes to fly, stay in unfamiliar beds, adjust to a new time zone. Also, when I’m speaking, I spend every ounce of energy I have to give a talk that hopefully reaches people and resonates with their heart. I want to encourage people to see and experience the divine, radical, unconditional love of God.
I want to encourage them to take their cues from the words of Jesus instead of the political systems and institutions of the world. I want them to borrow hope from the future instead of hurt from the past.
"I truly believe that the absence of love is the source of every problem.
So what does it mean for love to be the beginning of every solution?"
I ask the groups I speak with.
I get back to my apartment in California, and I crash. I’m usually a productive, organized person, but sometimes I’m so tired I drop my suitcase down and don’t unpack it for days. I lay in bed and even the thought of getting in my car and driving to the grocery store for food feels overwhelming. Jesus, how am I going to eat today? I wonder.
And yet, most Sundays I’m in town, I set my alarm on Sunday morning, get out of bed and get ready, and go to a beautiful little Episcopal church that’s more than 100 years old.
I don’t go there to be noticed -- because I’m a relatively new member, and I’m sure most people don’t know if I’m there or not.
The music is beautiful, but it has weird keys and it’s not very melodic, so it’s difficult to sing to.
The message is always very thoughtful and interesting, but I don’t go for that.
Why do I go, then?
I go to stand at the front in a semi-circle with my fellow brothers and sisters, with people ages 4 to 94. I stand with my hands cupped in front of me, a literal and metaphorical gesture that I’m open, that I’m empty, that I need someone to give the bread of life to me.
Well, every day, if I’m really honest with myself.
I go to church because I’m empty and need to be fed. Because it’s so easy to become prideful, and I need to stand there in humility acknowledging that I am and I have nothing -- that anything good in my life is a gift from the Divine. I go because I need to know that the world I see on the news is not all the world there is. Because I need to get to know people that I can love, and who can love me.
Church at its worst is an appalling thing. But church at its best -- with the broken-winged saints like me, the sacraments, the sanctuary and the sacred stories -- is beautiful.
And so I go. I stand. I sit. I sing. I give. I receive. And at the end, together with my brothers and sisters, I repeat the words,
What was promised in pain is (and, I add, will be) delivered in glory.
Thanks be to God.