Friday, September 26, 2008

Getting Back to Church

As a workplace chaplain for Goodwill Industries, I have many conversations with people who state the desire or intention to return to church. Chatting with me seems to trigger their guilt and/or longing: “I really gotta get back to church one of these days…”

Most are folks who fell out of church participation many years ago. Some left wounded or angry, but the great majority simply drifted away for reasons that are no longer clear to them. Many cannot even name what denomination the church they attended belonged to (unless they were Catholic, an identity that seems impossible to forget). Was it conservative or liberal in its views? Was the service liturgical or informal? They don’t know: it was simply church.

Very few have memories of participating in the life of the congregation beyond Sunday morning (which is likely what made it so easy to drift away). Almost universally they tell me that attending Sunday worship “made them feel better.” The desire to recover that feeling is often what motivates their desire to return.

Most do not have a clue how to select a church to visit; they are unaware of how widely contemporary churches vary in their style, form, doctrines and cultural values. People who do endless comparison shopping before selecting a new coffee-maker will pick a church because “I known someone who goes there” or “I drove by it and it looked nice.” I suspect that this is because religion is such a foreign world for them that they simply do not know how to think critically about selecting a potential spiritual home.

There is a lot of magical thinking about what will happen if they finally haul themselves to a church on Sunday morning. Those whose lives are in chaos fantasize that just walking through the front door will instantly mend all the brokenness. Others wish to check “tend to my spiritual needs” off the list that includes “floss my teeth daily.” Some have the hope that God Almighty will be so tickled that they showed up that they will begin winning the lottery on a regular basis. Many, many others hope and pray that they will find the sense of peace and comfort for which they long so deeply.

Maybe, as some insist, there is no bad reason for attending Sunday worship: God welcomes us no matter what our motivations are. But unless we come with realistic expectations, it will not be long before we drift away once more. Among those realistic expectations are:

1. It will take time. Worship is not a quick recharge of our spiritual batteries, it is a discipline that shapes and forms us over time. As we learn to worship God alone, we become less vulnerable to the temptation to worship the false idols of success, popularity, materialism and all the others.
2. One hour on Sunday morning will not be enough. “Being church” is sharing in the overall life of a congregation made up of people who are struggling to live faithfully in a world shaped by greed and violence. If we wish to become friends with God, we must build sustaining friendships with other people who also wish to be friends with God.
3. It is not about your needs. That sounds harsh, I know, but a church is not a spiritual mall where we can purchase religious goods and services. The truths of religion often sound like paradox, and one of these truths is that it is only through obeying God by serving others that we ultimately find that our own needs – including needs that we did not know we had – have been met.

So if you are thinking about “getting back to church,” I offer you every encouragement. But do not go with the illusion that it will require no discipline or effort on your part. And please do not go expecting God to bless your life just as it is. If you do it right, God is going to mess up your life in interesting ways.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Italian Toaster

Before closing down my former blog, I joked that in the new one I might write about toasters. Susan read it and asked "Really?" So why not begin with an essay about my toaster...

This toaster is for me the essence of Italy because:
1. It is very stylish
2. It is quite expensive; and
3. It does not make toast particularly well.

I fell in love with Italian toasters during my first visit there because they are so decidedly non-American. They feature no "programmed settings" or bells and whistles. They are useless for things that should not exist anyway, like "toaster pastries." They do not even pop up: the user removes one of the baskets, inserts a piece of bread (any size or shape), drops the basket into the slot and turns the wheel of the mechanical timer. An Italian toaster is a simple, friendly, happy device.

When we returned to Italy, we rented a villa to share with our kids. To my great consternation, the villa had no toaster. So I went to Stephan's, the Italian discount chain, and purchased one for fifteen bucks. It was a lovely shade of green and it brought me great joy (my children, sad to say, appeared to be underwhelmed by its charms). I brought it home with me, of course.

Problem was, it was a 220 volt toaster. So I had to purchase a step-up/step-down transformer that cost far more than the toaster itself did. The toaster made several pieces of fine toast, then fried itself to death (anyone need a transformer?)

I was now out about sixty bucks and had no toaster. I searched the Internet and found the only Italian-style toaster that ran on 110 volts, one that was designed for sale in art museum gift shops and therefore obscenely priced. At least I got a discount on it.

Please note that it features two lights. The red one on the left indicates that the toaster is plugged in. This light is very important, because the instructions strictly warn that the toaster should never be left plugged in. Presumably this is because leaving the toaster plugged in might burn out the bulb that indicates that the toaster is plugged in.

The light on the right indicates that you are in the act of toasting, important knowledge that is reinforced by the very loud ticking of the mechanical timer. It ticks for a very long time, because it requires a very long time to make a piece of toast: Italians do not believe that anything should ever be done in haste (except, of course, driving).

Not everyone will share my love for overpriced, underperforming Italian toasters. But everyone should have at least one stylish, impractical thing that they love for no other reason than that it brings a smile to their face each time they use it. Just remember to unplug it when you are done.