Recently I left my faith community in the Air Force Chapel to return to my California home and former role as a civilian hospital chaplain. In that role, I once again face the challenge of searching for a new place of worship.
This summer, my family and I began visiting Elk Grove churches in earnest hope of finding a new church home. We are church shopping. Church shopping is not too different from Disney Park Hopping. They call it, (raising my fingers in that annoying quote sign) “church hopping.”
Church hoppers are shoppers who are looking for that perfect church. They want a youth group for Johnny, a children’s program for Sissy, and a nursery with closed -circuit television monitors and daddy pagers. Add to the shopping list a preacher who isn’t too boring and a music program that rocks you in pews with first-class legroom. Throw in Big Gulp communion cups, and you have the perfect church.
My problem is that when I go church hopping, I’m the insider who knows too much. I become like the meat packer who won’t eat bologna, the doctor who is an ex-smoker or the chef who becomes a food critic. Knowing too much can be brutal.
My critical eye can detect when the pastor is reading his sermon — especially one he did not write. I don’t need a revelation to know when the music minister and the pastor are not in harmony. And I don’t have to be clairvoyant to know the church is having a problem when ushers are smoking cigarettes in the front of the church.
My wife will tell you my critical attitude will prevent me from ever being totally happy in my new church. I’m an ecclesiastical quarterback who has been benched and, from my pew bench, I wonder things like, “Where did this guy get his degree?” Or, “Does she really think she can pull off a 45-minute sermon, or is she going to quit before the guy in front of me cracks his sleeping skull on the pew?”
I daydream about writing a better sermon or using the pastor’s manuscript to preach it better. I recall the good old days when I sometimes preached three sermons a week. They were never boring, because I wrote them fresh every Saturday night.
My wife remembers those good old days much differently. She claims she would frequently find me sleeping at my desk and ask, “How do you expect the congregation to stay awake if you fall asleep writing your own sermon?” That was always a stumper.
Still, I’m human and I’ll probably church shop ’til I drop. Like you, I will look for a place where my teen-ager might actually sing and where I will want to invite my neighbor. I will keep looking for a church where I won’t be cut off at the guest parking spaces by a boatload of Sunday school teachers late to class.
Some folks don’t see the point in searching. They tell me I can have a spiritual life without a spiritual community, but I tell them there is about as much chance of maintaining a spiritual glow outside a faith community as a spark has of maintaining its glow sitting on the fireplace hearth.
Several years ago, I prayed over a patient who had just undergone surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. With his survival questionable, I strained to listen as he whispered his request: “Teach me to pray.”
That simple request combined the most rewarding element of my job with the most tragic element. While it was eternally rewarding to be asked to teach this man to pray, it was far more tragic that he needed to make this intimate request of a stranger.
The most tragic part of being a hospital chaplain is not the human suffering I see daily. It is watching people struggle through the suffering without a connection to a faith community. That is why I am determined to remain a part of a faith community.
Some folks try to discourage my search by telling me there are too many hypocrites in the church. I tell them the church remains the only place in the world where people gather to acknowledge weekly that they are not perfect. In fact, they celebrate that they are far less than perfect. I like to explain it this way: If you visit a community service club, the members will naturally brag about being part of the best club in the world. In the church, however, you should find a group of people worshiping a man who was described as having been tempted in all the same areas in which we were tempted, but without sin.
You should find a group of people who take comfort in the fact that we are all sinners and we assemble together because no one is perfect. Indeed, I hope to find a church that will be something like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where I can introduce myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Norris. I’m fairly messed up, but I’m still going to need a place to worship.”