At church a few weeks ago my friend Amy stood at the pulpit. The sermon that day was kind of a free for all. Where I go to church, every first Sunday of the month is called “Fast Sunday.” Members are invited to fast and pray for 24 hours (or whatever they can do) and on Sunday, may come to the pulpit and speak; preferably about their faith and belief.
But in this type of format, you never know what you’re going to get.
In all honesty, sometimes I cringe or brace myself. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, I want to laugh. But of course, I don’t. If I did, I would recall standing at the pulpit myself, suddenly forgetting that great spiritual epiphany I had only moments before, wondering if my chicken-raising analogy makes any sense in a chapel? Most of the time though, you don’t want to laugh or cringe. You listen to humble testimonies from people who are just trying to understand God and their purpose in life.
Sometimes a man will get up wearing shorts and a hoodie. Other times it’s a professional in a suit and tie or a young mother with a baby clinging to her. Sometimes it’s a dad with baby spit-up on his shoulder or a shy teenager or an African with a deep, riveting accent, or a boy with Down Syndrome or a six-year-old who says they love their family. All are welcome to stand.
When Amy spoke, love enveloped the room. Her sincerity made us snap to attention and stop sneaking the goldfish crackers in tupperware containers. She said, “I’m so thankful for this church.” She said she had felt God’s love. She called us her family and then turned, and invited her brother to speak.
He shuffled forward, uncomfortable at the podium. His head was shaved. He had made an effort in a white untucked dress shirt. His speech was simple and without vain repetitions. He was emotional as he spoke about wanting to get away from religion as a teenager. He did “every bad thing” he could think of. He got tattoos to anger his mom. There was drugs, sex, violence, and thievery and prison. He had a child he couldn’t care for. But he came back because he needed us. And it was suddenly very apparent that we needed him too.
Basically, he taught: God is good and I’m pretty bad, and without him I can’t do a whole lot. People, I really need your help.
Basically he spoke for every one of us sitting in the pews. This was the year, he said, that he was going to start trying. I began to cry. I looked down at my nice wool skirt, at my black boots and clean shirt. I’d actually done my hair. I must have looked awfully put together that morning. But underneath it all, I’m saying the same thing: God is pretty good, and I’m pretty bad, and without him I can’t do a whole lot. Help me.
Churches aren’t for perfect people. They are hospitals for the sick and afflicted. Together, Ephesians says, “no more strangers or foreigners” but fellow citizens – brothers and sisters. Trying to become whole again.
The meeting ended an hour and ten minutes later, just as it always does. There was a prepared song and a prayer. We were then invited to go to Sunday school with a teacher prepared to teach. We sat in a chapel that required a building permit. Where contractors, with specific instructions from church officials, organized and laid carpet and put in pews, chairs, and a grand organ.
I have heard, on countless occasions, the evils of organized religion. But those are always the extreme examples. I don’t think we hear enough about the good.
It’s the organized that gets things done. Years ago we were asked to leave church and go fix broken piping at a member’s farm because if it didn’t happen right then, the family was going to lose everything. Men and women literally rolled up their sleeves and with tractors and shovels, went to work and began to dig. They saved the farm.
Last October, on a beautiful Saturday morning, a service project was organized for the youth of my church. We met at a military base, joined by over a hundred other youth from other churches. We loaded, sorted, and bagged more than 6000 presents for Toys for Tots. The Lieutenant in charge was jubilant, said he’d never seen it done so quickly. The gratitude on his face, and the imagined ones of the children who would open those presents made the hours spent (and football game missed), well worth it.
In November I stacked wood with youth, men, women, and missionaries for a widow. Someone organized that effort – and brought the donuts, too. My children go to scouts, youth groups, and church dances – organized by someone who’s a really good DJ. Wholesome? Heck yeah.
Last fall I joined the women of my church to move our dear 87-year-old Anna from her comfortable home in the woods, into a small apartment, close to the veteran’s nursing home so she could be closer to her husband, Harry, who sometimes doesn’t recognize his wife, who sometimes says things he was incapable of saying before Alzheimer’s took his brain hostage.
