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.

What’s Up with Holiness?

I’ve always found the word “holy” to be a little strange.

I usually hear it describe other nouns. Like when someone says “Holy cow” or “holy moly” or “super holy mother of all crazy freak monster trucks….”

Or maybe when it refers to my coat pocket and the reason I keep losing pens.

Perhaps you’ve heard it used when someone says they are “holier-than-thou.” These are judgmental individuals. We don’t find people who value “holiness” to be a lot of fun, and they are generally dull at parties. Holy people are the ones always abstaining and raising their eyebrows when you’ve said a cuss word to make a point or had your third or fourth glass of wine.

Well, nobody else was drinking that glass. It was a 1985 Pomerol and needed to be quaffed.

It’s true that holiness is an important part of spirituality. But it is not about our private pieties, those feelings that allow some to feel closer to God than others. Holiness is not a weapon to be used against the unholy or profane. The world has too many people trying to go to war with the “unholy.” There are too many people who think we could establish what unholiness is for all time and in all places and destroy it. As if.

The root impulse of holiness, however, is to separate and to distinguish. One object or event goes in one place; another goes in another place. Holiness is at the root of any enterprise that tries to name and categorize. It is a way of understanding the world, a way of sorting.

The new revelation in Jesus Christ is that he has changed what gets distinguished. What is formerly holy: especially sacred violence or those systems that make some people better than others, is revealed to be … human. That’s all. Everything becomes de-divinized. In some sense, Jesus’ holiness is a secular, pragmatic holiness. It may be compelling; it may be lovely, but it moves as we move.

One person remarked to me, when reconstructing our new space, that now we could experience the “holy.”

I was a little taken aback, but I knew what he meant. Holiness is not merely a description of our own emotional or physical purity, but our ability to hold together being both on the edge of the familiar while also taking a great adventure. And the space represents an adventure we are taking together as a community. We are facing each other, and we are closer together. And we have no idea what’s going to happen. Frightening? Yes. Exciting? Also, yes.

Holiness is like a place where we are on the precarious edge, as if we are at the top of a waterfall or the highest point of a rollercoaster. We have closed our options in one part of our life, and turned to look forward to another.

It is dangerous and frightening, because when we are in the presence of the holy, life and death are at stake.

Perhaps this is why we experience holiness at the top of a mountain or at the edge of the ocean. We understand how fragile our lives are when we are at the edge of the earth’s immensity: mountains and oceans can kill us with a fatal step.

Perhaps it is also why we experience holiness at the birth of a child, or when someone is about to breathe their last breath. It is also why witnessing two people hold hands while they are jumping to their death, when people hold on to love even as they meet their tragic end, we are in the presence of the holy.

Holiness is being on the edge of the precipice, when we are aware of the balance between what makes a life, and what we have lost. It can be most present when we are witnessing a terrible tragedy.

Or it can also be a feast.