Pass this church just about every day as I run various errands and every time I go by I feel a little tug. Some part of me wants to stop in and say hi.
I’m not sure who to.
I don’t know anyone who belongs to this congregation. I don’t know anything about the church. It appears to be non-denominationally Protestant, but whether it has any broader affiliations I can’t tell. Their website is as spare and unadorned as the church building itself with barely more information on it than is in this photo. Doesn’t even give the pastor’s name. Sunday services are at 10:30. The office is open Tuesday and Thursday mornings and part of the afternoon and on Friday morning. They have a food pantry. On the second Friday evening of each month they hold a “Prayer for Israel.” I wonder about that. Are they praying for Israel’s continued survival and well-being or for its conversion? Do they think they’re living in the End Times? No clue on the website. In tiny script way up in the top left corner there’s a citation. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Chapter 2, verses 1-5. It’s one of those convoluted and ambiguous passages of Paul’s that have always given exegetes fits and put altar boys to sleep. This one is as Jesus-centric as you might expect from a church that feels it has to identify itself as “Christian,” but the gist of it is that we should strive to be as humble as Jesus was. Paul’s riff on the first shall be last. So there’s a hint here that at this church you’re expected to do a little more than praise Jays-us and boast of your personal friendship with him to get into heaven. Still, prejudice and experience make me suspicious of these little, out of the way, unaffiliated “Christian” churches. Odds are there’s nobody in the congregation I want to get to know more than to say hi to.
On the other hand, the messages on the marquee change regularly and are always cheerful and welcoming, often amusing, sometimes genuinely witty, although usually they include a bad pun. But the pastor is clearly trying. I’d like to think he or she is being self-expressive and is like the messages, cheerful and welcoming and possessed of a sense of humor. Maybe the pastor’s somebody I’d enjoy saying more than hi to.
But probably not much more.
After all, the pastor and I wouldn’t have much business to conduct together, me being an unbeliever and not just uninterested in conversion but actively hostile to the notion and anyone who’d think to try.
But you know what? It may be that the person I feel like saying hi to isn’t the pastor but the pastor’s boss.
And HIS son.
I don’t believe in God but I remember believing in Him intensely enough that sometimes I forget I don’t believe. The memory of my former belief fools me into thinking it’s the actual and present thing. So I routinely backslide. The moment of doubt in the form of reflexive, remembered belief never lasts more than a moment. I quickly catch myself and drag myself to the Mourner’s Bench to testify to my lack of faith. But the fact is that I still believe in Jesus and Mary and in many of the saints as real people who used to walk the earth and whose teachings and examples are still inspiring, encouraging, and worth following and now and again I forget in their case too and catch myself thinking of them as still alive---up there, out there, in here, somewhere---and paying attention. And when I shake myself out of it, I feel their loss. I miss them. I still miss God like that sometimes too. I miss the company.
Even when I was a good little Catholic schoolkid and an altar boy---one of the world’s top altar boys, as a matter of fact---I didn’t believe God was involved very much in His children’s daily lives. He obviously didn’t answer all prayers. I couldn’t decide if it was because He wasn’t actually omnipotent, that in creating the universe He’d made a rock too big for even Him to lift, or if it was the Free Will thing at work, or if He just had other things to take care of, or if it was simply that His plan for the universe didn’t hinge on any of our individual happiness. Whichever it was, it didn’t stop me from thinking of Him as benign and, if not involved and constantly interfering, always sympathetic and ready to listen.
I was skeptical of the catechism on the point of God’s having made me because he loved me. I got into trouble in first grade for asking Sister Mary Francis about that one. “How could he love me if I wasn’t born yet?” I wondered. She made me kneel down in front of the crucifix at the front of the room and pray for forgiveness for I was never sure what. I prayed, all right, for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to save me from this crazy nun. I never doubted, though, that God cared that I had been made.
I believed it mattered to Him when I was feeling hurt or scared or alone.
I believed this more strongly about Jesus and even more strongly about Mary.
That’s what I went to church for. Their company.
Over time I came to believe that that’s what everybody who went to church regularly went to church for. The company. But not the company of God or Jesus or Mary or the saints.
For each other’s company.
I still believe that. I believe that’s true of everybody who goes regularly to a temple, synagogue, mosque, shrine, or a circle in the woods.
And this is why I’m not an enemy of religion.
Yeah, right, Lance, say some of you who’ve noticed I don’t have much good to say about Christians.
