Convention has it that church is boring, and that is, in my experience, very true. There is a story about how Thoreau, shackled by duty, was sitting at a Christmas church service one fine, flurried Sunday morning. The sermon was droning on in the way of sermons (I suspect little has changed since 1775) and Thoreau’s naturalist heart drove his attention out the window, to where snow was falling in the eastern brightness of dawn. There was something in the snowflakes, some serene transcendence they set on him, that struck him as far lovelier and more captivating than the Christmas sermon. And so he took his leave of that church, never to return to it or any other.
Such is the prerogative of a transcendentalist, but I do wonder whether his life on Walden Pond was so much more thrilling than any given Sunday morning at church. I understand the aesthetic appeal of his adventures—who doesn’t—but be your Sunday morning sanctuary an auditorium or an autumn wood, I expect it’s stupendously dull, pockmarked with brief moments of beauty that will break your heart.
I had such a moment last Sunday. In front of me, the pastor talks about Moses parting the Red Sea. His analogy, that God can make a way through the seemingly impassable obstacles in our own lives, seems strong enough. “But does this mean,” he asks us, “that God will fix your debt? Your loneliness?” We all sit and wait for an answer, and he looks rather sheepish. “I don’t know,” he confesses. I like him very much for this. And then he issues the bread and wine, and bids us all to come up to him and take part.
I always liked communion. Its foolishness. Here we are, a motley gaggle of young adults, decked in our thrift store chic and slim fitting fineries, standing in line to be fed a little bread and a little wine that may or may not turn to the body and blood of Jesus Christ Himself in our mouths. There’s something about it that strips you of pride. Maybe that was the point.
I like the lines we stand in to receive it. I share so little with these people. I don’t know many of them, and I don’t necessarily like all the ones I do. But I will eat and drink with them. There is a biker couple, in fringed leather. There is a palsied man on crutches. A boy in basketball shorts. A tall, pretty girl in boots. A family. Some dear friends. Some total strangers. Me. This one doesn’t speak English. That one makes in a month what I make in a year. And here we are, clubfoot and knock-kneed, dancing down the aisles of a boring old church service to take and eat, and do in remembrance of him. And when I reach the front and my pastor looks me in the eyes to say “Know this morning that your sins are forgiven and they’ll never be brought up again,” it stings my eyes with tears.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Thoreau said that, and I wish he had applied it to his experience with the church. I agree with his assessment that the world outside a church building—or any building—will stir more passions than what’s inside. But maybe the more boring church is, the closer it gets to the actual idea of church. What you’re looking at is all of us sitting in rows, listening to a pastor, singing songs and following old rituals. What you’re seeing is people, standing on each other’s shoulders, creating some bumbling semblance of a ladder to Heaven, where we may commune with God. And He, joyfully obliging.
That is not so boring.