To Church or Not to Church?

ChurchTo church or not to church?

That is the question that often comes up in my ministry as a hospice chaplain.

Actually what comes up is people sheepishly or often defiantly stating—when I have asked them if they have any particular religious tradition or spiritual practice—that they do not attend any church.

In the past, I used to simply reassure them that 1) I was not there to judge what kind of spiritual being they are based on whether or not they participate in a faith community and 2) it didn’t matter anyway. He or she didn’t need to attend a church (or temple or mosque or meeting) to be a person of faith.

Over this last year, however, as I watched my beloved church dissolve and close her doors, I have begun to respond to my patients differently.

No.  Belonging to a faith group and attending worship/gatherings/services isn’t everything.  After all, I have met plenty of people who attend worship every week without fail, but lack that luminous, spiritual presence.  In many cases—quite the opposite.

But having been on a journey without a community of faith to call my own, I have realized that going solo isn’t enough either.

Now—if you have ever attended worship in any form and especially if you’ve been part of the leadership, I know what you are thinking.

I’ve been around the block enough times to know that clergy (myself included) and congregations let people down, to say the least.  Feelings are hurt; self-esteems, challenged; and spiritual cores, crushed.  Too many people have had negative, painful experiences in a congregation and have never set foot in a place of worship again.

I most certainly cannot claim that in my years as a church minister I was always there in that time of need, always followed through and truly was able to be all things to all people. To the contrary, I regretfully made plenty of mistakes and unintentionally hurt people along the way.

And in my decades of attending church, I have sadly witnessed and experienced the ways in which the ugliest of human behaviors seem to rear their, well, ugly heads in what is supposed to be a loving, holy, sacred environment, reminding me of the quote by Abigail Van Buren,  “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”  All too true.

So why exactly would I now stress the importance of a faith community to my non-religiously-affiliated patients and their family and friends?  Knowing they might be hurt, disappointed, neglected or disillusioned, why would I persuade anyone to step across the threshold of a place of worship?

Is it really worth the effort, with such risks, to find a congregation with whom to worship?  I believe it is.

What I have come to value and miss in my time as a spiritual nomad is Community. 

On my own,  I have so few individuals who challenge or further inspire me in my faith walk.  On my own, I lack the larger community who will witness to my pain and comfort me when hardship hits.  On my own, I cease being in an environment where I am reminded to count my blessings, to remain steadfast in prayer and meditation and to practice what I claim to be my faith. On my own, I am not held accountable.

In the last few months I have begun attending a local church again.  Nope. She is not perfect.  Every congregation has its quirks and shortcomings and my new faith community is no exception.  But I am not looking for “perfect.”   That’s the key.

None of us can expect a place of worship to meet every need, every time, with complete perfection.

What we should expect, however, is that WE will bring OUR very best, whether we have begun worshiping with a congregation or have found a small group of fellow seekers.

Our spiritual growth ultimately is our own responsibility and happens best in community.

We must seek out a place where we are accepted for whom we are.  We should strive to live out our faith every day, to help others along their own spiritual journey and to trust that somehow God’s Grace, Spirit and Joy will be experienced despite the faith community’s imperfections.

Is there a chance that you will be disappointed with or offended by your fellow sojourners in the process?  Always a chance.  But don’t let that stop you from belonging to a faith community.

To be deeply rooted in your faith, going solo isn’t enough.

May you be blessed in discovering that spiritual place to call home and may you no longer journey alone!

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Faith in a nutshell

When you walk to the edge of all the light you have
and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown,
you must believe that one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for you to stand
upon, or, you will be taught how to fly. 
© Patrick Overton
The Leaning
Tree, 1975
Rebuilding the Front Porch of America, 1997



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Where in the world is Wadi Cherith?

desert path
Spring time in the Sonoran desert

In my four years of living in the Tucson area I have come to appreciate the desert, but I do not love it. My sojourn here, my temporary stay, has been much longer than expected or hoped. And as I look back, I marvel at the difficult times my family and I have endured here: joblessness, financial struggles, the death of my father, health issues for each of us, my own spiritual darkness…the list goes on. Maybe it is a blessing, but I do not always recall the depth of pain, anguish or struggle experienced. Likewise, I do not always remember just exactly how we persevered.

I was reading about Elijah in 1 Kings, Chapter 17. In this chapter, he has just given a not-so-cool prophecy to Ahab, the King of Israel, declaring that rain will not fall on the land until Elijah says it will. In fact, the land will be years without dew or rain. Now as you can imagine, once one delivers such unwelcomed news, it is often best to make oneself scarce. Elijah is directed by God to head east of the Jordan and to hide at Wadi Cherith where he will be fed day and night by the ravens and drink from the wadi.  And he was.  And he did.

His needs were met in that place. He did not perish.  And what I love about my Bible’s study notes is we learn that today the exact locations of the Wadi Cherith and even Elijah’s home, Tishbe, are not known.  He survived his time in the wilderness, but where?  We somehow overcome obstacles, endure hardships, rise up out of grief, move on with our lives forever changed, but how?  The journey is often long and yet somehow, thank God, we make it.

So much of growing spiritually comes out of traveling through the dark times.  Trust that you are being provided for.  Seek and count what blessings you do have.  And keep God, whatever you conceive God to be, close to your heart.  Wherever you are on life’s journey, know that you do not walk alone.

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