Sometime around Christmas a letter appeared in the Gazette from a “lapsed Methodist.” I’ve thought of it on and off for the past few months as I pondered what was the point in keeping open and attending the Chilmark Community Church, which happens to be Methodist. Could doing good while serving on community boards replace the experience of church going as the lapsed Methodist suggested? My friends asked, “Why do you bother with going to church, especially when it is such a hassle?”
Here are some of my thoughts: I have served on committees that do good and with good, loving people but at those meetings I didn’t talk about God or, often, remember to invite the holy to participate. I think that without making a date, we do not keep our appointments with God. I read that one way to identify someone who loves you is to think of someone who wants to be with you. I imagined God as someone who loves us, who wants to be with us. Church is a play date, one way of being aware of, paying attention to and talking about this elusive but accessible presence who is waiting and wanting to be with us.
As I remember, the lapsed Methodist was offended by “repent” in one vestibule she visited. I wanted to tell her how much of my time in church is spent translating the traditional use of words into my understanding of them. You have to ask if that isn’t a waste of time. Why don’t churches just use modern language and ideas and make it easier for us? Well, some churches do use only contemporary language and concepts. There is talk of our times being post-denominational, where we can drop doctrinal distinctions. But sometimes it may not be bad to translate, as I do. What could repent mean to me? I am not keen on the idea that I’m bad and somehow a turning is going to make me good. So my translation goes something like this: Repent means maybe just checking the direction I’m taking in relation to a course set by God. The moments of our lives are like arrows. One Hebrew meaning of “to sin” is to miss the mark, as in archery. To repent is like redirecting a moment toward the mark or target or the potential of that moment to be inspired or good or holy.
Translating and questioning is part of the religious experience. Jews and Christians study the same texts over and over, not for the outcome of wisdom or understanding, but for elevating the mind during their discussions. Weekly questioning, debating, even if the conversation is with oneself in the church setting, brings one’s mind and the holy into the same space and moment. Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians about being in training, like an athlete, for service to God. A contemporary commentator referenced Malcolm Gladwell who said that only two things are necessary for a person to be outstanding: an opportunity opened up to them that they were committed to take and at least 10,000 hours of practice in the kinds of skills that would enable them to take that opportunity. It struck me that going to church (or doing any kind of regular religious practice) is that kind of training, not always rewarding every session, but whose aggregate skills allow us occasionally to hit the mark.
Pam Goff lives in Chilmark.