by Amber Evans
On a recent Friday morning I walked into the coffee shop near the school where I’m the chaplain and I ordered a breakfast burrito. And I overheard the barista say to one of his customers, “Why doesn’t anybody get married in church anymore?”
I said, “Some people still do.”
He said, “Sure, but not as much. Now a days, everybody gets married on the beach in Hawaii or in a hotel ballroom.”
I said, “It’s probably because, now a days, fewer people go to church.”
He volunteered that he was raised in church and he doesn’t go. The other customer said, “I’m catholic, I was baptized, but now I only go for weddings and funerals.”
“You must go a lot,” the barista said. He knows I’m a priest.
“Not as much as you might think,” I replied sheepishly.
That was when he opened the microwave to find that my burrito had exploded and he said, “Jesus! Let me make you a new one.” Then, embarrassed, he said. “Oh, listen to me talking to Jesus over here.”
The Catholic guy said, “Jesus is over there? Did he explode her burrito?”
I said, “He must be mad at me for not going to church more.”
After that, the moment seemed just right to ask the kind of questions priests rarely get to ask.
“What would it take for you to go? What would church have to be like?”
The Catholic guy said, “I would need eight days in a week.”
I thought about my own life and knew that wouldn’t really work. “No. I think you’d just fill that day up too. You’d go now, if it were important to you. So, what would make it important?”
What would church have to be like for people to want to go more than stay in bed and read the paper, or go to their kid’s sports game, or work out, or have brunch with friends?
In some ways the answer itself is in church, with the people who still go. There is something for us there that we’ve decided is more important than those other important things. But for more and more people, it’s not. They worship at the church of rest, or family, or something else that they can’t get enough of. And since I am priest with a Monday through Friday job, I can relate. When I’m not at church on Sunday, I’m doing those things too.
The thing about the Gospel is that, while sometimes Jesus can sound rather exclusive, other times he tells us that ultimately, there will be only one flock, and nobody’s left out it.
That’s the only thing that makes sense to me, when I’m teaching world religions and my students want to know why there are so many. I tell them that we are all grasping at the same mystery of God, and only seeing our little sliver of that mystery, as it’s revealed by our particular religious traditions.
The problem is, sometimes the traditions get stale. People participate in them, but aren’t able to see past them to the mystery they’re really about. And the joy of family, or the sanctuary of rest, or the sacrament of a meal with friends turns out to be a more meaningful encounter with the mystery of God.
And not surprisingly, those two dudes drinking their coffee Friday morning couldn’t really answer the question for me– what would it take to make church a priority? They hadn’t thought much about it before.
So I thought about what makes church meaningful to me at school, or at St. Gregory of Nyssa, where I serve as a non-stipendiary priest. I realized that it’s the blend of deep reflection and joy. And it’s something I’ve also felt when I officiate at the marriage of good friends who aren’t especially religious, but ask me to help them take seriously the mystical commitment they’re making.
And it’s something I feel at my house, when we host our annual Thanksgiving dinner because of my friend Damon Styer, who’s a member of St. Gregory’s. Years ago, instead of imposing a prayer on my spiritually diverse guests, I asked Damon to read a poem as a kind of blessing for the Thanksgiving meal. Damon has made it a tradition every year– he always finds a brilliant poem, and he does a wonderfully dramatic reading, and he sets the tone for us to share. Dinner is rife with discussions about what we are thankful for, and our love as friends. And then there is food, and wine, and joy. And it is church.
So I told the guys at the coffee shop that if church was more like that kind of party, more people would probably come. And the microwave dinged, and my second breakfast burrito came out intact. And Mr. Barista told me I must be right, because Jesus wasn’t mad at me anymore.
I don’t worry as much as some people about the future of the church, because I believe Jesus. There will be one flock. And all of us silly sheep are fumbling our way into it. And that mysterious God who breaks into our lives here– or wherever we spend Sunday morning– that God is alive, and isn’t going anywhere without us. But, we can help Jesus by inviting everyone to the party.