Here's the thing. You find yourself sitting next to, praying next to, in community with, some pretty odd people. And I don't mean merely eccentric. As a social worker in a small town -and just as a person who's lived here a long time- it's easy to know who's beating his wife, who's abusing their children, whose marriage is in trouble because of someone's infidelity.... I see those people at the grocery store, too, and I've learned how to make my peace with that. But sitting next to them in church is different. What does it mean to be in communion with -to form community with- those people?
Or less dramatically (maybe) what does it mean to be in communion with people whose theology is so fundamentally different from mine? There's a woman who goes to my church. As it happens, we were in graduate school together about a hundred years ago, so we've known of each other for a while. She was annoying to me then, but she's making me crazy now. In terms of her pieties (and I assume, therefore, her theology) she's very conservative. She genuflects before receiving communion. If she could get away with prostration, she'd probably do that. She goes out of her way to be sure she's in the line where the priest is distributing communion. Why? Is his communion bread holier? She wears a chapel veil. She won't kneel on the kneeler. She kneels on the floor -which means that the people next to her can't use the kneeler, either. I could rant for a while yet, but I'll pull back now. Thank your lucky stars.
Clearly, none of these pieties is a problem -although some of them are rude and a little Pharisee-like. The problem is that I have given her all my personal power. Every week I just beg her to control my emotional response. The social worker in me says that it's time for the tried and true intervention: get a bloody grip. Theologically, it is interesting, though. Dorothy Day used to quote Dostoevsky and say that love in action was "a harsh and dreadful thing." Is it possible that this woman is in my life -again- to allow me to practice that difficult love -to give me the opportunity to love someone, I.... you know.... don't? And that's what being in church again -for me, right now, is for? That would mean that I need this person, and as an explanation that would stink. However, it still might be true.
Go back for a minute to the person beating his wife. (I don't actually know of a particular person in this category right this minute, but it has happened several times in the past.) I have no need to claim that people should be perfect or holy to come to church. If that were true, they wouldn't let me in either. I do have a need that we try to live the message. I wish that there really were a way to practice "fraternal correction" in a safe and loving manner -both to give it and receive it. (But then would it be sorroral correction?) But for now, getting in the communion line next to this person teaches me... what? Certainly to acknowledge my own brokenness and to deal with the beam in my own eye. More than that? Something different entirely? I'm still musing.
And there's always the hope that I'm as annoying to these people as they are to me. No wait.... what I meant was... I hope that I offer them the opportunity to learn something important about community, too ;)