Let Us Commend Ourselves and One Another
My grandmother was fond of the nursery rhyme that goes “Here’s the church/Here’s the steeple/Open the doors/And see all the people.”
Even though the poem has nothing to do with traditional Orthodox design (which prefers domes to steeples), her repetition did impress upon me that the church has something to do with community.
In the 1980s and 90s, one of the symptoms of American Christianity’s obsession with pop culture was the need to find positive references to the church in television shows. They were few and far between.
It strikes me as odd now (even if it didn’t at the time) that we have this underlying psychological hunger to justify our existence by finding encouraging references to ourselves in mainstream media.
In any case, one of the more popularized stories told us that the theme from the television show “Cheers” had actually been written about a visit to a Presbyterian Church that resulted in the songwriter’s conversion.
The rumor was so pervasive and widespread that the entire corpus of evangelical America spent the better part of the year with a collective smile on its face. It gave us indescribable joy to learn that the theme of this television show was not about a bar full of drunken heathens but about a thriving Christian community successfully welcoming a new member! Our seeker services were paying off. The church was finally branded as a place of welcome and inclusion where you could always find a warm cup of coffee, a warm smile, a warm handshake, and a safe haven to transparently air your troubles out in the open without the fear of judgment or ostracism. We had thwarted our undeserved reputation for exclusivism and hate, subversively penetrated the pop culture engine, and inserted a subtle reference to ourselves that, with the right super secret decoder ring, would reveal to the unchurched a subliminal and unavoidable friendly invitation to show up on Sunday morning.
It’s a beautiful idea, but the problem with it is that it simply isn’t true. These were the days before the Internet and Wikipedia and Snopes, and rampant, circulating ideas could not be easily verified. Today the Internet still offers occasional reminders of this rumor, promoted mostly by well-intentioned but uninformed individuals who would prefer to focus on ideas we wish were true instead of truths we know are.
But even if it turns out that the culture hasn’t come to our rescue, is the underlying idea wrong? There would seem to be at least a little theological and ecclesiological precedent to suggest that church has something to do with Koinonia. Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians might be a proof text to show that the work of Christ our God was to unify a community of people who would otherwise be at each other’s throats. With the exception of copious microbrews, cigarettes, darts, and billiards, that doesn’t sound altogether too different from a bar.
Put very simply: isn’t it human nature to attach ourselves to a group because the people there like us? And, conversely, don’t we tend to leave a group that gives no indication that they like having us around?
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the panentheist but popular notion that the worship of God doesn’t need to happen in a community at all. I don’t think the adherents of this idea bought into an atheist agenda. They correctly remind, as the psalmist has, that the work of the creator is inherently experienced in the experience of the creation. Their mistake is to fixate on this idea to the exclusion of all others.
These choices urge us to choose between them: either the warmth of the community is essential and worship alone is tragically impossible, or revelation is everywhere and the community is, at best, irrelevant.
But our faith exists between the tension of these two extremes. It straddles the spectrum that the church is a place of outgoing friendliness and meaningful human discourse, or that it is a place for quiet devotion and contemplation. It invites us to the paradoxical but powerful truths that God desires individual relationship, that this individual relationship is discovered and developed in the context of the community, and that God reveals himself in a relationship with a community, but one in which the individual is not absorbed into the whole to a point of losing his/her own identity.
The church is not about the personal gratification we receive by being accepted into a group, nor is it about our ability to avoid that group. We who are here have come to realize that the church is about responsibility, growth, and transformation.
Before the Great Entrance, our priest emerges briefly from behind the iconostasis, praying humbly, “for those who love us and those who hate us, may God forgive.” I tend to receive these words with a dose of humility, to take them personally, to call to mind those who hate me and love me with the wrong motivations. I suppose that I’m to examine myself for what I may have done to mislead them and give them false cause to do either.
Have I sought to be loved and accepted undeservingly? On the other hand, have I alienated anyone so much that he or she would be uncomfortable worshipping in the same room as me? Is that all Church is for, for me to either be the agent or the recipient of a community of acceptance so filled with human mercy that I am no longer responsible for my character flaws? Put differently, did I come here to feel good? Or to make someone else feel good?
On the flip side is another admonition. “Let us commend [or ‘commit’] ourselves and one another and our whole lives unto Christ our God,” we say at another time. I do not grow as a Christian in the absence of the growth of the fellow next to me. Witting or unwitting, we are intertwined. I may find the awe of God in nature, and so may he, but it is here, where we say a corporate prayer beginning with the word “Our,” that our faith and salvation truly have an opportunity to be made complete. Sink or swim, we’re in this together. We do not have to like each other, but we will find, one way or the other, that we have not been placed adjacent to each other by accident, that this happenstance has been orchestrated, and that we have something profound to offer one another.
We may never recognize or articulate what that something is. But, while I sit here by myself writing this post, I’m in silent awe that it happens, and I’m hungry to get back to experiencing that silent awe with others.
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