Jesus’s point by proxy
This November grateful posts popped up all over my Facebook feed. It’s the time of year we tally our lives on the plus side of life.
I try not to wait until November to count my blessings but any time spent saying thank-you is time well spent, is time away from being angry, afraid, sad, bored or full of ourselves.
By my reasoning I also think if a person only goes to church on Christmas and Easter just to say thank-you, wear their new lavender dress, belt out a carol or breathe in stellar altar decorations, why not?
One complimentary no-strings-attached hour of joy and fellowship might be exactly what someone who is feeling awful or spiritually indifferent needs even if the story of Jesus's birth and resurrection sounds like the garbled murmurings of Charlie Brown's teacher.
I've got to think that somewhere in that not feeling awful moment Jesus walked in, sat down and patted the person gently on the back. At no point did he turn and whisper in the CEOs ear:
"Once a year? Come on man. You're hogging space for my regulars, my followers who really get me, my loyal fans, my groupies. Those are the people my Dad is really paying attention to."
Some folks view the CEOs (Christmas and Easter only or sometimes referred to as the Hollies and Lilies) with restrained irritation. These religious dabblers butt in line at the last minute and grab the best parking spots and pews.
But frankly it takes courage to walk into a crowded room of buddy buddy congregates and settle in comfortably. It takes zero courage to walk into what you know and judge others.
"People who go to church out of habit, no matter what, go on Easter, no matter what," says Saint David's pastor, the Rev. Sara Fischer who leads a small church in Portland, Oregon "But people who don't go to church, no matter what, but come on Easter, those who are looking for something, trying to connect to the holy, they are the courageous ones."
Church loyalists might get miffed that they pay their dues with attendance and tithing and bible study and church dinners and ushering and mission trips and circle projects and pastoral support and laborious fundraisers and fall festivals. They give up nights and weekends to tend to church gardens, repair old roofs, clear out cluttered church closets, re-stock the kitchen and attend committee meetings to figure out how to grow the church, which ironically includes embracing the very CEOs they quietly scoff.
All this investment and suddenly some once a year family saunters in for holiday services, take up five seats and basks in the choir and pastor -- their choir, their pastor.
Some of the most gracious people I’ve ever met, people who serve without an internal tally card are so busy filling the church and human spirit with compassion and grace and labor they have no energy left to add up points-for-God.
They flop down in bed at night exhausted, smile, say thanks, and start all over the next day.
The way I see it however someone taps into their benevolent best whether its walking in the sun tipped forest, worshiping a divine, confessing sorrows to their dog, enjoying the show at Easter and Christmas Eve services or doing volunteer work at the shelter, all of it ignites a light of hope and healing. All of it brings someone to the altar of good stuff.
Jesus Without Borders.
This has to be good enough because never feeling good enough might be what turns some people away from church. Born a sinner, less than, but in case you didn't get the memo, we're here to remind you that you're forever falling short, including only showing up to church twice a year.
More money and opportunity for new members
Hopefully you watched the 4 minute video above. Maybe you laughed, maybe you shouted, "Yeah, exactly!" The guy gave a funny rant about CEOs getting in his family's way at church and good naturedly asked his audience why he should have to fight for parking and pews and access to all the goods that come with holiday services.
Hypocrites he points out not in so many words, hypocrites.
He mocked the dressed-to-the nines CEOs who bring out their Sunday best to peacock around while he wears casual clothes but shows up every Sunday. You can't help but agree that preening isn't exactly the point of the pew. But here's the thing, truth be told we all sort of enjoy people watching so why not just sit back and take in the show in addition to listening to the message?
Jesus wouldn't endorse showing off but neither would he endorse getting grumpy over CEOs, pining over VIP seats or better parking. I'm pretty sure he'd tell you that the Reason for the Season includes welcoming the fly by nights as if they're old friends who only get to visit twice a year and while you're at it, give them the best seats like you'd give them the nicest towels in the house and the last piece of pie you were eyeing.
CEOs fill the coffers, add to the energy
Let me move away from being philosophical about twice a year church goers and to the practical.
