Myodicy, Issue 23, June 2005

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Recycling Our Sins

by Theodore Plantinga

I like attending church services, but it was not always so. I am in church every Sunday, generally twice, and sometimes three times. Many years ago, like many another young person who feels he is being dragooned, I used to wonder what point there was in attending church. After all, nothing really happens in church. Or so I thought.

Back in those days I was not aware that the Dutch Reformed theologian Arnold A. Van Ruler (1908-70) was also thinking through these issues. And he came up with a more constructive result, which he shared with the world in the form of an interesting book entitled Waarom zou ik naar de kerk gaan? (published by Callenbach of Nijkerk in 1970). I came upon this book quite a number of years ago and read parts of it: I was surprised by its specificity and practical, down-to-earth tone. I suspect it had a subtle impact on my thinking, its ideas hovering in the back of my mind, even though I had never taken the trouble to read the book through carefully.

It's one of those book of which one says: "It ought to be translated." Well, it's been done, but this fine book (whose Dutch title means simply: Why Should I Go to Church?) was never published. Harry der Nederlanden, an old friend of mine and fellow translator, undertook to put the book into English, but he seems never to have found a publisher for the English-language edition.

Harry is now the editor of a Christian periodical called Christian Courier, which has a website of its own, and so he has made the book available to the English-speaking world by putting it on the website. He also published it in installments in his periodical. I downloaded the whole thing from his website, put it into my own computer, and read it at my leisure. I hereby recommend it to you: it can be found at the following web address:

Inspired by Van Ruler, I now want to underscore his message and explain in my own words why going to church is by no means a waste of time. Something does happen in church, and we do come out changed. Or perhaps I should qualify my claim and assert only that there is a definite potential for change to take place.

Most of us have some theological notion of what should be happening in church. We're supposed to emerge cleansed. The ritual we call church has something to do with confessing our sins and dealing with them, doing something about them. But if church is just a stream of words that flits lightly over our consciousness as they enter one ear and quickly exit the other, it may well seem a somewhat unreal exercise. And so various theologians -- especially in certain church traditions -- emphasize that liturgical action is needed during a worship service. It seems that talking, whether in the form of praying aloud or sermonizing, is not enough. Not only should something be taking place in the unseen depths of the human heart, there should be something visible going on as well. There is a public, symbolic dimension to what happens in a worship service.

This point is not well understood by Christians in general. In other sectors of their lives, Christians are accustomed to symbolic actions and have some sense of what those actions mean and accomplish, but little of that understanding seems to transfer to church. And so one needs to be concrete and detailed when explaining what goes on in church and making the sorts of points of which Van Ruler would approve.

To begin with, a church service gives us an opportunity to come to the Lord. In some churches, it is thought essential to include an "altar call" in the service, usually at the conclusion of a lively sermon. In other words, church is supposed to be like a Billy Graham evangelistic rally.

There are some Christians who don't think much of Billy Graham and altar calls, but I have never been among them. When I see one of his rallies on television, I always find myself needing to stay till the end of the sermon, when the invitation is given to come forward. As I watch the people moving forward, I am deeply moved. Tears may well come to my eyes.

Beautiful words from a hymn may form in my mind, even before the choir begins to sing: "Come to the Savior now; he gently calleth thee." Is there a more beautiful sight than repentant sinners going forward to the Lord?

At this point a hardened skeptic might shake his head and insist that the people at the Billy Graham rally don't go to the Lord but only move ahead to some point in the auditorium or stadium or arena, where they have some sort of conversation or interchange with a human being who undertakes to pray for them and/or with them. And as long as we think in strictly human and material terms, this point must be granted.

But there are other possibilities: sometimes a step forward is a spiritual move. If so, is it not conceivable that we could come to the Lord by going forward in church and doing something meaningful and profound when we get to the front? This is precisely what happens in my church every Sunday morning: God's people come forward and receive the Lord in a concrete liturgical action called taking communion or the eucharist. Or they may choose to simply receive a blessing from the priest. I find it a moving sight, and it often makes me think of a Billy Graham rally. It's a form of altar call.

Sometimes I inform people who have little knowledge of Anglicanism that we have an altar call in the service every Sunday morning, and then I proceed to tell them about the people coming forward for communion. Some of the people with whom I talk this way may respond by pointing out that communion is also celebrated in their church. They may then go on to explain that the folks stay seated where they are: an elder brings a little cup of wine to them and a bit of bread. Now, I am quite familiar with these customs; moreover, it happens that I regularly celebrate communion myself in such a fashion when I accompany my wife to services at her Presbyterian church. But in such a celebration of the Lord's supper, it does not feel like an altar call, and I do not have the sense of a concrete liturgical action in the form of people coming forward to the Lord.

