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Going to the Chapel of Love

I went to church the other day. Funerals, weddings, and major holidays aside, I can’t remember the last time I walked into a church just for the hell of it. Which is surprising, as I am the grandson and son of Presbyterian ministers and was, at one time, a Presbyterian minister myself.

But that was a lifetime ago, if you are a cat. Since that time I have wandered far in the theological fields, winding up, at times, in a field with no “theo” at all. (That’s a little inside biblical Greek humor for you, Presbyterian style. When you think comedy, you think Presbyterians. That Jean Calvin—such a card! Double predestination—har!)

So why, you might ask, did I go to church today? None of your damned business.

No, seriously, I went because my therapist suggested I go. (I have been seeing a therapist to get over the trauma of being exposed to Calvinist theology.) My therapist is very wise. She is like Yoda. “Why you not go to church, hmm? Hmmmmmm,” she said to me, enigmatically. The therapist doesn’t practice any religion and was not trying to impose one on me. She was just encouraging me to engage with life in some new ways.

The question was, what church? My father was a Presbyterian minister who worked as an activist in inner-city New York during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movements. My mother was raised Methodist. So of course they raised their children as Episcopalians. Not surprisingly, two of us later married Jewish women and one married a Catholic. You see the pattern.

Why not go back to my roots? I thought. And that’s how I found myself walking into St. John’s Episcopal Church. I was a little uncomfortable at first, but this mostly because of where I have headed, theologically speaking, since I left the ministry. I can’t honestly say I think of myself as a true follower of Jesus Christ, which, it seems to me, is the bare essential for being a Christian. I go back and forth on the existence of God: my heart wants to believe there is a caring, guiding principle behind the universe, but my head sees a lack of hard evidence.

So I can’t honestly say I was fully committed that morning when I joined the congregation in saying, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” However, my discomfort quickly disappeared as I got into the swing of things. The sermon was down to earth and funny. The service was genuine and warm and put me at my ease. It helped that author and journalist Julia Flynn Siler came down from her seat in the choir to greet me. I had no idea that St. John’s was Julie’s church—it turns out she and her husband were married there more than twenty years ago. Dressed in choir robes, Julie looked like an angel as she smiled and welcomed me. She introduced me to some very nice people after the service, one of whom was Harrison Ford. (I’m just kidding, of course—actually it was Peter Mayhew.)

What struck me about St. John’s was that the essential reason these people had voluntarily gathered that morning, and many other mornings and evenings, was to build community. Most of the places we gather exist to sell us something—coffee, a meal, clothing, household items. We congregate in movie theaters, bars, malls, ballparks, laundromats, and so on, all of which offer us something in exchange for our money. Even parks, beaches, libraries, and museums, which provide an essential public service, are not designed to build new communities—we go to them alone, or with groups of people to which we already belong.

Churches (or synagogues, temples, and mosques) are unusual, in that community building is their primary reason for existence. I was able to walk in, sit down, break bread, and sing with the members of St. John’s without any invitation. I didn’t need a credit card to join, and no one checked my identification. Sure, the church needs money, and they asked for it, but I was not required to put anything in the plate. I didn’t have to explain why I was there or identify myself, and was invited to join in the peace—a tradition in which the members of the congregation greet each other, shaking hands and saying something along the lines of “Peace be with you.” I was welcomed to share in the sacrament of communion.

But what did Yoda want me to learn or discover? Certainly my choice of church demonstrated a human need for tribe; I made my way to an Episcopal church, the church I was baptized in as an infant. But there was more for me than the comfort of the familiar. A coherent belief system is a good bulwark against life’s challenges. With my own well running dry, that morning I relaxed my will long enough to tap into the metaphysical wisdom and spiritual depth of something bigger than myself, regardless of my doubt or disbelief.

But perhaps the most important food I found in St. John’s was kindness, as exemplified by Julie Stiles going out of her way to greet me and introduce me to her friends. In the words of the old hymn, What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear!

My trip to St. Johns didn’t answers the grand theological questions about God, but then, I am not really trying to answer those questions these days. I’m really not that deep a person. I do, though, know a good thing when I see it. St. John’s is a good thing. And sometimes goodness is deep enough.

Praise be to God. Or, as Yoda would say, To God praise be.