With the exception of 1984, when I spent a year in Dubbo, Australia as an exchange student where there was no local congregation within 35 miles and I couldn’t drive, I have been to church every year for about 49 weeks out of every 52. Roughly speaking. This means I have been to at least 2058 Sunday services and 2058 Sunday School classes–not counting youth meetings, firesides, pioneer treks, Girls Camp, and mid-week Primary sessions. I am not alone in my consistency. People in my neighborhood go to church just about every Sunday too. Regular as a five minutes slow clock, we file in, children in tow, honey nut cheerios in bags, roasts in crock pots and rolls rising in ovens (for those who know how to make dough). Every week for years, we do this, until the children grab their own fruit snacks on the way out, and it's texting that keeps some of them occupied through the service.
Every week there’s a discussion of some truth that, if actually believed and applied, would change the nature and quality of our lives. (By this I mean the undiluted, unpolluted gospel of good news, not the philosophical human ramblings infrequently mingled with scripture that can fill a room with theological smoke screens so thick it’s hard to find your way out.) Looking around at the people I worship with, myself included, it’s not apparent that we actually believe most of the stuff we hear every week. Because, when we go home, nothing’s different, nothing’s changed.
I lay in bed last night thinking about what truths, if we actually applied them in their purity, would change the way we live, and teach, and interact with those around us. Here’s a few:
“Of you it is required to forgive all men.” Imagine if we could take the offense, either done to us or by us, and lay it down. Just leave it, and walk away–like Lot leaving Sodom. Instead, most of us look backwards, like his wife. We take the offense, carry it around with us like a favorite doll, wear it to shreds with our talismanic touchings. By so doing, the action takes a power and significance far beyond its natural reach, precisely because we allow it to continue in our lives. We go back. We scratch. We make it bleed again. The scar gets bigger. The divine mandate is to forgive. It is a requirement. Not an option. I don’t believe (but I am still thinking this one through) it means forgive when we are good and ready, once we had a few months or years to really soak up the injustice that has been done to us. It means now, quickly, before the offense and the accompanying resentment/disappointment/pride cankers our soul. Imagine the peace such a laying down would bring, and the space and energy that would open up to be used in other ways.
“Free to choose liberty and eternal life.” One of the hardest truths to accept is that our lives are what they are because we chose them to be that way. Perhaps not as children, but certainly by the time we have reached our adult years and are into the long haul of marrying, raising children and earning a living, we live the way we have chosen to live. This means, for example, that our marriages are what we choose them to be; we have acted/inacted/reacted our way into the current state of the relationship. Some refuse to acknowledge this hard truth; instead we blame our parents, the economy, our spouse, our children, our boss, the hard luck genes that seem to befall us, or the unfriendly world that does not recognize our brilliant talents which go financially unrewarded and unappreciated. Accepting this principle as true means accepting that we, ultimately, are responsible for the state of our own lives. Perhaps we would not have chosen a particular outcome if we could have seen that “that” was the outcome, but by choosing to live a particular way, to react in particular ways, to draw lines in particular places, the accumulation of those choices leads inexorably to “that” particular place. Lucky for us, this principle is constant. No matter what our previous choices, we can still choose liberty starting now.
“Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.” A few weeks ago, five members of our valley were sentenced to various terms in federal prison. Their crime: they manipulated a peaking real estate market by recruiting straw buyers to buy and flip high-end properties. A mortgage company with connections to lenders, a real estate agent with access to the MLS, an appraisal company, and a title company joined forces in a conspiracy that devastated an entire neighborhood, causing property values to spike, tax evaluations to double, homes to be left empty after the income stream dried up and mortgage payments couldn’t be made on homes that were mortgaged at twice their actual value. I do believe that those individuals had also been to about 2,058 worship services. So, what didn’t sink in about earning a living through one’s industry, about the need to actually invest energy and labor in a somewhat proportionate, legal manner in order to earn a living?
“Bring to pass much righteousness of their own free will and choice.” Can it really be that my Christian commitment is fulfilled by ten percent (gross or net, depending), three hours on Sunday, one lesson a month, and three visits. Surely not.
"The earth is full and to spare," meaning there is enough, there’s always enough. Enough time, enough talents, enough money, enough food, enough influence, enough compassion, enough resources to do what needs to be done. There is no need to hoard, to pinch, to hold back just in case.
Remember the scene when the Elisha looks out over a valley filled with opposing armies. He says, “Fear not, they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” Despite this truth, we color the world dark. I don’t know how many meetings I’ve sat through where the tenor of discussion has been the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That society is hanging by a thread, and if we’re not careful, we will be swept up in a wave of sin that will overcome the entire earth. Batten down the hatches; lock your children in the basement; and . . .
Yet, when I travel, I invariably meet goodness: a former engineer now cabbie from Turkey who drove me around San Diego, telling me about his children, his wife, his good life in this new country; a salesman on a flight from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town who witnessed to me about the prayer meeting he had attended with thousands of other South African men, and about his daily Bible study that guides his life; my high school history teacher who, twenty years after he taught me, continues on in the same classroom with the same enthusiasm and encouragement he gave me. Where I live, I am invariably surrounded by goodness and beauty: the plum trees left standing in the planting strips of a demolished Motel 6 who have burst into pink-blossomed beauty simply because it is spring (finally); the brilliant invention of the Internet that allows me, a working attorney and a mother, to draft and file documents from home and thus be available; the ladies on my indoor soccer team, all of whom are Hispanic except me (in married name only) and with whom I can hardly communicate except for the crucial “Passela, passela.” Why, when there is so much goodness, so much beauty to contemplate, do we choose to look down, to look back, to look out with fear? We forget a corollary truth that if applied would color our world differently, with light: Doubt not, fear not, but be believing.
And others: A soft answer turneth away wrath. Take my yoke upon you that your burdens may be light. Judge not that ye be not judged. God is love. I, the Lord, remember them no more. All are alike unto God.
In the face of such potentially life-altering truth, week after week, year after year, I continue on, sitting two rows from the front on the left side, waving to Kevin as I come in, singing the hymns, checking my name off on the rolls. Showing up is the easy part, the public display, and, in a way, the deceptive part. It can fool me into thinking I am living the Christian life.
Sitting and listening and making pithy comments doesn’t do the actual work of changing hearts, of choosing better, of doing and becoming. Standing up and bearing solemn public testimony of restored truth and an infinite Atonement only goes so far. If we’re still hoarding linty sins in our pockets along with every slight inflicted upon us by our parents and siblings, which apparently gives us permission to perpetuate patterns and traditions of living that haven’t worked in generations, we’ve missed the point. If we’re still looking out the window at what appears to be an obviously evil world, and, filled with fear, we send our children out to do daily battle with Satan’s demons, we’re moving with our eyes shut. If we’re still fighting, bickering, sideways sniping at our husbands or wives, and certainly our children or trying to find a shortcut to earning a living, wanting instant, easy results with little effort, we’re living in a theoretical vacuum. It might be better, and a whole lot more honest, if we just stayed home.
(Title from Rascal Flatts, Bless the Broken Road)