From Our Archive
Debie Thomas, "What Are You Looking For?" (2020); Dan Clendenin, "Three Days with Jesus" (2017) and "Coming Back for More: Why go to church?" (2014).
This Week's Essay
Michael Fitzpatrick is a parishioner at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA. After growing up in the rural northwest, he served over five years in the U. S. Army as a Chaplain's Assistant, including two deployments to Iraq. After completing his military service, Michael has done graduate work in literature and philosophy. He is now finishing his PhD at Stanford University.
For Sunday January 15, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Almost a decade ago, Dan Clendenin wrote a lectionary essay for today’s readings exploring the question, “Why go to church?” (see the archive links above). Starting from a place of raw honesty about the shortcomings of Christians, Dan puts together a heartfelt and personal expression of reasons he keeps going to church, not least of all because it’s the place God has chosen to show up. This week’s essay serves as a kind of sequel. If Dan was tackling the general question of why go to church, I find myself wrestling with its complement: why go to this church? That is, why should I attend the particular church community in which I find myself?
As you may have already guessed, this question is not on my mind arbitrarily. My wife and I are in the process of changing locales and communities. Moving is always an exhausting and agonizing experience for me, with all the stress of feeling dislocated for weeks on end. I’ve been mentally “moved out” of our beautiful apartment in Palo Alto since Thanksgiving, when the first boxes started getting packed.
For the past five or so years, I’ve been calling St. Mark’s of Palo Alto my home parish, and home it has been. The place where I met Dan Clendenin, the place where I preached my first sermon, the place where I attended early morning Easter Vigils, retreats at the Bishop’s Ranch retreat center, and Conventions at the diocesan gatherings. My closest friends attend that church, and over the past month their grief at the news of my impending departure has been truly humbling. I love the liturgy, the clergy, the music, and most especially, the full-commitment from the congregation that church life is a communal effort, not simply the responsibility of the rector.
As I’m sure Dan felt during his move to Southern California three years ago, I wish I could take St. Mark’s with me. Mentally I know I have an amazing opportunity to discover new parishes and develop new friends, but I’m also worried that the bar has been set so high that I won’t give a new parish a fair chance to be Christ for me.
In the coming weeks, as I stand in the sanctuary hearing the liturgies of Word and Sacrament, I’ll be wrestling with these questions, “Why this church? Is here where you’re calling me to be, Lord?” All the anxiety of making the “right” decision will be gripping me Sunday after Sunday.
This context might help explain why our lectionary readings are such comfort to me. The blunt assurance with which Isaiah speaks about God’s provision for Israel, before they even were a people! If God can set aside an entire people to be “a light to the nations, that the salvation of the Lord may reach to the end of the earth,” then surely this same God can plant my feet in the midst of the congregation where I need to minister and be ministered to. We need the voices of the prophets, if only to remind us that God has been calling and directing us since before we were born.
What am I looking for in a church? It seems like such a simple question, yet when you’re as blessed as I have been to be a part of a tremendous parish community, it’s one you really don’t think about much. So the remainder of my essay this week is a thinking out loud about the hope I pray for in the church community that becomes my new home, Lord willing.
The first hope that I pray for is to find a community of Christians that are unashamed to be what they are. I live in the United States, which like many countries is beset with social strife and cultural conflict. As result, a lot of churches I’ve visited make me feel like they’re embarrassed to be following Jesus, reading the Bible, or believing in doctrines like the Incarnation or the Resurrection. Over the years, I’ve had my share of doubts and heterodoxies, disagreements and dissents. Yet I find myself today, in my mid-30's, craving a community where we just do the thing. Not preparing to do the thing, not making space for skepticism about doing the thing, not doing some other thing — just being Christians, embracing the full panoply, richness, and weirdness of our traditions and history.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be a repenting community for the harm and evils done in Christ’s name; again, see Dan’s essay from nine years ago for a powerful example of this. What it does mean is that we repent for the sake of becoming a healthy, whole Body of Christ. What I crave as I seek out a new local place to join the Body of Christ is exactly what St. Paul describes in our epistle. He gives thanks to God “because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Imagine being able to say this about each other in church! That we have been enriched in Christ “in every way!” Sometimes my fellow parishioners ask me why I am so passionate about obscure creedal doctrines like the harrowing of hell, or maintaining liturgical practices such as kneeling during the confession or crossing my forehead, lips, and heart at the reading of the Gospel. This is why, because I so hunger to be enriched in every way! I’m sort of the opposite of an iconoclast or a Puritan who wants to strip everything down to the bare minimum. I’d rather we luxuriate in the full scope of Christian history and practice than risk leaving something out that might nourish our souls.
The second hope that I pray for is to find a congregation that sees the work of the people each week (the etymological meaning of ‘liturgy’) as ushering in real encounter with God. Don’t mistake me, I love the music and the social outreach programs and the potlucks and the friendship. It’s just that these things can be found in other places. What makes a church special is that it offers encounter with the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The Psalmist sings about the great things that God has done, that nothing can be compared to the goodness of God. To make those words our own means that our churches are places where the wonders of God are seen and known!
What kind of people do I want to encounter in a congregation? Those on whom I’d gladly bestow the words of the Psalmist, that they are people who love to do your will, O my God, for your law is deep in their hearts. I want to do church with people who “proclaim righteousness in the great congregation,” who do not restrain their lips, who do not hide the righteousness of God in their hearts but speak plainly about where they have found the trust and salvation of God in their lives.
The Psalmist ends by testifying, “I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation.” The word ‘great’ here is not a term of evaluation, but a descriptor, something like, “when all the people are gathered.” In other words, the Psalmist doesn’t filter their speech by audience, but speaks the same truth about God’s goodness before all who come together as a covenant people.
What better season to hope for such things than Epiphany, in which the light of Christ bodied forth before the great congregation of the people who gathered to hear him teach and see his miracles. In our Gospel reading, John testifies to the great congregation about his own encounter with the living God. “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world! I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and remain on him. I myself have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.” Imagine if we spoke of our own encounters with Christ during church coffee hour! Or in Bible study. Or in weekday church gatherings.
Whenever I encounter scripture, it seems so alive and pregnant with possibility. The same should be true of our churches. We should see and hear Christ in the Eucharist table, in the preaching, in the prayers for the nations, in the repentance and confession, in the votive candles, in the gathering around the beverages table, in the kids playing on the church grounds, in the face of a person visiting the food pantry, in the tears of a parishioner who just lost a family member. Why will I go to this particular church, the one I am still seeking? Because it is a place where the faith is practiced without hesitation, and because it is a place where God meets me in the every day holiness of those called to be the church.
If a spiritual life is to be real –
authentic, courageous, tidal –
then it will, by definition, depart in some nuanced way
in some moments
from the one your church
or your family
And if you are raising children,
you are inviting them into something
that you are on the cusp
or the midst of
As you experience your own departing and creating
and the offering of something to your children,
you may notice
a sense of worry
as they improvise their own spiritual life.
And yet these conversations often remain underground.
whispered in backyard book clubs,
or grocery store parking lots.
We learn to keep the words hidden
because they don’t sound like the narratives of Good Christian Mothers.
Perhaps we need a new conversation
to bring new possibility,
capture the catchlight
as holy improvisation
and transform our notion of
Kristin Geiser earned her B.A. in Theater and her Ph.D. in Education from UCLA. She is a writer, teacher, and lay minister who works to foster caring, inclusive, and creative conversations about faith. She lives with her family in Northern California.
Michael Fitzpatrick cherishes comments and questions via email@example.com