Picking a church is a funny thing. In the last two years I have lived in the diverse cultures of the Mid West, the West Coast, and England, and with each move comes the confusing process of beginning to attend a church. It’s a brave venture, especially in a different country than your own. In what other circumstance do we dress up nicely, go to a place we’ve never been, with people we’ve never met, and try to see if it will be the proper place to attend to the most personal and profound part of our lives? I’ve heard it, the process of finding a new church, called “church shopping,” which feels strange and savors slightly of the sacrilegious. But then, I will not forsake the gathering, the longing and call for church is still there. Also, I live in a building that houses a training school for pastors, so how could I?
On Sunday I found myself eating scrambled eggs and contemplating where to go to church. As I stared at the opposite wall in that otherworldly sort of trance that comes from lack of sleep, one of the younger ordinands bounded in the swinging door, looking dangerously springy for my sombre morning mood.
“Good morning, Joy,” said Matt the ordinand with particular emphasis on my name as he gingerly snatched a bowl from the counter. Matt and I talk occasionally, and our conversations are always full of periodic translations due to our differing accents, and his general incredulity towards Americans. They are also usually fast paced and at dinner time. This whole morning business was new.
“How are you this morning? Where are you going to church this morning?”
His questions were coming like fastballs and I was hitting slow.
I stammered something out about how I was visiting a church this week with a friend, but I hadn’t settled on one yet.
“I don’t understand you students,” said Matt with an exquisitely patronizing face, “you come from America and bounce around at churches you have no connection to.”
I took a large sip of bracing tea over enthusiastically, and remarked that I really did intend to stick with a church, I just hadn’t decided which one yet. Truthfully, I had been feeling tension within myself over church shopping: surely the church that the gates of hell will not overcome is more than a Golden Corral buffet where you can choose which worship songs you like best, and how much liturgy you would like with your main course.
“You know that only several centuries ago, people were dying in this very city to worship God? It’s not about our consumerist mindset, it’s about bringing glory to Jesus.”
Matt finished his speech with finesse and a look of incredulity (one he routinely wears), and the made his way out of the room, leaving the door to swing closed.
Something about his last words stung of condescension, but I couldn’t help also feeling a pull of conviction.
I pushed away my plate and thought again about where to go to church.
Incidentally, I didn’t go to church, because I was accidentally late, and missed the group of people walking together. Perhaps it was my accident, but I don’t think it was God’s.
After playing my favorite hymns on the piano, I decided to go for a walk in the university park. The park was humming with the small but meaningful activities of life. An owner throwing a ball for his dog. An old couple walking along arm and arm talking about their grandchildren. A young girl, much like myself, sitting on a bench writing in a large book. What a keeper of stories that park must be.
Eventually, my wonderings lead me to an open chapel in Keble college. The door was open and the next service was later that night, so with a breathless push, the great doors swung into the echoey chapel.
I was not the only one there. High above me, almost in the rafters, there was an organ player practicing riffs and rings of new music. The new music slipped into the old corners of the chapel, and met in a lively timelessness. I tip toed as quietly as I could, but every noise seemed ring up to the highest gargoyle in the ceiling. I felt very small, and yet very loud.
I knelt in one of the pews, and prayed as the Organ music filled the still air of the almost empty chapel.
God bless my family, give them direction, strength and peace.
God please help those in need, those experiencing hunger and fear.
Lord, have mercy on me and let me know you better.
As I prayed, I wondered how many people had knelt like me and prayed in this very chapel. Unlike many chapels, this one was not actually all that old. Built in the 19th century, it was a product of the Oxford movement. This movement wanted to bring Oxford back to what they saw as the true tenants of the faith, tenants which were evident through the elaborate stained glass windows showing the story of Christ and the Old Testament. They wanted to look to their ancestors and heritage in the past, and keep Christ at the center of their lives in a new and changing time.
I want to do that too, I thought.
On my walk home, I thought back to what Matt had said to me “You know that only several centuries ago, people were dying in this very city to worship God? It’s not about our consumerist mindset, it’s about bringing glory to Jesus.”
I find that there is often a feeling of up, or perhaps un-rootedness in young American Christians. We want to know who Jesus is to us today. We want to know how to make the church relevant. We want to know the application for my life.
Being in Oxford surrounded by history, seeing the places men and women died for what they believed, and being in a place where Christianity has played itself out over many years, has brought me to a deeper sense to the meaning of church. Church is more than just a service, it is a history. A history of passions and sins, of mistakes and politics, of repentance and victories, and a history that has gone to show that Christ will surely not abandon those who love Him.
In history we find, as one of my favorite artists titled his album, a Liturgy, a way of practicing our faith, and a legacy, a long inspiring history of people who have gone before us.
By losing our sense of the history and tradition, we create an oddly self centered church where its all about our experience of God now. Our understanding of theology as put forth by the last cool pastor. This mindset is really quite arrogant as we reject the beauty and wisdom of two thousand years of thoughtful Jesus lovers. And, sometimes I find myself in that place.
When, instead we look to History, we see Christ working.
We see how faithful Jesus has been history, and how faithful He will still be.
We see how the ancient and cherished belief of Christ died, risen, and coming again remains true and powerful for all generations, which, in my opinion, is far better than being relevant.
We see that Christ is not an application for my life, but the deepest, truest, only truth worth living and dying for.
It really is all about bringing glory to Jesus.
And, so full circle, tomorrow is Sunday, and I will choose again where to go to church. As I ponder, it does not necessarily make me want to change denominations or drastically alter my church going habits. Rather, it gives me a sense of humility, meaning, and awe… I am not the first to walk this path of dying to myself. It makes me want to peer into history, to be inspired by their faithfulness, and most of all to see the same glorious God working today as he has always worked, redeeming and making beautiful his beloved church.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”