Of course Calvinists like to insist -- contra the Arminians -- that the Lord goes out and finds us ("... no, I was found of Thee" -- Finlandia), and on a theological level I agree. But when we endeavor to live in response to the grace of God, we also need to go out regularly in search of him. This I seek to do personally via the Anglican version of the altar call Sunday by Sunday.

The liturgical actions we perform need to be consonant with what we sing. The standard routine in the Billy Graham rally is that the people assembled -- or as many as care to sing -- give voice to the stirring words "Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me ...." This moving hymn leads to the words "... and that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come." Upon hearing such words, one can hardly remain seated.

In some other worship services, especially those that are not carefully planned, a degree of incongruence between what we are singing and what we are doing is sometimes accepted as a matter of course. Occasionally we sense how jarring or uncomfortable the incongruence is, and spontaneously we do something about it. An example from my own churchgoing life bears mention here.

The episode in question happened quite a number of years ago, when I was a member of a Christian Reformed church. In that particular church, the congregation always responded to the sermon, without further announcement, by singing a hymn, whose number was printed in the order of service. It also happened that the congregation remained seated for the hymn after the sermon.

On a certain Sunday I had looked ahead in the order of service to see what we would be singing after the sermon and noted that it was the hymn "Stand up, stand up for Jesus." Remembering that it was our custom to remain seated for the hymn after the sermon, I noted an incongruity looming before us. As I listened to the sermon and anticipated what was about to happen, the oddness of the incongruity grew on me, and I started to think that we who go to church are ultimately silly people to put up with this sort of thing. I must have been in something of a cynical frame of mind that day, for I was already contemplating writing a letter to the elders of the church in which I would suggest that on any future occasion when that particular hymn was used after the sermon, we should amend the words to: "Remain seated, remain seated for Jesus."

But an elder of the church, who happened to be a Zacchaeus type (short of stature), had spotted the incongruity as well, and was minded to do something much more constructive about it than the plan that was forming in my mind. He might have assumed that the minister would deal with the incongruity by asking the congregation to stand, but as it happens, no such suggestion came forth from the pulpit. Therefore, when we were about to launch into the hymn, the diminutive elder rose to his feet as though propelled by a rocket. Of course his action was noted by the folks seated near him, who automatically began to rise as well. The cue was picked up by others in the church, and soon were all on our feet, singing: "Stand up, stand up for Jesus." The crisis was averted, and I did not get to write my letter to the elders.

I sometimes use this story in my lectures to make a point about aesthetic incongruity in application to worship. More recently, I have added a second story -- a seemingly trivial event that happened in my own life. It's a small story that has led me to think further about the nature of worship and liturgical action and more generally about what happens in church. It's the kind of story that would give Van Ruler pleasure.

I had set out with my wife for the 8:30 Eucharist at St. James Anglican Church in Dundas, which is the service I attend almost every Sunday. It was a wintry February morning. I parked the car on a street near the church, and as I got out, I noted that the left front tire of the car had just escaped rolling over a beer bottle on the road. The tire would probably have crushed the bottle and left the road with broken glass lying here and there. It occurred to me that the next driver to use this parking space might not be as lucky as I had been, and that the bottle on the road represented an accident waiting to happen. And so I bent over, picked up the bottle, took a look around, saw a bit of a snowbank in the yard next to the road, and lobbed the bottle over to the snowbank. I then patted myself on the back mentally for being a good citizen and averting a potential problem.

I didn't even get halfway to the church before my conscience began to disturb me. I take pride in not being a person who litters: it's just not like me to take a piece of trash and simply throw it somewhere. And so it occurred to me that once I had taken note of the beer bottle and the problem it represented, I had inherited a larger responsibility for its proper disposition. What to do? I retraced my steps, bent over the snowbank, and picked up the beer bottle.

At this point it is important for the reader to understand that I do not drink and that I look upon the containers in which alcohol is sold in somewhat the same fashion that I look upon cigarette butts. And so, in picking up the discarded beer bottle, I might well have had the sort of look on my face that can occasionally be seen when I pick up cigarette butts lying along the road that runs by my house. But there was no one on hand with a camera to capture my expression.

I must have been a curious sight heading toward the church. With my left hand I held my wife's right hand, while dangling from my reluctant fingers of my right hand was the beer bottle. I had first checked whether it contained any beer, and indeed it did. I poured it out.

I now accepted that it was my responsibility to bring the discarded bottle into the church and dispose of it properly. I was sure that we had a recycling bin somewhere in the church. All I had to do was find it and deposit the beer bottle there.

As I covered the distance from the car to the church, I reflected that there was something odd about my entering the church with a beer bottle in my hand. Now, it happens that my church is by no means "dry" -- I wish it were. The truth is that liquor is served on the premises occasionally, and recently we have even taken steps to obtain a regular liquor license. Some of the people in the church know that I am a strict abstainer when it comes to booze: I tell them I'm a "Methodist." (The reader should bear in mind that the Methodists broke away from the Anglicans, finding them a bit lax.) I suspect that some of the people at St. James think I go too far in this regard. Therefore the sight of me entering the church with a beer bottle in my hand might have occasioned a chuckle on their part and some embarrassment on mine. Nevertheless, I knew my duty and was determined to do it.

