My husband and I both feel ill at ease in the churches we have been attending. His has become more evangelical, more charismatic. That is the wave of the present and it is likely to evoke in congregants a more passionate belief. But it is not his way. Even less is it mine. Mine is bloodless in its Christianity, dismissive of the church’s role in shaping values we hold dear. And politicized. My husband and I like and respect the people in the congregations. And we have a loyalty – his people were around in the Battle of White Mountain and my people arrived in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century from Wales and Scotland, Protestants to the core. He’s related by blood to many in his small congregation; I’m related in spirit – the church is like the church of my youth.
I’m not religious, as my friends and regular readers here know. But a few years ago my youngest daughter wanted to seek out a church “home” in which she might feel more comfortable than the church of her father. I remain in an ambiguous position: when we fill out the membership record each Sunday I follow the example of an older couple who described themselves as “regular visitors.” They’ve joined but I haven’t.
As is true of most of the old mainline denominations, the membership is older. The women are stylish – they retain that strong discipline that straightens hose, polishes shoes, sits upright. Coming out of that great sea change of the sixties, our generation has seldom disciplined ourselves as they did – men in suits and women “put together.” I hate to think we will be represented by the older people at San Francisco demonstrations – 75-year-olds in t-shirts and sloppy sweats, thin hair blowing in the wind. Going to church, I remembered the Sundays of my youth, my grandparents erect and carefully groomed, attentive and polite. And I saw it again in this church – and I wanted to follow these models – ones I had forgotten for most of my adult life. They might be appalled and certainly would not have run a business, as I often did, bare-footed nor blindly grab something from a closet on the way to work.
This sounds superficial. It isn’t – it is the outward show of self-discipline and respect for self, for society, for the church itself. It signals a quiet personal dignity. These aren’t flashy dressers; they are just adults and I really can no longer pretend I’m not an adult, as my last child sets out in the world and Social Security gives me dates – last year, next, down the road five or so – when I can start collecting.
My Sunday School class is more engaging than church – it is a classroom, which, after all, is my natural home. My rhythms are those of the school year; even in the 13 years I was neither student nor teacher, my business was dependent upon the waxing and waning that characterize the school calendar. And I’m used to thinking about words. So a class that emphasized the word felt good – challenging and interesting and I became at ease much faster than I would have thought.
And what a class it is! I’ve spoken here before of the remarkable World War II heroes in our midst. Coming from the strongly ethnic church of my husband’s faith and family, I looked at the Presbyterians in a new way – they, too, were ethnic. And the names in the directory were from the various strains that melded into my family. And a more gracious, loving group of people is hard to imagine. The member with whom I am most in disagreement has thanked me for coming; he and his wife have gone out of their way to welcome me – and, let’s face it, I’m not gracious; I persistently argue and criticize their opinions. The older couple –the “regular visitors” – turned out to be a charming analyst who warmly announced one Sunday that decades of listening to patients had led him to recognize love kept people sane, made marriages, was the message of the Bible, and the great good in this world. He returns to that observation, week after week. (Two members of the class were rigorously trained in psychology, but all bring a lifetime of observing, analyzing, and in most cases I would venture to say, loving human nature.)
But the class is riven – quietly, below the surface forcefully calmed by the strong hand of our teacher. The murmured disagreements are the usual ones – the extent (and truth) of global warming, the role of the government, Iraq and Afghanistan, taxes, the legitimacy of Palestinian complaints and Israel claims, the culpability of the church in slavery, the problems of the minimum wage. Always, he takes us back to the word and a Biblical context for it – and it alone. Some worry about how others use their land, others about how others use their money. Back we go to the verses and the millennia ago when they were written. I’m always struck by the certainty of some at the proper use of others’ resources – and how they might better control them. But our attention is drawn again to the beautiful old words and the great old narratives.
The minister, however, has taken to speaking from the pulpit about social issues – and in the tradition of so many of the mainline churches. Not too many weeks ago, he developed a strained and rather unenlightening comparison between Martin Luther and that great thinker, Cornel West. A friend’s daughter had heard the sermon and been shocked; I had been irritated but not paid sufficient attention. Reading it over (in the tradition of our denomination, the word of the sermon is treated with respect, copies are available to follow during the sermon itself and it is on the website) I found her wiser than I, despite my years. Quoting Cornel West at length is not likely to lead to a lucid message.
A couple of weeks ago, the last sermon I heard (and perhaps the last one I will hear) condemned the heartlessness of those who would vote not to extend unemployment insurance – holding the unemployed hostage for the sake of the wealthy. Members of the church developed an ad for Chet Edwards’ campaign and many in the church were quite active in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign. In his years in the House he had brought home considerable pork to this region. The argument in their ad – and one widely held in the congregation – was that he should be re-elected because he was good for the big school and the big school was good for our community. They argued that Flores, who replaced him, just didn’t care about the school. Of course this was not true since he, too, was a fervent former student. (Anyone not one would begin the race from pretty far back of the starting line.) Still Flores had a position more aligned with the Tea Party candidates. Of course, Edwards had seniority and this was not an argument without merit. We are pretty much a one-industry town and that industry is the university. Many of its projects are funded by the government; much of this is good – the green revolution came out of here and places like this one. People are alive today because of such research. But surely the best of these can be defended on their own merits.
More importantly, we might ask, who do we care about? Whose sense of proportion is humanitarian: The person who equates minimum wage with slavery? He who encourages others to find the self-sufficiency and pleasure of productive work or, he who, ignoring all the studies to the contrary, provides the honey pot trap of long-term unemployment compensation? Generosity with other’s money is not virtuous. And, perhaps most importantly, who is most interested in “fairness” – the person who, knowing full well the costs will hit somewhere – across the country or across time, prefers that others (almost surely in more desperate straits than those in our time and our place) should be taxed to make our lives easier, simply because our local rep had more seniority?
Clearly, some in the congregation see in these positions cognitive dissonance; others don’t. Sometimes we forget real people with real lives and real desires are taxed to support our projects. “I listen to NPR and I vote” may not seem absurd if you believe all have (or should have) your taste in music or politics or drama. But, I listen to CMT and I vote – does a Frank Sinatra fan need to pay for my love of Alan Jackson? Should I have to pay for a program of rap? When I listened to NPR for several hours a day, I did give – for years. And my business “donated” in exchange for on-air recognition. The church can make its choices and request help from its congregants, but I’m not impressed with its belief that its choices should be to take money from some other congregation to give to members of a third, and even less impressed with the argument others should be forced to support our congregants’ projects so they can fill the plates on Sunday. This doesn’t arise from the love about which the psychiatrist in our class speaks so eloquently. And it does remind me of a commandment we (including me, of course) too often forget – our natural tendency to covet doesn’t need encouragement.