Leaving Salem

“Why do you go to church?” someone asked me the other day. That’s a good question. I’ve mulled over an adequate answer more than once in my life. Yes, I have found incredible satisfaction in this thing we call “church.” But sometimes I have scratched my head in disbelief at the idiocy and foolishness of the same. Why do I spend an hour of my Sunday morning in church? I could sleep in. I could spend the time with my wife whom I don’t see enough of already. I could play with my kids, go to the beach, read the paper and drink coffee.  Why bother with church?

It’s not the sermon. My pastor is wonderful but God knows I can hear enough sermons these days on radio and television. It’s more than showing up and listening to music. I’ve got an I-pod for that. It’s more than inspiration. I can watch re-runs of Oprah and never have to leave home to be motivated. It’s even more than the sense of community and friendships we find at church. These are important, but I can hang out with a lot more lively crowd at my favorite pub. Maybe it is the service of others I am seeking? If so, I could simply maintain my membership with Kiwanis or the Rotary.

No, I think many of us go to church week after week because we have the sneaking suspicion that behind the music and the building, in spite of the sermons and our human dysfunction, God is up to something in this assorted group of people known as the church. In fact, going to church isn’t the point at all. Being the church – that is the more important thing. The church is that distinct place where God has broken through with his kingdom and rule. It is a people redeemed by Christ and empowered to spread that kingdom through out the world. The church is an opportunity to join God in his creative work of redemption.

I know that is a very idealistic outlook. When we look at church history “redemption” is not the first word that comes to mind. We have a two millennia history littered with moral failures, doctrinal squabbles, dissention and separation, crusades and inquisitions, bloodshed and war in the name of the “holy.” It would seem my idealism may be misplaced. But still, I believe the church must strive toward being the unique people of God. That is its calling – its identity – its place in the world.

I share with my deceased grandfather a fascination with our family history. Now, I haven’t been out rubbing grave stones or going library to library, but I love reading the collected records. The first of my family came to North America thirty years before the Revolution from Ireland, after first migrating from Scotland. Our Scott-Irish family has a long, well documented history and it is filled with incredible detail: There are the first McBrayers who are buried today at St. Michael’s Church in Dumfrieshire, Scotland; the farmers from County Down, Ireland; Samuel McBrayer, the first born American in the family who wasn’t actually born on American soil, but on the boat crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

I have ancestors who were captured as POWs in the Civil War, those who owned slaves, and those who liberated slaves. There are those who were farmers, professors, ministers – from every walk of life. There is much to be proud of, and much to be ashamed of, but it does not change the fact that I carry their name and their blood runs in my veins. And when I read the records or attend family gatherings – good and bad – I have the opportunity to learn and grow, to remember who I am and where I come from, and I’m challenged to think of how my life gives shape to the future of the family name.

So it is with the church. There is much to be proud of, much to be embarrassed over, much to applaud, and much to condemn. But all of it is an opportunity to learn; to live up to a higher calling; to learn to bear the name of God with reverence; and to realize that our generation casts a long shadow over the future of this family we call the church.

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