By Caroline Kramer
When I hear people saying that they “come to church to feel good,” it worries me. I know that I have my job cut out for me and that somehow they have missed the point. Church is not simply another social club where we go to meet our friends and enjoy ourselves. It is not as superficial as that. But delving beneath our own surface and that of our faith may cause us to question some deeply held assumptions about ourselves.
Somewhere along the line, many churches have developed a practical theology which can best be described as the “feel-good factor.” This is best summed up with a surplus of gratitude and a deficit of humble attitude. We spend a lot of time saying thank you for who we are and feeling pleased with ourselves and not much time on examining our own faults. We try not to consider the things that might not be obvious or comfortable, but which certainly interfere with our relationship with God.
While we posit ourselves as theoretically unworthy recipients of God’s greatness, we never really examine that unworthiness. We never ask where it might leave us in our relationship with those around us, especially those who are less well off, or less educated or less intelligent. The Episcopal Church tends to maintain in many places an influence which is intellectually and financially elite. We say the right words on a Sunday but secretly, in our hearts, thank God that we are not like other people. In an individualistic secular culture, it is the prevalent and accepted norm to be self-reliant and self-confident, but this is simply not our Christian calling.
Remember the Pharisee and the tax collector. The first is grateful for being who he is, and his gratitude extends to thanking God that he is not like the tax collector, a social and religious pariah. The tax collector offers God humility and repentance, and it is he whom Jesus commends. We are called not to self-righteous thanksgiving, but to self-examination and reconciliation.
There is certainly an argument to be made that modem-day America is exceedingly pharisaical. The bumper stickers say, “In God we Trust,” but if we truly trusted God we would trust him with our real faults as well as our pleasures. If our national stance was the one Jesus promotes, that of significant repentance, it is easy to see how our place in the world might be very different. If we came to other nations from a position of having resources and experience, but also of having serious flaws, our influence and credibility would be transformed. If we thought of ourselves as needing help, as well as fixing problems, we might actually find that someone else has some wisdom.
Perhaps part of our problem is that we have slipped down somewhere between the culture of a formal use of the sacrament of penance and the fear tactics of our protestant cousins. We are neither frequently called to consider our own shortcomings with a priest nor are we warned of the results of sin from the pulpit. The result? We simply forget that first and foremost in God’s eyes we are people who need to be reconciled to God. We are sheep who wander continually, and this makes us neither better, worse, or substantially different from the rest of the flock Jesus gives the greatest and the least a level playing field from which to approach God.
This is precisely what drove the Pharisees so crazy about Jesus. He refused to allow them their elevated position in society. More importantly, he refused to allow them to define what is and isn’t true for other people. He pulled truth back firmly into his own hands, and told us we may see truth only through him.
We tend to associate repentance with feelings of depression and self-denigration, but real repentance is not so much about making ourselves miserable; instead, it is about liberation. That liberation is not only from our wrongdoings and shortfalls, but also from the idea that we have some sort of status to maintain independent from our life in Christ. Keeping up with our neighbors becomes less important than our primary relationship – our relationship with God.
Liturgically, every Sunday we come before God with penitence. But is our liturgical outpouring a true reflection of a practical theology, which we live out in our lives, or is it in danger of becoming a form which is ridiculed by modern cultural influence? Do we categorize our economic sin or our excessive lifestyle as not as bad as what other people do? Do we question the basis on which we construct our lives and ask whether this is truly godly, or do we simply opt for a shopping list of off-the-cuff sins which are both comfortable and convenient?
We cannot see our liturgical confession as being about an easy repetition of our obvious faults. A thorough self-examination is about more than this, and when we start such examination, it will not be comfortable. We also need to realize that acknowledging who we are is part of acknowledging that we are people who rely solely on God’s grace in everything we do. This is a glorious truth in which we can rejoice. When we do this, we come to realize what the Pharisee could not see: In our need for forgiveness, we are exactly like other people. We are all sinners asking for God’s mercy. The words used as the priest dismisses the penitent after a formal confession should offer us much wisdom: “Pray for me, a sinner too.”
The Rev. Caroline Kramer is the rector of Christ Church, Pearisburg, Va., and Episcopal chaplain to Radford University. This essay was first published in the January 22, 2006 issue of The Living Church.