Why We Show Up

January 12, 2022
Tim Lien

I was reading The Los Angeles Review of Books.  Because that is what ministers do when they don’t have to preach Sunday. It’s also because they want to connect to pop culture without watching the Kardashians.  Sadly, ministers can be snobby too; forgive me.

On LARB, I read “Half-Full of Grace,” by Dorothy Fortenberry.  She’s an Angeleno— screenwriter, currently working on The Handmaid’s Tale. She attempts to explain why she goes to church.  

Which is a fairly decent question to ask: why do you go to church?

Some people answer this quickly: I want moral fiber for the kiddos.  I’m a decent person—church reaffirms that notion. It’s a habit.  It’s a tradition passed from my parents.  I feel better about myself. I meet people.  I’m looking for a good guy. I network.  People are nice; my workplace is mean. It’s a familiar, safe cultural space. The speaker inspires me.

Fortenberry had some different answers for that question.  They are simple, yet profound:

1) To feel small again.
“I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone                else decided on centuries ago. I am not special at church, and this is the point. …I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality.”

Which is counter-intuitive, no? Our lives are spent trying to become a Big Deal.  Our inspirations come from parents, teachers, tutors, friends, and Pinterest quotes. They don’t stop telling us that we are a Big Deal, or at least a Big-Deal-in-waiting.  Church doesn’t do the opposite, though it never really shies away from telling us we sin.  Church shows us the true Big Deal.  It’s like going to the Grand Canyon for the first time.  It’s hard to feel like a big deal.  The experience doesn’t demean us; it shows us that we just might have exaggerated our claims to Big Deal-ness.  And the real Big Deal is breathtaking. Exhilarating, even.  

Lauren Winner (Duke Divinity School), shares a similar sentiment in her struggle with faith: “I am not a saint. I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God.”

Church does that.  It disrupts our stories and jiggles everything back into proper alignment. When I came to church, God was on a leash— admonished with treats to be wingman to my whimsical dreams.  

I left church thinking: Your ways, not mine, should be done.

2) To experience unconditional love (a.k.a. grace)
“The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel embarrassed by are beside the point.”

That’s poetic.  Fortenberry should write for a living.
My best thoughts and actions don’t get me a special audience with God.  They don’t activate the love of Jesus.
My sins (“not in part, but the whole”) don’t prevent God’s love.  They don’t activate special barriers or cosmic punitive reprisals.
Jesus’s work is my best brag.  Jesus’s work absorbs any and all cosmic punishment.
Forgiveness is real if Jesus is real.

3) To experience diversity and unity at the very same time
“Another thing that I value: When I go to church in Los Angeles, I am a white person in a majority nonwhite space. In a city that’s an                oxymoronic 70 percent minority, that shouldn’t be a special occurrence, but it is. Even more special is that I have come with no particular                agenda. I have not come to teach or volunteer or try a new (to me) cuisine or inhabit a new (to me) neighborhood. I have not even come to                act as an “ally.” I have come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction.                Halfway through church, I turn to the congregants next to me and share the peace. I wish that they experience peace in their lives. That’s it.                They wish the same for me. Our words are identical. Our need for peace is infinite.”

The theologian in me wants to remind us all that unity and diversity find its perfect expression in the Trinity. So noted, Tim. But Fortenberry highlights the gift of experience and practice worshipping this Trinity.  Sure, it’s imperfect but it points to possibility, standard, and community based on a Person, not a cause, culture, tradition, or race.  

Cosmetic dissimilarity gives way to a deep notion that any human under the Cross is more like me than unlike me.  We are showing up with the same need, the same longing.  We have the same Savior.  Which, as it turns out, is a lot like having the same dad.

See you Sunday, Tim

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