I entered the church and looked around in the narthex. The first person upon whom my eyes rested was our rector (and chief priest), Rev. Jim Sandilands, who was seated on a chair near the door through which I had entered. Jim was not wearing his usual vestments. The service was scheduled to begin within a matter of minutes, and so the fact that Jim was not vested meant that he was not presiding or preaching or serving communion: it happens that two of our other priests took care of those duties that day. Jim would be attending the service in his civvies, so to speak. In other words, he was not on duty. Yet he seems to have spotted a liturgical opportunity.

Jim saw the beer bottle in my hand and probably noted a degree of embarrassment in my demeanor as I made my small explanation. He said simply: "Give it to me." I did so, and he carried it away in the direction of the kitchen, seeming less embarrassed to be holding a beer bottle in his hand than I had been. I should add that Jim is known to partake of alcoholic spirits on occasion and does not tell people that he is a "Methodist." He is also known to kid me every now and then about my various abstentions, one of which is meat.

Nothing further happened that day in terms of the beer bottle: the liturgical action was over. Indeed, I did not talk to Jim again that morning. The service proceeded, but the little episode stuck with me, and I immediately recognized in it something of the feeling and symbolism that accompany a successful liturgical act. But in this case, the liturgical act was not something carefully planned and prescribed as part of an order of service; rather, it was something that had happened spontaneously.

Again my mind went to Van Ruler and his fine explanations of what goes on in church. And so I thought to myself: here we have an example of what church is for. You bring your sins into the church in order to get rid of them. What do you do, concretely speaking, with your sins? You hand them to the priest. And what does the priest then do? Here things become a bit mysterious. In my little story, the priest walks off with the beer bottle and takes it who knows where.

At this point, theological options confront us. Does God cast our sins into the depths of the sea (see Micah 7:19)? Is that where the beer bottle should wind up? I suspect the beer bottle was deposited in a recycling bin and thus was put to good use. Or perhaps Jim or someone else in the church decided to return the beer bottle to a beer store and get some credit for it -- a higher form of recycling. And so, it might just be that what happens in church is that our sins get recycled.

As I pondered this explanation of the little liturgical drama that happened before church on that wintry morning, I wondered about its theological soundness. It might be a good Van Ruler point to insist that the church is an institution that recycles people and puts them to good use again after they may appear to themselves or to others to have become useless. But I was not being recycled -- only the beer bottle in my hand.

Some Christians like to use the expression: "Hate the sin but love the sinner." I have always been uneasy with this formula, because, like the existentialists, I do not have an easy time separating a person from his deeds. On some deep level, I am my deeds. And so I'm inclined to think that if church is the place where God recycles us, he also needs to recycle our sins. The church is definitely not an institution in which, as in a car wash, we are mechanically cleansed and then sent out to serve our function. If cleansing does take place, it is partial. When I walk out of the church on Sunday morning, I am still a sinner. Much sanctification remains to be done in my case -- perhaps also in yours.

And so a theology in which our sins get recycled has some appeal for me. Part of what we would emphasize in such a theology is that our sinful inclinations and abilities are transformed by God and that he invites us to put them to good use. This is not to say that our talents are somehow neutral; all I am pointing out is that they are so often misdirected. The very abilities that we use in the service of evil have the capacity to be used in the service of good. And so I like the notion of sin and the sinner together being recycled and turned to some good purpose through what happens in church.

Of course my little liturgical story is flawed in an important respect. It may already have occurred to readers that since I'm a strict non-drinking person, the sin of alcohol abuse is not my own sin. The very thing that made it seem so strange for me to walk into church with a beer bottle in my hand undermines the story. It would have been a better story, I suppose, if I had been a drinker, or even better, if I had been a person with a drinking problem. But then walking into a church with a beer bottle in my hand might seem natural, and the story would have taken on an entirely different tone.

I grant the point that my little story is not ideal: still, the events did take place in just the way I indicated. On the other hand, there is a sense in which we bring not just our own sins to church but the sins of our community and nation -- indeed, of humankind. In this regard, it is not altogether inappropriate for us to come to church in order that sins in which humankind as a whole is mired may be dealt with and confessed. And it is entirely appropriate that we should wish that those sins could somehow be recycled and turned to good.

So why should I -- or you -- go to church? To get rid of the things we don't need, the things that are holding us back in our life of Christian consecration. It may be appropriate to arrange a bonfire in church once in a while so that we can burn up all sorts of things that are causing us problems. (But I'm not sure that the local fire authorities would countenance such a thing). In a lot of other cases, the things that are causing us problems or leading us astray have the capacity to be recycled or reused. And so I see some definite liturgical possibilities here. [END]

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