COMMENTARY: Wanting more, settling for less
Tom Ehrich
July 15, 2009

COMMENTARY: Wanting more, settling for less

COMMENTARY: Wanting more, settling for less
Tom Ehrich
July 15, 2009

NEW YORK (RNS) — I arrived at church in high spirits, heard a great sermon, but left feeling strangely deflated.

My 35-minute walk across Central Park on my way to church had left me tingling. So much beauty, so much life. But entering a dimly lighted sanctuary and joining scattered strangers waiting patiently for something to happen smothered the tingling.

Building on his experience of growing up black in segregated Mississippi, the preacher spoke powerfully about not letting other people tell you who you are. For me, his words were an “Aha!” for a decision I face.

I could tell the preacher was working hard to pump air into the room; the problem was I couldn’t tell if anyone else was responding.

I spoke to people seated near me and sensed some warmth, yet I wish the Sunday timetable allowed for more engagement. As it was, I arrived alone and eager, and left alone and deflated.

I have had so many church experiences like this that I put it quickly behind me and enjoyed a lovely walk home among happy people. But the next day, after reading Sunday’s Gospel about Jesus gathering his disciples and listening to “all that they had done and taught,” one word came to mind: “Enough!”

I spend my week living into my faith identity; I think we all do, whether or not we call it that. As father, husband, writer, consultant, dreamer and citizen, I act out my faith. Sometimes overtly in activities readily labeled “religious,” sometimes in the acts of just being.

When I gather with other Christians, I am willing to settle into audience mode for a short time, and I am willing to receive sacraments in which an institution that doesn’t know me tells me who I am. But I need more.

I need to tell who I am. I need to tell “all that I have done and taught.” I need someone to ask me, “What did you see of God in your writing this week? What difference did you make in the hours you poured out and in the lives you touched? What more did you want to do?”

I need what Jesus gave his disciples. I don’t need to read about delegates at a church convention who are having a great time, or angry Christians pummeling each other over issues that matter to only a few.

What I need is to enter a Christian gathering and have someone express a deep interest in who I am and what I do. I want to give that gift to others. I don’t need to be out the door in 65 minutes. Maybe others do. If we can’t fit it in on Sunday, can’t we do it another day?

But I know this: I am no longer willing to settle for less. Nor should any of us settle for less.

It isn’t enough to gather in muted assemblies in handsome buildings.

It isn’t enough to sit politely while earnest people who don’t know me tell me who I am and what I ought to care about.

Faith is an intensely personal experience. The individual decides whether to pray, whether to gather, whether to make moral decisions, and whether to turn one’s life over to God.

The church can help individuals make faithful decisions, but not by the easy work of solemn assemblies. We must sit with people, listen to their stories and honor their needs, one person at a time.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project,
www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is www.morningwalkmedia.com.)