I’ve heard this response more than once when someone learns that I am a pastor.
I hear you my friend. I’m sympathetic. I luuuuhhhhhvvvve the mountains. My soul sings when I am in the high country of Colorado or the Northwest.
And….. me or you hiking in the mountains is NOT church.
It is sacred, inspiring, uplifting, renewing, awe-inspiring, amazing, and a treasured, even spiritual, experience. Call it any of those things, but don’t call it church.
Because church only happens in community.
Author, spiritual guide, and self-confessed introvert Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World relates the story of the ancient solitary monk who went on a seventy week fast so that the meaning of a particular Scripture would be revealed to him. Even when down to skin and bones, God did not reveal it so this ever so earnest monk finally relented and got up to go see another monk to ask. As soon as the fasting monk got outside his own door, an angel appeared to him to say, “Now that you have humbled yourself enough to go to your brother, God sent me to reveal the meaning of the passage.”
There’s something about the encounter with and journeying with others that is necessary, even if you are an introvert or like your solitude a lot. There is still a connection necessary, even if invisible. That connection deepens our experience, adds to and even disciplines our experience, and gives access to healing and wisdom that we cannot access alone. There’s something about being witnessed by and witnessing for others amidst grief and joy. To be seen crying. To allow another to be with you in your brokenness and imperfection and wounding. Or to dance with another in your unabashed joy and celebration.
There’s something about the actual messy practice of loving another as yourself, the other who is right in front of you frustrating or confusing or not going along with you. There’s something about being with each other along the journey and through the difficult passages that is itself the spiritual practice. Rabbi Martin Buber called it the “I and Thou”, the true meeting of two subjects, each a sovereign mystery to be encountered yet somehow connected by the shared participation in living. This ‘being with’ is the spiritual practice of church.
In Zulu you might say ubuntu which means “I am because we are.”
Our Band Together theme of Lent recognizes the deep necessity of community in our human way. Jesus called disciples together, women and men, to form a community of followers. We all evolved together in packs, clans, tribes. We can certainly do it badly. Yet, we must do it in order to realize God’s Dream of a Beloved Community, in order to solve the challenges we face and experience the deepest realities of Grace. Simply put by a Tuesday UCUCC Bible study participant, “I get so much more out of this doing it together.”
As Brown Taylor says, “At the very least, most of us need someone to tell our stories to. At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed. …As often as I think I am seeking other people to get something for myself, the deeper truth is that I am hoping they will draw me out of myself.”
So I do hope to see you out on the mountain trail. And I hope to see you, and let you see me, at church.