A few weeks ago I was involved in a conversation with several American Baptist colleagues who are all interested in worship. This group, in some ways, was a life-saver for me because studying liturgy on the PhD level as a Baptist tends to be a rather lonely existence. (I've often fielded the question from my Baptist sisters and brothers, who ask with no small amount of incredulity: Why are you studying liturgy? As if Baptists haven't been doing worship together for hundreds of years...)
Anyway, in this small group made up mostly of pastors, lay seminary graduates, and an academic or two, we have recently started reading and discussing Brian McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy. At our last gathering we had McLaren's first chapter before us in which he discusses the different 'Jesuses' he has encountered over the years. He breaks his observations down into various categories, mostly based on established faith traditions such as Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Liberation Theology, Liberal Protestant, etc. The idea is that different traditions tend to emphasize different aspects of Jesus and his ministry. So, for instance, he writes that Liberal Protestants have tended to see people as suffering because of an "ignorance of the teachings and ways of Christ" and they have tended to understand the Good News as "Jesus' example and teachings which inspire us to work compassionately for social justice." Whereas the Pentecostal understanding of the human condition is one in which folks are "held down by disease and poverty" and the Good News is that "Jesus teaches us how to receive miracles and healings from God through faith in God's promises."
I was excited to discuss this chapter with my group, especially to begin asking together: Do we account for differing understandings of Jesus (and the Sacred) in our worship services? How can we lift up these different interpretations in integrated (not schizophrenic) ways? Do our worship services tend to emphasize one interpretation of Jesus at the expense of others? How does the way we pray shape our reception of the Divine?
But our conversation seemed to fall off kilter pretty quickly. Two members of our group (one woman in her late sixties and another about ten years younger than that) began to talk about how important it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Ultimately, they both maintained, it comes down to you knowing who Jesus is--and to have the courage and temerity to hold onto that Jesus even if you find no support from your faith community. Otherwise, they remarked, you put yourself at the risk of being blown about by the wind, with no sure foundation or understanding. It was clear that for these women the faith community was more of a potential threat to faith in Christ than a support upon which one could rely.
Although I found myself resonating with these women to some degree, I also found their individualistic emphasis to be disturbing. Whereas I believe that we must have some depth of spiritual convictions within ourselves, I wonder to what degree these convictions can be held apart from a community. What would keep us honest? And how could we be challenged, especially away from beliefs that aren't simply comfortable for us? What would lead us to new places?
I wonder, though, how gender and age play into the perspectives of these women and myself. Were my colleagues speaking out of an experience of having been excluded too many times from the center of church life over the decades? Has the church been historically unsupportive, even downright threatening to the spirituality of women? (Would any one be surprised if the answer was yes?)
And I wonder, if I were truly honest with myself, if I find enough support from "the church" (whatever and wherever it is) to sustain my own spiritual life? How many times do I feel spiritually exhausted on a Sunday afternoon, confronted all too often over the years with vapid worship practices?
I have more actively been searching for a spiritual director over the past month or so. (Why is it so difficult to find some one?) I have been feeling spiritually parched for longer than I dare to admit to myself. My experience of God's presence feels more often like a dim recollection than a present reality. I used to breathe God. No more.
I am in grad school, studying worship, and going daily deeper into debt because somewhere along the way I was convinced that the worshipping faith community mattered, kept us alive somehow, made us whole. I was convinced that without one another, we would be no people. I was convinced that it had to be more than me and my Jesus in order to live life in God. I want to be convinced of these things again.
There has to be more.