Monday, August 31, 2015

The Gift of Bewilderment, by The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

It is very unsettling, to say the least, when one finds oneself feeling quite alone while in the midst of a lot of people.

At times, it means being in a place where the customs and language are unfamiliar. It means feeling that one is different, out of sync, always suspecting that you are being looked at with sidelong glances, that there is more psychic than physical distance between you and the people around you. I experienced that when I spent four weeks in Cuernavaca, México studying Spanish. Wherever I was, I was usually the only Anglo; I am almost a foot taller than the average Mexican male, let alone the average Mexican female. To say the least, I stood out. My ability to speak Spanish was, as it still is, dreadful. I felt conspicuously out of sync. I never felt in any danger, but I also never felt at home.

People who are unfamiliar with liturgical worship — our kind of worship — can very much feel the same way that I did while in Mexico. Our worship space, our church building, so comfortable and comforting to us, so lovely and warm in our experience, can for a visitor be a strange land, an alien space. Our worship, familiar in its rhythms with its proclamation of God’s grace given to us, is for the newcomer often simply empty ritual with no meaning, no content whatsoever, a confusing babble to the person unfamiliar with us. And then we make them go through Episcopal calisthenics — sit, stand, kneel, stand again, sit...

A further stumbling-block to the new person in church is the fact they often bring with them a lot of pain as well as uncertainty. We Christians have a reputation for acting like we have arrived, that we have the answers. There is often a smugness about Christians that rubs crosswise against our claims to be humble. Maya Angelou mused once that
“I’m trying to be a Christian. I’m working at it, and I’m amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, Already? Wow!” [Quoted at The Working Preacher, August 2012.]

If a person is entering an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people doing unfamiliar things whom you suspect of smugness while dealing with hurts and rejections and failures, it is a wonder that many do not just turn at the door and run away.

What is interesting to me is that so many people arrived at St. Mary's Church just like that visitor I have just described, but discovered that we left our smugness somewhere near the door at some point and know ourselves to be just human beings struggling to be Christian. You may find this odd, but I want you to consider the possibility that it is that our experience of bewilderment and questioning and doubt that is one of the most important gifts we can give to someone who walks into this space.

It is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity that faith is not something we attain, it is a gift of God that in no way can be earned or deserved. Many people have told me that they arrived in a church community they know not why but in retrospect they understand that in some very important way they were led there, that God was leading them to the gift of faith. You may think that you have to make a choice, but the reality is that you have been chosen. Think about that the next time you see a stranger walking into this church building.

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote, "...Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee...” (The Confessions, Bk. I, Chap. I). May we see in each of us, and especially in the visitor in our midst, that gift of searching.


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