Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Faith Works 11-21-15

Faith Works 11-21-15

Jeff Gill


Why go to church?



Why go to church?


For some of you that's a non-issue, you just go. It's time, let's get moving, shake a leg!


Not a few are reading and thinking "well, I don't, but I never wonder why, and I'm not sure I should start today!"


While Gallup surveys have pretty consistently for decades shown a 40% church attendance rate, measured by asking Americans "did you go to church last week?" more objective measures show it's closer to 17%.  Maybe in any given week 4 of 10 intend to go to church, and it's more an aspirational answer to what they hope to do this week than an accurate statement of what happened a week ago.


And Pew Research Center figures show that around 3 in 10 in the USA say "I seldom or never go to worship services of any sort."


About 5 in 10 Americans don't have what religious people would call "a church home," whether defined by membership or affiliation of some sort; many pastors would note that there are plenty of people on the rolls who may technically have a church home in their congregation, but they couldn't pick them out of a lineup for never having actually met them.


There's an awareness, too, that much of the decline in church attendance generally in the last few decades has been due to shifts in assumptions and expectations among church members. An active church member, fifty years ago, attended church three times a week. Today, if you attend church three times a month, you're pretty darn active. That could mean that you had 300 active members in 1965 and 300 in 2015, but your church's attendance average goes from something like 650 weekly in services to 150. Not fewer "in" your church, but measurably fewer coming to church.


If 2 out of 10 of those on your street go to church in any given week, is there anything to say to those other 8? Better yet, if later on Sunday afternoon you were one of those early risers and a neighbor asked you "why bother, when it's such a lovely day to sit on the porch, go for a drive, but sleep in first?" – how would you answer?


In some religious traditions, there's a sacramental reason to attend church. It is through corporate worship and the purpose of the service that you can have a closer encounter with the divine through the sacraments of the church. St Augustine, in the 5th century described a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." Many traditions identify those as baptism and communion; some point to five and even seven acts of the church as sacramental, but the point is that at church and through coming together with the community for worship, you have access to the sacraments.


Today's world pushes against that in two directions. From one angle is the secular response, saying "there is no such thing as the sacramental or sacred." If the super- or supranatural is a myth, if materialism is fundamental reality, then sacramental anything is an illusion . . . so why participate in it?


The other angle is a sort of diffusive pantheism that is part of the "spiritual but not religious" trend that says "everything is sacred, trees and hills and fairways and even that scent of cinnamon from your special morning tea." If you can get the sacramental connection to the divine anywhere, and on your own terms, why come to a particular building at a certain time?


Decline aside, the fact is that thousands of your fellow citizens do get up, do go to church, and do believe they find something there that's just not as easily or reliably accessible in any location. And quite a few who are thinking about going, even if they haven't for a while, believe that there is that "something more" to life, and to meaning and purpose, and they want to find a connection beyond themselves, which might just come from being among others seeking the same.


There are a few more reasons I'd like to talk about next week as to why you'd skip (or postpone) a perfectly good brunch to attend worship. But a connection to the divine, to God, is probably the most important one for me.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's looking forward to tomorrow night's community Thanksgiving service at Neal Ave. UMC! Ask him for directions at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Notes From My Knapsack 11-19-15

Notes From My Knapsack 11-19-15

Jeff Gill


Empty chairs at empty tables



One of the most affecting numbers in a very emotional musical, "Les Miserables," is sung after a battle is over, by a survivor who finds himself back in the wreckage of a cheerful place he once knew.


Marius sings "There's a grief that can't be spoken; there's a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables - now my friends are dead and gone."


On Thanksgiving Day there are always homes and families who face this challenge. Sometimes it's literally a physical challenge, because of the geography of the dining room, or the particular arrangement of the people involved.


Someone is not there this year. Perhaps someone is simply on the road, off and away, and the meal is different but may return to the familiar next year. Who knows?


More often, someone is gone. A permanent move, a death, whatever the loss, it's a major jolt at those particular moments of household ritual. A position around the table is not occupied, and everyone else in one way or another has to shift.


Those shifts are physical, maybe you just scoot chairs around a little closer to fill the gap. And they are powerfully emotional, when the absence is felt and reinforced by those little acts that evoke the person not there. They are also ripples that wash through families, as relationships shift and splash up against each other.


Someone different roasts the turkey, another family member brings the pie, it's a different friend who mulls the cider . . . or the cider isn't there this year.


Of the usual circle around the table, there might be one in the hospital, someone moved to a nursing home, even somebody in jail. But more often, the sense of loss is because, inevitably, in any family over time, a loved one has died.


My recommendation to anyone when this subject comes up is to acknowledge it. Don't try to gloss over the absence, to pretend they were never there, not talking about that missing person. Prayer is a perfect platform for an out-loud acknowledgment of loss and sorrow, to say that there's someone we miss from this table this year.


Other rituals or intentional acts can fill that same gap; a candle on the table, a flower in a vase, a card at a place setting. I don't know that I would recommend a full place setting and empty chair, but for some families, that's almost necessary at least the first year, because the loss is felt so strongly there's no way around making that absence visible.


It's a different observance, but I do think of the Jewish traditions around Passover, another table-centered annual tradition. For many families, part of the meal is to have a chair in the room, if not full place setting at the table, called Elijah's chair. And in the Passover seder, there's a point where it's remembered that Elijah has promised to return, and a door is opened, and there's a moment.


My prayers are with everyone who will be having "a moment" in their hearts this Thanksgiving Day.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has been converted to roasted Brussels sprouts late in life. Tell him about your holiday traditions at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.