Twice a year church coffers overflow and the pews pack with potentially new check-writers. Even if the family doesn't come back likely they left a little guilt gift in the plate and so the church treasurer smiles.
Moreover, the energy at church is electric around Christmas and Easter which makes it a ripe planting to entice someone to give church a second chance. Everyone is on a holiday high of each-otherness or chocolate or the goosebumps I personally get when I sing O Holy Night or when kids walk down the aisle dressed as lambs and shepherds and suddenly one little sheep turns around and waves back to the crowd and yells, "Hi!"
Even if you have no idea why the kids are in Nativity clothes, if you're just touched by the pageantry or moved by the music or stirred by the popping red Pointsettias at the altar, that very moment has got to be Jesus by proxy, that is, a good feeling without having exact Scripture to explain why, a good feeling that doesn't need a reason for the season except that in that exact moment you feel connected and joyful and embraced.
If God keeps a sharp eye on our time card (and I don't think he-she gives a rip) and someone happens to share this notion of faith by frequency it’s a safe bet the church will be one less stop by next year and so one less check to help pay for the youth program or choir robes or new organ. More, they might have doused a spark in someone who was moved by the warmth of the congregation and ready to give it a second, third or even fourth try.
Church consumers want intimacy, connectedness
And as it turns out, church's, particularly mid-size ones, can't afford to lose potential members ("7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America,"). While Gallop and other polls consistently show 40% of people attend church, membership as a whole isn't keeping pace with current and estimated population growth in the United States.
"There are multiple expectations on mid-sized churches that they can't meet — programs, dynamic music, quality youth ministries," says Ed Stetzer, missiologist and director of the Center for Missional Research at the North American Mission Board (namb.net) of the Southern Baptist Convention,"
"We've created a church consumer culture," says Stetzer.
People are picking and choosing what works for their their busy lives, what church works best for their family. While mid-size church's are shrinking, large churches are on the rise perhaps because of their ability to create small groups and communities that offer the best of both large and small churches.
Small churches are also gaining ground. Shawn McMullen, author of Unleashing the Potential of the Smaller Church (Standard), writes that smaller churches cultivate an intimacy not as easily found in larger churches. "In an age when human interaction is being supplanted by modern technology, many younger families are looking for a church that offers community, closeness and intergenerational relationships," he says.
Christmas Eve Only: Family by proxy
This was the first year I thought about skipping Christmas Eve services at my Methodist church. I don't feel overly connected to the pastor who came on board a few years back. He seems like a decent guy I could learn to appreciate. But I lost my connection to some of the Christian doctrine (which I won’t get into here) so no matter who offers the sermon, charismatic or not, the words have to settle into my cells without a fight.
The church I visited several times in the past couple years isn’t big enough to put on Christmas Eve services but either way I assumed my husband and daughter wouldn't be dying to go to any service. Just in case however, I mentioned our Methodist church then waited for the shrug or quick no.
Secretly I hoped they'd opt out which would make my ambivalence easier. A family consensus to abandon our long held Christmas Eve service tradition, how unifying.
Without an argument and in rapid succession they said yes they wanted to go to the Methodist service, and then they went back to their conversation. They acted like they couldn't believe I even considered not going.
I shouldn’t be surprised that my family, believers but hardly devout, were entrenched in tradition.
Tradition is Christmas. Stockings. Presents. Dessert. Church. Maybe not in that order, but you get the point.
Radically ending a family ritual that moves you to tears or at least a smile is unsettling even to my crew who invariably conspire against me to avoid going to our former church, new church or trying new ones.
To not to attend Christmas Eve services no matter how checklist Noelle, feels vaguely lonely, like your entire neighborhood left to go caroling and you're the only family at home eating popcorn and watching Modern Family. All good, but your timing is off.
CEOs sense this.
"Every holiday brings longing," said Shai Finkelstein senior rabbi of the Baron Hirsch Congregation in East Memphis.
My husband's and my family are big but we’re sprinkled all over the country so we never get together except for funerals. If my daughter, husband and I want to rub elbows with group size holiday togetherness it has to come from somewhere.
Christmas Eve service feels like family without the fighting.