I don’t have much good to say about the Catholic Church either or, at any rate, about its supposed princes.
But I’m not completely in agreement with those online atheists who seem to believe that all the world’s problems would go away if people would just get it through their heads that there is no God.
There are moments when I think the only hymn any of should know and sing is John Lennon’s “Imagine”, but those moments pass like the moments when I think I still believe in God. People don’t kill each other because of religion. They kill each other for self-interested reasons and then justify it by invoking their gods. Take away the gods and they’d find other justifications or they wouldn’t bother justifying it at all.
There are forms of religion that are dangerous and destructive. It’s long past time to do away with the Abrahamic sky-god who has done nothing but cause 3500 years of trouble in the Mideast while he’s had fun inciting the believers of three versions of the same religion devoted to him to kill each other a over a patch of sand. People are adept at perverting the most benign of beliefs. There are militant killer Buddhists. And the Religious Right here has turned Christianity into a cult of enforced joylessness, ignorance, paranoia, and self-sabotage.
Still I don’t believe religion itself---the human habit of organizing around a common belief in a deity---is bad in itself. I actually see it as providing some good things.
One of the goods that religion provides is an argument against getting caught up in the mundane cares and concerns of our daily lives.
But nothing’s good that’s not also bad. The idea that this world and this life don’t matter as much as we think they do gets dumbed down into the idea that this world and this life don’t matter at all, which is very useful to the mountebanks, charlatans, and con artists passing themselves off as preachers and to the corporatists who run the Republican Party. There’s money to be made and power to be gained in convincing the suckers there’s no point trying to fix problems in this world because it’s all part of God’s plan, the point is to get to the next world, and whoever says otherwise---liberals and intellectual types mainly---that the problems of the here and now need to be fixed and can be fixed by us without God’s performing miracles and that we can and should be happy, is doing the devil’s work.
On the whole, I think the best way to show faith in God, if there is a God, and do His work is to pay attention to what’s happening in this world and not think too much about the next.
But I see another important good religion---really going to church or schul or temple or mosque---provides, what I said above, company, as a good it’s not my place or my wish to disparage, downplay, or discourage.
It’s not God believers are putting their faith in as much as it is each other. They are putting their faith in a community, not experienced as an abstraction, but physically. They need that. We all need that. We all need to feel we belong, that we’re involved, that we matter. We want to know others notice we’re there and notice when we’re not and care.
This isn’t something we can only get from going to church or should only get from going to church. We get it first and foremost from our families---or should get it from them and do if we’re lucky. We get it from our neighbors. We get from the places where we shop regularly. We get it at the barber’s and the stylist’s. At the doctor’s and dentist’s. We get it from the local post office and library. We get it at our favorite bar, restaurant, diner, and coffee shop. We get it down at the garage, at the bank, at the town hall when we stop in to renew the sticker that lets us use the town dump. We get it at the town dump. Some of us still get it at the lodge or at the union hall. That’s one of the chief goods unions provide, in fact. We don’t matter to the bosses. We do matter to each other. Most of us though get it primarily from work, from being at work and from doing work.
And these days we seem hell-bent on depriving ourselves of each other’s company.
In the online Utopia we’re in a hurry to create the library is always open, the bank, the bookstore, the video store, and school and office too and isn’t that wonderful? As if the whole point of anything and everything is an immediate material benefit.
We don’t go to the library just to look something up. We don’t go to the bank just to cash a check and go to the post office just to buy a stamp. We don’t go to work just to earn a paycheck. And we don’t go to church just to worship whatever version of God gets worshiped there.
We go, I say again, for the company.
And this is what I’m reminded I miss when I pass by the Mid-Hudson Christian Church. It’s not anyone at that church I feel the urge to stop in and say hi to. It’s people at my church, my old church, my old churches, the one I grew up in, the ones we raised our sons in. And I shouldn’t say I miss the church. I miss the parish. I miss belonging to those communities.
I could remedy this easily enough. It would be no problem to start going to our old church up in New Paltz again. It would take some pretending. I’d have to go through motions I now think of as dumbshow and nodding along in put on agreement with things that now strike me as childish nonsense. But I could do it. And I could sing along with the hymns or at least mouth along---I can’t carry a tune and I’d be embarrassed to offend the ears of people in the pews around me. I could stay for coffee and donuts after mass. I could attend the pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners and take part in the parish festivals. And maybe I’ll start doing that.
Someday when I’m feeling hurt and scared and alone and need the company.