By Dan Clendenin

Around​ ​the​ ​time​ ​that​ ​I​ ​turned​ ​sixty,​ ​I​ ​had​ ​a​ ​most​ ​ambiguous​ ​moment​ ​of self-realization — that​ ​I’ve​ ​gone​ ​to​ ​church​ ​almost​ ​every​ ​Sunday​ ​of​ ​my​ ​life.​ ​That’s​ ​well over​ ​three​ ​thousand​ ​services.

I’m​ ​grateful​ ​for​ ​my​ ​heritage.​ ​My​ ​mother​ ​was​ ​a​ ​church​ ​organist​ ​for​ ​twenty-five​ ​years​ ​in​ ​a small​ ​Presbyterian​ ​church.​ ​Her​ ​grandfather​ ​was​ ​a​ ​Presbyterian​ ​pastor,​ ​her​ ​mother spent​ ​seventy-nine​ ​years​ ​in​ ​great-grandfather​ ​McGrath’s​ ​church,​ ​and​ ​her​ ​sister​ ​has worshiped​ ​there​ ​for​ ​ninety-two​ ​years​ — ​​ever​ ​since​ ​she​ ​was​ ​born.

Nonetheless,​ ​such​ ​long​ ​term​ ​religiosity​ ​has​ ​its​ ​risks.​ ​Boredom.​ ​Cliches.​ ​Jargon. Cynicism.​ ​Merely​ ​going​ ​through​ ​the​ ​motions,​ ​however​ ​well​ ​intended.​ ​Plus,​ ​anyone​ ​who has​ ​gone​ ​to​ ​church​ ​for​ ​sixty​ ​years​ ​and​ ​has​ ​paid​ ​attention​ ​has​ ​honest​ ​questions​ ​about complex​ ​issues.​ ​For​ ​his​ ​part,​ ​my​ ​father​ ​quit​ ​church​ ​when​ ​I​ ​was​ ​in​ ​high​ ​school.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​my own​ ​critical​ ​questions,​ ​but​ ​I’ve​ ​decided​ ​to​ ​do​ ​my​ ​doubting​ ​within​ ​the​ ​community​ ​of​ ​faith, and​ ​my​ ​believing​ ​within​ ​the​ ​broader​ ​cultural​ ​conversation.

At​ ​about​ ​this​ ​same​ ​time,​ ​I​ ​began​ ​to​ ​notice​ ​something​ ​brazen,​ ​even​ ​bizarre,​ ​at​ ​the church​ ​that​ ​I​ ​attend​ ​every​ ​Sunday.​ ​It’s​ ​always​ ​been​ ​there,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​some​ ​form​ ​has​ ​a history​ ​as​ ​old​ ​as​ ​the​ ​gospel​ ​itself.​ ​So,​ ​it​ ​was​ ​nothing​ ​new,​ ​but​ ​for​ ​some​ ​reason​ ​it suddenly​ ​grabbed​ ​my​ ​attention,​ ​and​ ​ever​ ​since​ ​then​ ​has​ ​not​ ​let​ ​go.

My​ ​Episcopal​ ​church​ ​is​ ​in​ ​many​ ​ways​ ​quite​ ​old​ ​school.​ ​The​ ​building​ ​has​ ​a​ ​steeple​ ​and stained​ ​glass.​ ​The​ ​priests​ ​wear​ ​robes.​ ​We​ ​even​ ​have​ ​a​ ​paid​ ​organist.​ ​And​ ​week​ ​after week​ ​we​ ​do​ ​what​ ​churches​ ​have​ ​done​ ​for​ ​two​ ​millennia.​ ​We​ ​sing​ ​a​ ​few​ ​hymns,​ ​we​ ​pray for​ ​each​ ​other​ ​and​ ​the​ ​world,​ ​we​ ​listen​ ​to​ ​a​ ​sermon,​ ​we​ ​celebrate​ ​communion,​ ​at​ ​the end​ ​come​ ​the​ ​announcements,​ ​and​ ​then​ ​we​ ​go​ ​drink​ ​coffee​ ​on​ ​the​ ​patio.​ ​A​ ​sort​ ​of standard​ ​operating​ ​procedure​ ​for​ ​a​ ​churchy​ ​church.