The Christian church, among their many best practices of fellowship, worldwide mission work and charitable giving, offers a Christmas and Easter service full of pageantry and good vibes.
And the truth is, during religious holidays, I want some of that.
Religious upbringing: A little Christianity, a little atheist indifference
If you're still reading why I think going to church twice a year is not only okay but okay with Jesus, you've either decided I'm headed for a long hot Hell or I'm on a spiritual trajectory that doesn't insist upon, among many things, regular church attendance (I vote for the latter).
Either way my religion or lack thereof has roots I should explain.
My husband Andy grew up a casual Episcopalian. He was confirmed and attended some pretty serious-minded religious prep schools during high school. Early on his parents dropped him at Sunday school, waved goodbye and drove home, their religious commitment a parental duty rather than a personal one.
When I met Andy he wasn’t much for organized church happenings but he was big on faith. I on the other hand, believed God may or may not be in charge, that the cosmos might have say in the matter. I could however, love Him (or Her or It) if God was okay with science and that I loved being compared to chimps, a couple DNA removed. God also had to agree that the man-made Biblical interpretation that Eve caused the fall of mankind was mysogynistic patriarchial bunk.
From that starting point, God and I would get along just fine.
I wasn't brought up with religious guilt as think about it and I'm pretty sure guilt is one of those heavy emotions that sticks. My mother, a talented paint artist who viewed world cultures and religions in varying non-competing shades of interesting, brought my sister and me to a Methodist and Presbyterian church from time to time without I recall, much convincing.
What I remember most about church was playing an angel in the Christmas pageant one year. My halo was a tinsel gold number that sprung high out of my head, impressive enough but add my white angel's robe and I was over the moon. I was part of Jesus's big story and my reward was hot chocolate and Christmas cookies. Somewhere in the pageantry and clapping church felt good even if the message was lost in my age and nervousness.
My father an aethist or agnostic? Catholic pageantry envy
My father was, once I understood the term, likely an atheist. He may have morphed into an indifferent agnostic years later on the prodding of my stepmother. Sally read piles of books and articles about where world religions intersected, where, to lazily boil it down, Buddha and Jesus might hang out over tea, compare notes and find a middle, if not perfect, way.
Today Sally quotes Bishop Spong, a retired Episcopalian bishop known for his progressive Christian views that unsettle the establishment. "For those seeking to experience Christianity in a new and vibrant way," says his website, "Bishop John Shelby Spong offers fresh spiritual ideas."
I don't know exactly what my father thought about God except that Sally said he often said if people got comfort believing some guy in the sky handled it all, fine. He never berated believers or tried to convince anyone otherwise. Even when Parkinson's and dementia did their damndest to suck the joy out of his life, his saving grace came from being distracted by the tangible, his family, friends and unquenchable appetite for reading, travel, cooking, food and wine.
And frankly if you ever tried his Risotto you'd swear God had a hand in it.
Growing up in a small town in New Jersey I was fascinated with my friend Kathy's Catholic tartan school uniform and polished black and white saddle shoes. Her school looked important with a long driveway and nuns walking the school grounds. Kathy had a white lace Confirmation dress hanging in her room that I envied, a dress that came with a party, piles of gifts and AttaGirls after years of taking CCD classes. Catholic ornamentation and the perfectly executed rituals in comforting church order (I went to a few) spoke of something privileged and special, the platinum card of denominations where practice was rewarded with a white dress.
After I got married and my husband and I had our daughter, while we weren't devout by any stretch we wanted our child to grow up with a sense that God had her back should her parents fail miserably (we didn't actually say the last part). For twelve years we attended church two or three times a month and in time my daughter Tara and I got more involved.
While both Andy and Tara were baptized I wasn't and frankly I never missed it. When I was 32 and Tara was a toddler I decided I should get baptized for no other reason than to stop Andy's smirky banter of "I'm purified and you're not, ha, ha." because eventually my daughter would pick up on this missing link and ask, "Yeah, Mom, why aren't you purified and I was?"
One Sunday our pastor called me to the baptismal basin and gently swiped waters from the Jordan River on my forehead which I thought was very cool. Tara must have thought he was chopping my head off or something equally horrendous because she ran up to me screaming “Mommy!” Pastor John and the entire congregation roared.
