Smells and bells

May 22, 2011

Upon the invitation of a few new friends, Christian and I just recently started attending an Anglican church called St. Matthew’s. Neither of us know much about the Anglican tradition, so we’ve been talking a little to those around us that do (Christian’s brother is actually in grad school right now training to be an Anglican priest, and one of my Torrey professors, also an Anglican priest, gave a really informative lecture on the history of Anglicanism last week).

Recently one of the priests from St. Matthew’s, Father Mark, spoke at a listening party for a radio show our friend Barak produced (Barak also happens to be the one who invited us to St. Matthew’s). The show’s theme was “I (don’t) Want to Change the World: Interviews with Top Media Leaders.” Barak asked a few Biola professors and Father Mark to comment after the show was over.

Father Mark talked about how often American churches aim to please by making their services—the worship, the sermon length and content, the overall atmosphere—fit the preferences of their congregants.  And, often Americans choose their church based on taste and personal preference. Of course, this isn’t a new problem, and I have heard a lot of speakers talk about why it’s not okay—because it’s selfish, it’s shallow, it’s arrogant. But Father Mark’s point was that it’s also really harmful, because sometimes we want the wrong thing. He talked about the dangers of letting our preferences (instead of ultimate reality) dictate how we view God—the eternal and unchanging God. What a nightmare for the whole world to simply be a mirror of our preferences, just the way we like it… that  only works in a universe where we like all the right things. In reality, our preferences are part of the problem.

Of course, the ever-increasing trend of customization (perhaps the best example of which is customized wedding vows, a relatively new phenomenon) makes sense in a postmodern context: if there is no ultimate reality, no absolute truth, then who better to define how things should be than us? But Christians do profess an ultimate reality, so it doesn’t make sense that we expect our churches to be just like nearly everything else in our culture: made to please. At St. Matthews, I do not like the smell of incense, my legs get tired from kneeling, and I have a really hard time singing some of the hymns. But I am so happy that this church will not break its centuries-old traditions to please me. I am so happy I am not getting everything I want, because then maybe I can begin to figure out if I am even wanting the right things.  (Of course, before I could get to that realization, I have to understand where these traditions came from and why they are important. And  a lot of that mostly has come  from my two semesters reading and discussing and writing about the early Church Fathers…but I still have so much to learn).

A lot of this reminds me of J.D. Salinger’s brilliant little book Franny and Zooey. The last half of the book is basically all a conversation between Zooey and his sister Franny, where he confronts her about her misusing the name of Jesus:

“Worse than that, though, I can’t see—I swear to God I can’t—how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even understand…If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him and he was and not as you’d like him to have been… The Jesus Prayer has one aim and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ-Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back.”

Just like I’ve often decided how a church service could be better in my head, I have also made Jesus who I want him to be. I will never stop needing to be reminded that this is not okay. Not just because customizing Jesus is delusional and self-centered, but because if Jesus is only who I want him to be, if he fits into my reasoning about what love is, He is not enough to save me.

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