I often feel lost in an infinite universe of choices. There are so many belief systems; so many political positions; so many large organizations that seem to control so many aspects of our lives — how do we hang onto a sense of who we are? I guess I could be like so many and just never really think about it. In fact I have tried that too – witness months at a time of zero entries in this blog and you’ll understand that.
And yet I can say that on Sundays, week after week, I stand in front of my congregation and say the things I really believe most deeply. My beliefs are a point of reference for everything else. It’s not that I pretend to be certain on Sundays and then live in uncertainty Monday through Saturday — it’s that on Sundays I have a chance to get “back to basics” every week. The older I get the less certain I am about most things, but the more certain I am about the few things I believe most deeply.
This gets strange when it comes to pastoring and leading in the church. People need a safe place to ask questions, even if their questions are different from mine. At the same time, people have a strong drive to find answers, to move past questioning into resolution. The more open Wildwind is to questions, the more uncomfortable it becomes for those who just want to focus on answers. The more we celebrate answers, the more we alienate those who are questioning. How do we live with the tension between asking questions and needing answers?
This week someone from my church wrote to me and said, “When you serve communion to us and say, ‘The body and blood of Christ,’ what are we supposed to say back to you?” It had never occurred to me that my people should say anything in particular. But apparently she knew a few people who were kind of confused about this and was thinking perhaps I’d have some direction for them. Off the top of my head, I suppose something between “Thanks Dave, you rock, don’t ever change,” and “I hereby attest that at the appointed time God will work his glorious will upon the earth” would probably be fine. Perhaps something like “Thank you,” or “Bless you,” or even a reverent silence would do the trick.
I’m not poking fun of those who are uncertain. (That would be the pot calling the kettle black.) I struggle constantly with uncertainty. The drive to “know the rules,” to have boundaries clearly defined, is a strong one. So also is the drive to resist rules, to run from direction. Highly liturgical, formal churches are what happens when a religious institution attempts to make clear for everyone exactly what to do at every point: say this at communion, say this prayer when someone dies, pray this way when someone is in need of healing, recite this at a wedding, sprinkle this at a funeral. Again here I’m not denigrating churches that have decided to define this stuff for their people. Some can live within these guidelines and discover that their sense of connection to God is enhanced through them, because they are free to focus on the experience of God and not have to think about what to say or do in certain situations. This is the appeal of liturgy, and there’s part of me that would love to do more of that. I see great value in it.
On the other hand there are always those who would say, “All that formal stuff just brings me down.” They want everything free-form — nothing defined, everything off-the-cuff. But the fact is our spiritual lives can’t develop that way. We cannot separate spiritual life from the experiences of everyday living, as if somehow most of “regular” life can be routine and scheduled, but this one area should always be wild and spontaneous. What really happens when we refuse to apply any discipline at all to our spiritual lives? They fail to develop into anything substantive, just like the couple who thinks they should never have to schedule sex might have to deal with really long periods of time without it. Other people prefer actually having sex and so they figure out a way to get it. In other words, for some people their idea (i.e., in-the-box, preconceived, Hollywood movie, fantasy notion) of what sex should be actually keeps them from having sex. For some people, the idea of what worship should be keeps them from actually worshipping.
In the final analysis, there is a danger inherent both in churches that don’t try to define everything and in those that do. The ones that don’t can mistake spontaneity for authenticity, as if someone cannot sincerely pray a prayer written hundreds of years ago (Christ’s prayer on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” was directly out of the Psalms). In the ones that do, people can mistake structure for relationship, thinking that all of these little traditions actually tell them who God is rather than giving them a way to seek Him. I sympathize with the struggles of some in my church to know what to say during communion (or whether to stand or sit during singing, etc.). My best answer to this difficulty is to say that Wildwind has chosen to be a church that does not define everything. This allows uncertainty, but ultimately to relate to God at all is to be uncertain. We might as well learn to live with some of that tension.