I felt blessed comic relief from John's warm light-hearted spirit. That in itself is Jesus stuff even if I didn't fully absorb the sacred moment. Over the years I stopped being as intimidated by the authority and hierarchy that seemed to come with church leadership. Pastor John and later Pastor Jim became for me, Any Guy, but with nicer clothes and spiritual insight, symbols of the familial embrace and fellowship I learned to love about church.
Bible study classes planted a seeker
Eventually I joined the new member class and later attended my first bible study, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. The study sparked a need to piece together spiritual meaning alongside my passion for science. I discussed my views in small groups with the associate pastors and bible study members. Occasionally I judiciously, respectfully and calmly disagreed with some of Scripture, the interpretation and sometimes the actual command. If that's what God meant or what we think he means, I'm not buying in. The tenet that really chapped my hide was that only folks who believe get in. Yet at the same time we talked about grace as unearned forgiveness, but you you had to believe.
It seems like a stubborn sticking point as far as grace is concerned and inhospitable to wave down to the atheists and followers of other world religions (in the billions) "So long suckers. You had your chance."
During my Purpose Driven Life class I was assigned a study buddy named Danielle, a devout Catholic. and one of the most gracious people I've ever ever met. She told me that our far apart religious differences were divinely paired in order to encourage spiritual growth, and I think she was right. Although Danielle was a lifelong Catholic she joined our Methodist church in hopes her husband would join (he didn’t) and that her kids would get involved (they did). Eventually she attended Catholic church full-time, the denomination where she felt most at home. In no time did she ever try to convince me where I was fallen or doomed and neither did I ever question her unwavering obedience to Protestant or Catholic tenets.
Somewhere in our muddy place of mutual respect tucked inside soft disagreement, Jesus had to be giving us a thumbs up.
For the next couple years I took 16 bible study classes. I appreciated the fellowship and felt privileged to share confessions and earned trust with women who had the courage to share painful stories. I grew spiritually and my pecking unanswered questions motivated me to zero in on what truths resonated, and what truths did not, no matter how I tried.
My daughter got involved in the youth programs from kindergarten until fifth grade. As a teen she still volunteers for Vacation Bible Study. The Methodist church gave our family religious structure, some loose discipline to remember to pray every once in a while, ("Help.Thanks.Wow" prayers, as Anne Lamott puts it). The church gave me a staircase that opened spiritual questions that led to more, doors that brought me to the God of my understanding rather than a God I'm told to accept.
For three years I’ve been gently pulling away from the mainstream Christian church except for the occasional “We really should go” visits and holidays. My family never protested our gradual exodus. My daughter would rather sleep in on Sunday and my husband would rather read the sports section.
Both will tell you without hesitation that they believe in God.
Now that our foundation is planted this is largely good enough for me except that I'm dragging them to a lay-run Universalist church once or twice a month. My hope is my daughter eventually land in the youth room although she told me (not in so many words), Hell no.
A couple weeks ago she sat in the service with my husband, neighbor and I and told me later she liked the other church we tried better. At the time she didn't like that one either. Too Koombaha-ish to quote my husband. My daughter agreed without knowing what our sue of Koombaha meant, blind and convenient conspiring.
"Because like you said Mom the other one is more spiritual. This one is like listening to people present information."
Indeed it was, after the songs, poem reading, cute kids announcing what they were grateful for and a prayer, the guest speaker, the Director of the UCF Arbortoreum spoke for 30 minutes. I figure somewhere in talking about land conservation, meshing man's need for habitat with mother nature's squatting rights, God is arbitrating on our behalf.
I'm pretty sure every teen finds reasons to hate church. I insist on grace before dinner and my daughter seems present enough as she bows, one minute of church. As long as she feels connected to a divine presence in a universe who has her back, connected to a benevolent power who looks at her not as born less than, but someone born of pure goodness and light who sometimes needs a little spiritual kick to get back on track - it works for me.
Church twice a year? What are they thinking?
I close with this true story.
