On Facebook some time ago, someone posted a photograph which made me smile. It was of a kayak in the middle of a beautiful, misty lake with the following words: "Religion is a person sitting in church, thinking about kayaking. Spirituality is a person sitting in a kayak, thinking about God."
It goes without saying that I understand exactly where the person who wrote this is coming from!
Like every church-goer, I have experienced my fair share of dreary, boring services or (equally dispiriting) occasions of relentless, exhausting jolliness. And – in common with many people – the beauty of the natural world displays to me the glory and beauty and majesty of the creator God whom I worship and who I believe, amazingly, loves me and loves you.
None of us has been sitting in church much at all over the past year for obvious reasons, but the practice of weekly church-going has been steeply declining for decades. It is a surprisingly easy habit to get out of.
Our culture is terminally individualistic and there can be downright embarrassment at being connected to the institutional church, with its shameful historical connections to wealth and power. Going it alone can be seen to have more integrity.
The church has also withdrawn God’s invitation to certain people at certain times (think, for example, LGBTQ+ Christians) and a shaking of the dust off the feet may be for some people an act of self-respect or solidarity or even of self-preservation.
And yet. And yet . . . there is so much loving-kindness and goodness to be found in the practice of weekly devotional worship together, and we cannot learn the language of faith in any other way. It is a practice and, like all practices, just the doing of it is formational.
There is no target to reach. No aim or goal.
Like all of the most precious things, devotional worship is unproductive and non-transactional. It takes up a lot of time and energy and resources, whether it is online or in a church building. It is foolish and extravagant, like the costly perfume poured onto Jesus’s feet. Frederick Buechner describes ritual as people “raising up the holiness of their humanity to God”. We choose to do this on our own behalf and on behalf of those who need our prayers.
As Marilynne Robinson puts it: “God does not need our worship. We worship to enlarge our sense of holy, so that we can feel and know the presence of the Lord, who is with us always”.
In fact the enforced Zoom worship of the past year has been a wonderful boon for many who are normally excluded from physical church-going for a range of reasons. For those of us who can physically access places of worship in more normal times, worshipping online may have been something that we have tolerated because we had to. Yet we must take care to sustain this belated inclusion of those of us who have previously been excluded. All the collateral blessings of this grim season must be treasured!
Regular devotional worship together reminds us that we are always the guests of God. It is God’s holy table, not ours. We are reminded that we are chosen, and obliged to see the person next to us as chosen by God too.
I find Rowan William’s definition of the church very fruitful: “a kind of space cleared by God through Jesus in which people may become what God made them to be”.
If the church is a space (rather than a club of people who believe the same things) we are commissioned and freed to curate it for the good of the whole earth – to keep it clear and open and accessible and full of grace.
Kayaking or church? Kayaking or church? I am reminded of the sweet, funny TV ad when I was growing up which others may remember too – for frozen oven chips. A little girl was relishing her chips and had given herself a terrible dilemma: Daddy or chips? Daddy or chips? Which did she love the most?
Of course the little girl didn’t have to choose. Neither do we.