Anne fretted about how she would pack up a home full of memories, momentos, and heirlooms. Organized and efficient women packed up the house, cleaned, and drove everything over to her new apartment. We unpacked the boxes, set up the kitchen.
The organized, efficient (and strong!) men arrived with the heavy furniture. They set up Anna’s bed, hauled in the sofas, and when it was finally all done asked, “Can we do anything else for you?”
That’s how it goes, every single time. We aren’t building a religion here, we’re building people.
When my Aunt Margaret died, the congregation volunteered to make all the food and feed a hundred people they had never met. Even though Margaret rarely went to church. Then they quietly cleaned up.
It’s not just the Mormons doing all the serving and organizing.
I read in Time Magazine about Rick Warren and the MILLIONS of orphans he and his organized force has placed in loving homes instead of in orphanages.
Catholic charities raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, the Baptist Soup Kitchens showed up. Volunteers for Mormon Helping Hands swooped in, organized by local units to pick up nasty, moldy house parts. One man told my brother-in-law, “You know, you guys really know how to mobilize.”
And what happens when religious organizations combine strength? I dare you not to cry.
My mother encouraged me to attend my friends’ youth groups. I learned Baptist songs at “sparks” and listened to evangelical preachers preach at microphones on stage with guitars, drums, and over-sized jumbo screens. I took their sacrament, but didn’t like drinking out of the same cup as everyone else 🙂 My husband went to Jewish summer camp. My niece goes to an organized preschool run by a Christian religion not of her faith.
What makes these religions successful? Yes, it is the pull toward heaven, toward something bigger and greater than ourselves. But it’s also because it’s organized. One person can do a lot. But when a committed group comes together? Watch out.
I’m often jealous of people who get to travel to Guatemala and Africa on service missions, as if that effort is more worthy because it’s exotic and foreign. But last month I joined a local group called, “Wish List.” I receive almost-daily emails from a woman I’ve never met, who lives in another town, and is a member of a different religion. I don’t care which one. She’s the dispatcher. In a few short months, small children have snow boots, mothers have coats, fathers have dress shirts and pants, and two brothers can go to school with proper winter wear. It’s really cold here. And the teasing was even more unbearable than being cold. An organized force made that happen.
The feeling of dropping off a coat for a kindergartener who has no coat? Better than a Visa commercial.
There are moments where weak, imperfect, and ill people commit horrible acts in the name of God and organized religion. But we all know – it isn’t right or true.
A week ago, the same Amy who spoke spontaneously up at the pulpit just weeks earlier, died very unexpectedly. Once again, her people came. They brought food to the house, called and expressed sympathy. Cards were sent and delivered. The funeral was packed, organized for free, the bishop counseled and spoke for no pay. The women ran the kitchen as well as any restaurant. Men and women did the dishes, picked up the chairs, swept floors, and cried with Amy’s mother, stepfather, and family. And we continue to go on with the business of trying to understand, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, to mourn with those who mourn.
My story is not unusual. I’m just one of millions who practice a religion of my choosing. When I googled, “are religious people happier?” because gee, if we’re not, what’s the point? there were hundreds of articles that came up, including this Washington Post article by Sally Quinn. She says Yes. With stats. Why? Because it gives our life meaning. Because it connects us to other people socially. But if you are part of an organized religion, you probably already knew that.
And perhaps we crave organized religion because we want to feel like we can do and be, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
When I can’t be bothered? It reminds me of Scrooge, “It’s not my business,” he says when asked to contribute money to the poor. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.” Yeah, I get that.
Organized religion has made me sacrifice comforts and pushed me out of my comfort zone. It has asked for tithes and offerings. It’s never made me popular. It’s asked for my Sundays. It’s asked, on countless occasions for me to serve someone else when it’s terribly inconvenient. And I’ll never say it wasn’t worth it.
Humanity? It is our business. Best done when organized.
What’s worse than organized religion? I’d say it’s one that’s disorganized.
If you’ve had a bad experiences with organized religion, I’m sorry. We churchy people aren’t perfect. May I make a suggestion? Try again. You could always come with me 🙂 You’re at least guaranteed food. You’ll eat the best casseroles of your life. And Jello? fuggedaboutit.