Over a decade ago I experienced what I can only call a kind of second conversion. I was a “just me and Jesus” kind of Christian, tired of less spiritually passionate pew-sitters bogging down my my recklessly individualized spiritual walk with God. A wise teacher broke through my personalized approach to Christianity when he said, “You only love Jesus as much as you love the Church.” This simple statement left me broken-hearted and curious about how I would begin to find this mystical Church Christ loves. Just a few weeks later I read “An Expedition to the Pole” from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk. She was wrestling with the same intense spiritual individualization that held me captive and her words reformed my thinking about the Church.
The fact is, Church is an odd crew of people. Dillard describes a hodgepodge group of musicians playing music at a folk mass and she feels embarrassed and skeptical. As her gaze continues around the room, she can’t help but be puzzled that she has wound up belonging to these people. Rather than feeling deeply connected, she would like to distance herself from these odd strangers.
“Nobody said things are going to be easy,” she reassures herself as she begins to reconcile her desire to run away with with the hunger for some holy and sublime expereince that brought her to worship this day. I am also familiar with all of her uneasy feelings about “the others” we are eternally joined with in the Body of Christ. However, I’ve come to believe that the stranger the crew the better the church.
If you walk in to a worship service and you can logically connect all the people in the room as likely friends, then there is nothing all that miraculous about the Church. It is no surprise that people with similar backgrounds and from the same neighborhoods would naturally become friends. The world is full of similar clubs and cliques. But if you see the oddest collection of people imaginable who are all committed to love each other like Jesus loves us—then, clearly, something miraculous and holy is happening.
The community of other Christians isn’t simply a warm, fuzzy blessing in our life with Christ. It is the only way to have a life in Christ. Life apart from the Church is deadly dangerous, as Dillard sees it. She weaves the sharp observations of her local church with a detailed recounting of multiple failed arctic expeditions to find the North Pole.
There is no such things a solitary polar explorer. There is no such thing as a ship that set out to make the journey outfitted in the same way they would sail to a tropical island and succeed. Dillard regales her readers with tales of gruesome failures by overly confident arctic explorers who believed that they knew best about traversing a brutal, uncharted part of our world. Well meaning but doomed travelers insisted on wearing their customary uniforms, carrying elaborate silver tea services, and carting large libraries into the arctic glaciers, items that were all found frozen with them by the next ambitious explorer.
You cannot do things your own way and survive the journey. We come to church with long lists of personal preferences that keep us from identifying with the gathered church when we worship. Written prayers feel inauthentic. Singing in public is embarrassing. Sharing a cup with others seems unhygienic. Offering the peace to someone I hardly know is the most un-peaceful moment in the whole service. The fact remains, you simply can’t be the Church and go it alone. No one can survive the journey.
Dillard ends with a vision of Christians, arctic explorers, circus performers, and penguins clinging to glaciers while ice floes threaten to divide and keep us from our common journey to the North Pole. It’s a surreal vision but the peril is real. She writes,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.
The illusion that we can find our own way into relationship with God outside of the Church will send us down doomed paths, like a stubborn arctic explorer with a frozen compass. Our mission is so important and the journey is so dangerous that we dare not leave the company of the Church or the wisdom of the saints. This season, link arms for dear life and hold tight to the Church.