We were greeted with many smiles and hugs. I recognized nearly everyone there. Knew everyone by name, as though I had never left. There only about 10 or 15 new faces. Everyone commented on how big and handsome the boys have gotten. They asked me how I was. Was I happy at my new church? Was it good to be back? I instantly felt the warmth that I loved so much about the place. It was like seeing family after a long trip away.
I was a bit surprised at how few people were in attendance. I didn't count, but it looked like there were only about 45 people in the pews. This on a day that was a significant milestone in the life of the church. Bell Street has lost a lot of it's members over the last year or so. I knew this, but was still, somehow, stunned.
I sat in a pew with my friends and started to notice how different the interior of the space is from my new church. Bell Street Chapel was built over a hundred years ago by a wealthy man named James Eddy. He lived on the adjoining property, and envisioned this as a place for the Providence Religious Society, a humanist organization, to hold meetings. The architecture, therefore, is decidedly humanist. The main room is on the second floor. People walk up a huge set of stairs to the second floor, where they are elevated above the world outside. There is no focal point in the chancel, except the wooden pulpit itself. Hense, the preacher becomes the sole object of attention. By contrast, most Christian churches I have been in have the altar in the center. Or a cross or image of Christ. The priest or preacher is relegated off to the side, which reinforces that they are NOT the main focal point.
Steve's sermon was a sweet farewell. It seemed to follow a pattern of prayer, beginning with what he was thankful for, followed by an apology for what he did or did not do (confession!) and winding down with his gentle suggestions for the future. (Intercessions?)
But somewhere in the middle of the service, I began to realize that I felt disconnected from what was going on. It wasn't that I was uninterested... it's just that it seemed so aimless for me without a clear focus on God. I became more deeply aware of the fact that, by design, the object of worship in a UU church is the church itself. The community. The covenants. The relationships. A few years ago, Steve, in a moment of bravery, described the UU church as one in which people milled around at the base of the mountain, congratulating themselves that they could choose any path to the top and all would be valid. But sometimes they never actually started up the mountain.
People drift from UUism. The average UU is only a member for 7 years. After those 7 years are up, they either move on to other churches or religious organizations or just stop attending altogether. The vast majority of the folks I have talked to who have left Bell Street in the last year have simply stopped going anywhere.
I have my suspicions about why this is so.
Going to church every week requires more than just will power. In the beginning, you go because you like it, or you want to be with people, you feel at home, or you get something out of it. But there inevitably comes a point when you get tired or cranky. Things don't seem to be 'working' for you. You might be burned out or tired of the same old sermons. A relationship goes sour. Same old same old. So, one Sunday, you lie in bed and read the paper and drink coffee, instead.
It happens in Christian churches, too, I imagine. But in a Christian church, the focus of the experience is not just feeling good or hearing a great sermon or seeing friends or doing good works. It is about worshiping God. God who deserves, in all times and in all places, to be worshiped. It is that drive to worship that pulls me out of bed at the unholy hour of 7:30 every Sunday morning. If left to my will power alone, I too, would be drinking coffee and reading the latest home and garden section.
It is laying aside our own desires so we can focus on what is pleasing to God. Letting go, just for that morning, of the focus on ourselves and what we would normally want.
My whole experience of God while at Bell Street was one of a deep longing. Finding God in a UU church is a little like playing cat and mouse. He is there, of course. But you don't get to talk about him or drop to your knees to worship, or sing his name or taste him. You sneak him in, now and then, but he is always just beyond your reach. I grew to long for him so powerfully. I would sit in the sanctuary during a service and lose track of what was going on, gazing out the window at the trees and the sky, catching glimpses of my beloved in the clouds and leaves and birds. Longing. Painfully longing.
The first time I went to a Christian church after leaving Bell Street, I just sat and wept through the whole service. Here am I, Lord. Finally. Finally I can bow down and worship you, my Beloved.
If that longing for worship and connection to God isn't present, what keeps people coming? What draws people out of bed and into the complicated world of group relationships?
I don't know.
I am tremendously grateful for having discovered my longing for God at Bell Street. But I realized yesterday that I will never truly feel at home there, again.
I pray for all the souls who long for you and have not yet found you.
1. Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, mount of Thy redeeming love.
2. Here I raise my Ebenezer; here by Thy great help I've come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.
3. O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.