My uncle Joe was a pastor. I would stay with him and my aunt from time to time, where they lived in a tiny church parsonage. Today, churches have gotten out of the parsonage business for the most part, and that’s a good thing. No one wants to live with the ghosts of all those dead preachers in an old house that notoriously lacks maintenance anyway.
Uncle Joe’s parsonage fit that bill perfectly. It had low ceilings, matted, yellow, shag carpet as deep as a wheat field, and in the center of the living area – the only heat for the entire house – an upright gas heater with the little blue flames dancing behind a ceramic grate. The combination of these things (the low ceiling, shag carpet, ghosts of former pastors, and dry gas heat) caused the house to be so sufficiently charged with static, it could set off an electroscope.
I would walk around the house in my tube socks, sliding like I was wearing snowshoes, building up an electrical charge. Then I would wait for my sister or brother to walk by. Unknown to them, not only was I ready for discharge, but I had a paperclip from my uncle’s study that I had unwound so that it was a long thin, metal conductor.
As they unwittingly walked by, if I was stealthy enough, I could just touch the bottom of their earlobe with my homemade electrical probe. It was like reaching out and taking hold of the hem of Jesus’ garment. The power surged through with three inches of blue flame.
This made for especially interesting gatherings at dinner time. Uncle Joe always had us stand around the table and say grace. Most of the time we held hands or even held on to one another, grabbing arms and shoulders, hugging the whole time; I remember once he even shed a tear because there was “so much love in the room.”
It wasn’t love. It was electricity. My siblings and I were constantly touching one another to ground ourselves, afraid of being shocked by the other and even more afraid of picking up a spoon with the static still attached to our sleeve.
I wish church was more like that. No, I’m not talking about the mischievousness of children, though some of the more stoic congregations I have encountered could stand a good dose of mischievousness. Nor am I talking about yellow shag carpet. A few congregations need to be told that “Harvest Gold” went out of style more than three decades ago.
I’m talking about the spark; the sense and knowledge that there is a power in the room, a power that animates, moves, and stirs us. It is something far more than emotionalism, histrionics, or religious sentiment. It is a desire for the living Presence that will not allow us to sit still or remain where we are.
It is no wonder why some people won’t go to church; it is because they have already been to church, and have found it to be as lifeless and dead as a dodo. There is no passion in the pew or in the pulpit; the liturgies and songs are without spirit; and it often appears as if the leaders and participants don’t believe – not remotely – in what they are saying or doing. Worshippers are left to snooze at their leisure with hardly a spark to wake them.
Annie Dillard, that exquisite wordsmith, recognized the same. She said of those of us who casually enter our church sanctuaries each week, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews…For the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” To this, I say “Amen,” and let the awaking begin.