But​ ​there’s​ ​one​ ​part​ ​of​ ​our​ ​religious​ ​routine​ ​that​ ​now​ ​feels​ ​like​ ​a​ ​gut​ ​punch.​ ​It’s something​ ​akin​ ​to​ ​street​ ​theater,​ ​or​ ​performance​ ​art,​ ​and​ ​strategically​ ​placed​ ​at​ ​the center point​ ​of​ ​the​ ​service.

The ​​service ​​begins ​​at​​ the ​​back ​​of ​​the ​​church​​ with ​​a ​​processional ​​down ​​the ​​center ​a​isle. First​ ​comes​ ​what’s​ ​called​ ​a​ ​verger,​ ​who​ ​leads​ ​our​ ​little​ ​line​ ​of​ ​clergy.​ ​Then​ ​there’s​ ​a teenage​ ​acolyte​ ​who​ ​carries​ ​our​ ​local​ ​church​ ​banner,​ ​complete​ ​with​ ​red​ ​ribbons​ ​and tinkling​ ​bells.​ ​The​ ​last​ ​person​ ​in​ ​line,​ ​very​ ​much​ ​in​ ​a​ ​conspicuous​ ​pride​ ​of​ ​place,​ ​is​ ​a priest​ ​who​ ​holds​ ​high​ ​overhead​ ​a​ ​large​ ​and​ ​bright​ ​red​ ​book.​ ​These​ ​are​ ​the​ ​four​ ​gospels of​ ​Matthew,​ ​Mark,​ ​Luke,​ ​and​ ​John.

When​ ​they​ ​reach​ ​the​ ​front​ ​of​ ​the​ ​church,​ ​they​ ​place​ ​the​ ​red​ ​book​ ​on​ ​the​ ​altar,​ ​they​ ​bow to​ ​this​ ​book,​ ​and​ ​then​ ​sit​ ​down.​ ​After​ ​a​ ​few​ ​prayers​ ​and​ ​a​ ​hymn,​ ​there’s​ ​a​ ​reading​ ​from the​ ​Jewish​ ​“old”​ ​testament,​ ​a​ ​psalm​ ​that​ ​our​ ​choir​ ​sings​ ​a​ ​capella,​ ​and​ ​a​ ​reading​ ​from one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​epistles.​ ​There’s​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​reading​ ​the​ ​Bible​ ​out​ ​loud​ ​in​ ​my​ ​church — a​ ​lost​ ​art​ ​in our​ ​culture,​ ​and​ ​ironically​ ​counter-intuitive​ ​when​ ​you​ ​consider​ ​that​ ​we’re​ ​very​ ​much​ ​a “liberal”​ ​church.​ ​Then,​ ​during​ ​the​ ​middle​ ​of​ ​the​ ​next​ ​hymn,​ ​we​ ​repeat​ ​the​ ​processional​ ​in reverse.

Once​ ​again​ ​the​ ​acolyte​ ​holds​ ​the​ ​gospel​ ​aloft,​ ​walks​ ​back​ ​down​ ​the​ ​center​ ​aisle,​ ​and stops​ ​in​ ​the​ ​physical​ ​center​ ​of​ ​the​ ​church.​ ​The​ ​congregation​ ​turns​ ​toward​ ​the​ ​text.​ ​As the​ ​acolyte​ ​opens​ ​the​ ​book​ ​in​ ​front​ ​of​ ​her,​ ​the​ ​priest​ ​makes​ ​a​ ​tiny​ ​sign​ ​of​ ​the​ ​cross​ ​on her​ ​forehead,​ ​lips,​ ​and​ ​chest — commending​ ​her​ ​mind,​ ​her​ ​speech,​ ​and​ ​her​ ​heart​ ​to​ ​the reading​ ​of​ ​this​ ​text.​ ​She​ ​then​ ​proclaims,​ ​“the​ ​holy​ ​gospel​ ​of​ ​our​ ​Lord​ ​Jesus​ ​Christ.”​ ​The congregation​ ​responds,​ ​“Glory​ ​to​ ​you,​ ​Lord​ ​Christ.”

After​ ​reading​ ​the​ ​gospel​ ​passage​ ​that’s​ ​assigned​ ​for​ ​that​ ​Sunday,​ ​she​ ​takes​ ​the​ ​book from​ ​the​ ​acolyte​ ​and​ ​again​ ​holds​ ​it​ ​high​ ​overhead,​ ​and​ ​then​ ​concludes,​ ​“the​ ​gospel​ ​of the​ ​Lord!”​ ​The​ ​congregation​ ​responds,​ ​“Praise​ ​to​ ​you,​ ​Lord​ ​Christ.”​ ​The​ ​priest​ ​and​ ​the acolyte​ ​then​ ​retrace​ ​their​ ​steps​ ​to​ ​the​ ​front,​ ​place​ ​the​ ​gospel​ ​back​ ​on​ ​the​ ​altar,​ ​and again​ ​genuflect​ ​before​ ​it.