After attending a beautiful Easter Mass in 2012, Susan Timoney posted her ponderings on Free Republic.
"By the time Mass began it was standing room only in the church. This was not a surprise. I bet it was the same at your parish. When it came time to distribute Communion, another person and I were asked to go to a station at the rear of the church. A line formed among those standing. At a certain point, I wondered why the line did not seem to get shorter and I realized that people were coming through the doors of the church and getting in line for Communion. After Mass, I learned that indeed people were standing three deep on the sidewalk during Mass. Because it was such a beautiful day, the doors were wide open and the music could surely be heard, but how much of the readings and homily and Eucharistic prayer did people hear?"
And so she humbly asks her readers:
"When we better understand the impulse to come to church once, twice, a few times a year, we can better help our brothers and sisters move from impulse to commitment. Any insights you can share with me?"
Insights, pages and pages of them came rolling in. A fair number of people went round and round debating God's intention, what a line of Scripture means, what Jesus said, what God wants.
I never bother with those. The argument will never end because we filter our view of God through our own lens, Bible or no Bible.
I'd just like to know what brings people to church even two days a year rather than only two times a year.
The next few comments on Timoney's post capture why some people avoid church and why some have the courage to come at all.
I wonder if these people realize that they are disobeying a commandment to “Keep holy the Lord’s Day."
We had many Chreasters at Mass on Easter Sunday. “Chreasters” are those who only show up at Mass at Christmas and Easter, hence “Chreasters”. Happy to have them, but why not show up year-round?
Are you indeed "happy to have them?" I'd guess you wouldn't ask why they show up twice a year?
This next comment feels like what Jesus might do.
That’s one of the reasons I avoid church those days. It opens up a seat for someone that doesn’t normally go. It could be their day.
What if some people don't come for the Easter or Christmas message? What if they come for the pretty Poinsettias and Lilies and majesty of the church and pageantry and carols and free coffee?
What if they only come to fill the plate twice a year to appease guilt?
Is this enough?
I hope so.
Because that's where I think grace is, right where people stand which might be that they visit church twice a year and leave filled with nothing more than the memory of the lamb who turned around, smiled and waved, at them.
Eldora on January 23, 2015:
If I were a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, now I'd say "Kgnabuwoa, dude!"
Laura (author) on January 20, 2015:
I love it :) No pressure celebration with chocolate! I largely feel that way as well now frankly, likely because I'm not a traditional Christian anymore, but rather a Unitarian Universalist. Easter as a celebration of earth or spiritual "rebirth" is a lovely time of year. Second to Fall here in Florida (not much of a fall!) it's my favorite season :) When I wrote this I was thinking how important it is to embrace folks who attend holiday-only services, even if that's the only time of year they make it because somehow they are moved, even if for just that hour of celebration, service, the message, etc.
Rahayu on January 20, 2015:
I hadn't thought about Easter that way berfoe. Sort of a no-pressure celebration with chocolate! What's not to love?! I think it meant more when I lived in England and spring was so much more important. In southern California we don't really have seasons, just a year-round climate.
Laura (author) on July 19, 2014:
Absolutely. I think God, Spirit, Divine sits wherever you ask Him to sit with you, and whenever. I don't feel it's necessary to attend church every Sunday or even one, to know what it is that is God -- for you. My spiritual journey has shifted quite a bit, but never out of sensing a higher and good, power.
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on July 18, 2014:
Laura, I don't know how to tell if a person only attends church on holidays. And if a person only attends on Holidays what happens to the verse that says "Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there am I also in their midst." How can we know everyone's situation?
Laura (author) on December 08, 2013:
Thanks so much for commenting Shyron. Absolutely. I've never run into anyone unwelcoming to the CEOs but I have sensed disdain for folks who only attend twice a year. I find this so odd given that grace and faith are are expressed in ways not bound by walls inside a church.
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on December 08, 2013:
Laura, if I read my Bible right it says to remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy, it does not say that you have to attend any service in any building/church. I think only God knows who are fathful believers and who are not. As far as I am concerned, you would be welcome in the church that I attend anytime. I go to church because I am a sinner, the saints are no longer with us.
God Bless you!