As a little kid I always thought that church was cool. I liked the choir at my hometown Episcopal church, and going up to get wafers and juice. But the Scripture reading, prayers and sermons always seemed really boring. As I got older, I began to not feel God in church. Then I was forced to go to confirmation classes once a week as a teenager, for an entire year. The weird priest made those classes excruciatingly boring and tedious -- so bad that the day after my confirmation, I announced I was an atheist, and I never went to church again. I unconfirmed myself immediately, and lost my Christianity in a big way. I just thought being a Christian was irrelevant.
Before my return to graduate school (to Union Theological Seminary in New York) a decade ago, I went 30-something years attending various eastern meditation groups. I'd do my yoga, chant mantras and ruminate on the nothingness of existence. The deeper I got, the closer to myself I became, the emptier I felt. Yet I loved God, although the God-concept didn't fit with my yogic practices. The Jesus Christ concept really didn't fit, and I spent decades thinking the "Jesus freaks" were real losers, or even brain-washed. I couldn't stand the proselytizing and guilt-tripping that Christianity seemed to offer. I told people, "I don't need a mediator between me and God."
Then, in seminary, taking classes on monasticism and ancient Christianity, I began to strongly feel the presence of God. I got inspired to visit monasteries and very ancient churches, first in the U.S., then researching and filming hermits in Egypt, then in Greece and Eastern Europe, and finally in Russia. I met hermits and monks, and they let me film their descriptions of the inner Christian life. They took me to their monastery churches. My studies in Christian mysticism and ancient texts grew deeper and deeper. I discovered a prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or Kyrie Eleison -- "Lord have mercy," or "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me." (Some add "a sinner" at the end.) I loved ancient church so much that I'm making a movie and writing a book about them, coming early next year (Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer is a not-for-profit feature film, the result of my studies and renewed love-affair with Jesus Christ and church).
Now, 10 years later, I've returned to Christianity and go to church as often as possible. Here are my top ten reasons why I think church is cool. Please keep in mind each one of these points is enough to write a book about, or many volumes, as they have been in play for thousands of years:
- The Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus Christ, God in human form, is a physical uniting with God inside. After all the prayers, chants and setting aside the self, I feel a tangible connection, a bond made between Heaven and Earth, when partaking of the Eucharist.
- The Holy Trinity. All I can say is that the three-in-one, separate-yet-whole-at-the-same-time reality explains my continual human feeling of being separate from God, yet connected. I had learned in yoga that "All-Is-One," and that extends to Christianity in the Trinity.
- God is human in Jesus Christ. This is also the Holy Trinity, incarnated, which means "in the flesh." The Holy Spirit, from God, becomes human in Christ. With the Eucharist or Communion, my humanness unites with God, too. Church gives me that. The experience is indescribably wonderful.
- Love. Christ's teachings center in love for God and humanity. Despite years of problems, even wars, the central teaching of Jesus Christ is about love. I feel that love in the community of the church. I see the love of God and humanity in the service programs my church provides: homeless shelters, food and assistance for those who are in need, counseling, education, and other projects.
- God is present in Creation. I see His infinite excellence everywhere the more I pray and attend church. Using the Jesus Prayer helps me connect to God in everything and everyone.
- Community. After years of solitary meditation on emptiness, I love the fellowship of church. It's so cool and fun to get together with others who also love God. I've made a lot of lasting friendships at church, people who truly care, and we help each other, and we have many great times.
- Singing hymns and chanting. Music feels like God in the form of sound waves.
- Religious symbols. The church icons, books, candles, incense, the Cross -- all are tangible reminders to look to God, and to connect with His presence. Others in church are like living icons reminding me of God in Christ.
- Prayers. To me, prayer is a portable connection to God. In prayer, I feel the presence of God. The Jesus Prayer particularly, used by monks and nuns, and in some churches, is especially powerful.
- Church suppers. I love to cook, and I love to eat -- community church meals are especially fantastic. There's nothing quite like a church potluck or picnic.
Please post a comment and tell us all about your positive experiences returning to church.
I write a weekly free e-newsletter about the Jesus Prayer, ancient churches and monastic practices, with chants, meditations, and stories that you may like. Sign up at www.mysteriesoftheJesusprayer.com/mailing.html
Follow Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Jesusmysteries