Monday, January 10, 2011

Doing church

Although my parents and I practice the same religion – Unitarian Universalism – and live next door to each other, we attend different churches. They are members of First Parish in Concord; I go to the First Religious Society in Carlisle.

Last month, my father invited me to attend church with them because he wanted me to hear the student minister. Due to an impending snowstorm, however, the student minister was absent and a different minister gave the sermon. Afterwards, my father apologized for encouraging me to attend, though no apology was needed and the circumstances were clearly well beyond his control.

“That’s okay,” I answered at the time. “No matter what the service is like, any time you attend church, you feel better having gone than you would if you didn’t go.”

I thought of that again yesterday morning back at FRS in Carlisle as I sat in the pew waiting for the service to begin. “I have a lot to do, but at least I’ll have the benefit of knowing I ‘did’ church,” I told myself, and then wondered just what sentiment lay beyond that somewhat senseless thought. It was as if for a moment I caught myself believing that going to church is like going to the dentist: you leave after an hour with a tangible reward – such as freshly polished teeth – that no one could dispute you are the better for having, regardless of how the hour itself went.

But church isn’t actually like that, I reminded myself. It’s not like that at all, in fact. I’m not leaving with the benefit of a good teeth cleaning. I can’t prove that there’s actually any aspect of my life at all that I’ve improved by having attended church this morning. So why do I feel like there is, and why did I say to Dad that one always feels better if one attends church than doesn’t?

After all, we’re Unitarians. Church attendance is not part of our creed. We can attend services, or we can stay home and read Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gandhi, or we can write poetry, or we can go for a walk – none of those puts us on weaker footing than any other choice as far as our standing as Unitarian Universalists.

And yet someone there’s no question in my mind that a simple one-hour visit to church on Sunday mornings makes a positive difference that staying home would not. Just being in a community of other church-goers is stimulating. We greet each other; we hear each other’s personal updates – health, visitors, travel – we push ourselves to reach out to those we feel less comfortable around. There’s music at church that I wouldn’t play at home. There are reminders about community activities, but also about problematic world events that I know I should be thinking about even if I stay home on a Sunday morning but, in reality, might not. There are words of wisdom, insight, or provocation in the sermon, words and ideas I might not have sought out if I were alone with a choice of what to read.

Sometimes as the service is starting, I indulge in a sullen mood. “I could be at home right now,” I think to myself. “I don’t know why I bothered to come in. There are all kinds of ways to learn and grow, intellectually and spiritually; I could have stayed at home and read, rather than going to the effort of getting myself here to church.”

But the feeling always passes within the first few minutes of the service, because I know intuitively that what I told my father is true for me. Regardless of the content of the sermon – and most sermons are great, including the one I heard yesterday, but every church community has the “off” day now and then – I’m a better person after an hour of worship than I was before. It may not be as quantifiable as going to the dentist, but it’s something that on some level I can’t dispute. At church, quite simply, we reach beyond ourselves. And I think it’s that stretching, that exertion of mind and spirit, that compels me to attend.

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