Several years ago, my wife and I left the Presbyterian church we had been attending for 12 years. While we seriously deliberated our decision for much of last year, once it was done, we felt relieved and had no second thoughts. We began our own little “home church” on Sunday mornings or evenings by listening to Internet sermons, discussing Christian topics of interest and having more frequent Communion. Our faith in God has not diminished, rather it needed richer nourishment and a keener sense of direction.
There are seemingly endless articles these days about the decline in church attendance and reasons why this is occurring, but little in-depth discussion from those who have actually done so. If Millennials were largely never given much exposure to Christianity or church, then we baby boomers have often lost our spiritual way during our adult years by going to church mainly because we are supposed to. Church services too often feel like passive spectator hours of “the monotony of performances” by others, and it is too common to leave a church service feeling spiritually entertained, but not divinely inspired.
Frankly, the quality of the clergy can be naggingly problematic, not because of their incompetence, but rather from too seldom providing any overarching clarity to Biblical or other Christian material. Pastors feel threatened by popular culture, by television and increasingly by science, clinging to the Bible as their only province of knowledge and teaching. They tend to erect a fortress or cocoon, within which are spun weekly webs of Scriptural puzzles of Biblical symbolism, nice knowledge but hardly the full embodiment of Jesus working in the world.
Changes in the church often move at a glacial pace because no one person speaks for the clergy as a whole. Even Pope Francis will likely have varying degrees of influence on particularly the Protestant clergy, despite his ecumenical message of concern for the poor and afflicted. It is wearying to “wait for what never comes,” for any pastor’s clarity of vision and action to thrust us forward with an emboldened sense of Christian purpose for Mondays and beyond. I will let others complain about what else goes on in church that is either hypocritical or merely deflating, although I am tired of hearing “the clergy are broken people, too.”
I had previously left church as a teenager, not returning for 20 years, and so have always known the difference between God and church. Most of what interests me about the Christian faith I have learned on my own. What has roused me the most intensely has, ironically, come from television: the lengthy 1977 NBC biographical film, Jesus of Nazareth, and The Real Face of Jesus, a 2010 History Channel documentary about the scientific work done on the Shroud of Turin. I first learned about the Shroud nearly thirty years ago, and felt voltage from its mystery which has never left me, even when scientists declared it was a fake from carbon dating in 1988, which in recent years has been proven to be unreliable.
The Shroud and the unexplained near-death experiences of too many to ignore are frothing our desire to again ask the big questions: What does God do in the world? How does He deal with our prayers? If He indeed created the universe and our Earth through a long evolutionary process while accepting our constant sinfulness and distrust of Him, how does God remain patient with our worldly philandering? We know our own psychology throws up nests of barbed wire to keep God at bay, not being sure we want an all-knowing Father meddling in our embarrassing personal business but so much, despite our well-meaning prayers.
What we need beyond praise services with taffy songs, bland sermons and the vagaries of “spiritual relevance” is to answer basic Christian questions with a clarity greater than pat Scripture passages or tautological theology. Neither John Calvin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer nor C.S. Lewis (all of whom I have read recently) quite take us to the burning candle: God’s Holy Mystery. We can not fashion Christian faith on our own, as though by baking a loaf of bread or endlessly praising God merely at loud choral volume, since such faith has to come from God first. To be simple, we need His proof. Anyone who doubts Jesus was crucified and resurrected only needs to discover the Shroud research from the past 35 years. Seeing the moment when Jesus stops suffering and ascends into Heaven, contrasting His peaceful face from His tortured body is, for me, where our faith begins. Not faith without sight, as even Jesus himself said, but rather seeing Him then and there, in that bloody and wondrous circumstance, is believing.
The Holy Mystery is the unwavering presence of what God radiantly offers to us, whether we go to church or stay home, He telling us: I am with you through all that goes on, I feed you in all manners of sustenance, so how can I be ignored? Atheists can not yet find this Mystery, but don’t humor them by saying it doesn’t exist. Just tell them to go watch an aurora borealis in a field of lilies, where God’s Heavenly light dances in the darkness.