If​ ​I​ ​really​ ​want​ ​to​ ​feel​ ​the​ ​liturgical​ ​fire,​ ​I​ ​sit​ ​in​ ​a​ ​seat​ ​that’s​ ​right​ ​on​ ​the​ ​center​ ​aisle, positioned​ ​perfectly​ ​so​ ​that​ ​I​ ​could​ ​touch​ ​the​ ​priest​ ​and​ ​that​ ​text,​ ​physically​ ​closer​ ​than​ ​a comfortable​ ​psychological​ ​space​ ​between​ ​two​ ​people,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​so​ ​doing​ ​try​ ​to​ ​fathom exactly​ ​what’s​ ​going​ ​on.​ ​Except​ ​for​ ​the​ ​reading,​ ​which​ ​ricochets​ ​off​ ​the​ ​hard​ ​surfaces​ ​of the​ ​interior​ ​of​ ​the​ ​church,​ ​you​ ​could​ ​hear​ ​a​ ​pin​ ​drop.

When​ ​I​ ​watch​ ​this​ ​liturgical​ ​drama​ ​about​ ​a​ ​book,​ ​so​ ​full​ ​of​ ​symbolism​ ​both​ ​verbal​ ​and physical,​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​shout,​ ​“Stop!​ ​Wait!​ ​What’s​ ​going​ ​on​ ​here?​ ​What​ ​are​ ​we​ ​saying​ ​and doing​ ​and​ ​meaning​ ​with​ ​this​ ​huge,​ ​bright​ ​red​ ​book?​ ​And​ ​why?​ ​We​ ​wouldn’t​ ​bow​ ​down​ ​to a​ ​volume​ ​of​ ​Sappho​ ​or​ ​Shakespeare,​ ​would​ ​we,​ ​however​ ​venerated?”

The​ ​public​ ​reading​ ​of​ ​the​ ​gospel​ ​invites​ ​us​ ​to​ ​reconsider,​ ​each​ ​and​ ​every​ ​Sunday,​ ​and with​ ​as​ ​much​ ​brutal​ ​honesty​ ​as​ ​we​ ​can​ ​muster,​ ​exactly​ ​what​ ​the​ ​“good​ ​news”​ ​of​ ​“our Lord​ ​Jesus​ ​Christ”​ ​means,​ ​and​ ​why​ ​we​ ​don’t​ ​just​ ​salute​ ​or​ ​honor​ ​him​ ​but​ ​offer​ ​to​ ​him our​ ​praise​ ​and​ ​worship.​ ​We’re​ ​exploring​ ​over​ ​and​ ​over​ ​again​ ​the​ ​heart​ ​of​ ​the​ ​gospel​ ​and the​ ​core​ ​of​ ​our​ ​faith.​ ​In​ ​addition,​ ​we’re​ ​imagining​ ​our​ ​own​ ​selves​ ​into​ ​his​ ​ancient​ ​story, and​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​understand​ ​and​ ​shape​ ​our​ ​contemporary​ ​lives​ ​in​ ​light​ ​of​ ​it.

After​ ​the​ ​Jesuit​ ​priest​ ​John​ ​Dear​ ​met​ ​Daniel​ ​Berrigan​ ​in​ ​1984,​ ​he​ ​asked​ ​him​ ​for​ ​a​ ​piece of​ ​advice.​ ​“Make​ ​your​ ​story​ ​fit​ ​into​ ​the​ ​story​ ​of​ ​Jesus,”​ ​said​ ​Berrigan.​ ​“Ask​ ​yourself:​ ​does your​ ​life​ ​make​ ​sense​ ​in​ ​light​ ​of​ ​the​ ​life​ ​of​ ​Jesus?​ ​All​ ​we​ ​have​ ​to​ ​do​ ​is​ ​close​ ​our​ ​eyes​ ​to the​ ​culture​ ​and​ ​open​ ​them​ ​to​ ​our​ ​friends.​ ​We​ ​have​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​go​ ​on.​ ​We​ ​can’t​ ​afford​ ​the luxury​ ​of​ ​despair.”

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