Rachel Held Evans was a joy to listen to last Friday evening. She read several excerpts from her book, Searching For Sunday, and spoke specifically on what she likes to call “keeping the Church weird.”
She gives this message in response to the common question, “Why are millennials leaving the church?” She smartly recognizes that our generation (that’s right, I’m not that old!) has been advertised to all of our lives, and we recognize a bad pitch when we see one. So the lights, fog machines, hip bands and coffee bars are not going to keep us in church.
She tells us that the sacraments are a big part of what has brought her back to church. She calls them “weird” in the sense that they are not ordinary but have mystical colors to them. Baptism. Eucharist. Confirmation. Reconciliation. Anointing. Marriage. Holy Orders. These simple-seeming physical actions are pregnant with symbolism and meaning.
I can speak for my generation in saying that we are interested in truth, but it has to be truth that we have experienced. We are inundated with information from waking to sleeping and yet are only moved to action by what we experience. We probably know more than any generation before us, and yet that overwhelming knowledge is paralyzing instead of motivating. We can get information anywhere. Millennials and Google are connected at the hip (metaphorically, of course. Those hip holsters are old hat!)
So we are truly motivated not by what we are told, but what we experience. And yet, the evangelical church still structures its worship with the “telling” as central and most important. We get a lot more information about God, but we rarely draw any closer to God. The sacraments, as Rachel recognizes, are tangible ways to put God in our hands so that we can truly taste and see.
We do not need a pastor to interpret biblical texts for us, we need a pastor to show us the way to God. The sacraments provide avenues through which we can experience God. They have held meaning for so many and for so long it is unfathomable to abandon them, or to elevate something profane to supplant them.
If we wanted a concert, we would go see a rock show. If we wanted a lecture, we would enroll in a class. If we wanted to meet people, we would go to the bar or the coffee shop. These things aren’t bad in themselves, but the moment we forget that we are trying to point people to God and start pointing to ourselves then we have succumbed to idolatry. And we millennials get enough of that on the regular. We are looking for something real.
In Searching for Sunday, Rachel talks about the beautiful Ash Wednesday liturgy.
Once a year, on a Wednesday, we mix ashes with oil. We light candles and confess to one another and to God that we have sinned by what we have done and what we have left undone. We tell the truth. Then we smear the ashes on our foreheads and together acknowledge the single reality upon which every Catholic and Protestant, believer and atheist, scientist and mystic can agree: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” It’s the only thing we know for sure: we will die.
That is about as real as it gets. But naming that thing which we all face, together, is at once a moment of vulnerability and of communal strength. The world sells us a variety of ways to either forget or forestall facing our mortality. But the Church has at its core a fundamental message about it.
Yes, we will die. But death will not have the last word.
The sacraments draw their meaning from this fundamental truth and we experience that truth and many others when we participate in them. Take God out of our minds and put God in our hands, our feet, our mouths. Stop telling us and show us.