St. Peter's Episcopal

preaching to mr. bergman

I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film when I was 21 years old, and I never got over it.

The film was Winter Light, one of the three films in Bergman’s so-called faith trilogy (with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence). Taken as a whole, the trilogy isn’t really about finding faith so much as losing it, seemingly mirroring the Swedish director’s own doubt—and ultimate disillusionment—with the faith he had known. And yet it is hard even now to remember a more spiritual experience than watching that film.

In Winter Light, Gunnar Bjornstrand plays a priest whose own soul had become hollow. When a fisherman, played by Max Von Sydow, comes to him on the brink of suicide, he comes looking for the priest to give him a reason not to kill himself. But the priest is all out of his own reasons, and can’t think of anything to say to dissuade his parishioner. So the man goes through with it. The lonely priest, who had isolated himself from the handful of people that loved him, continues to slowly unravel until the powerful final scene. It’s time for the Sunday morning worship service to begin, and there are only three people in his tiny church. The priest seems undone. It is the moment where you expect him to strip off his collar, and finally abandon the crime scene of his long-dead faith. But in the last moment of the film, he comes to the pulpit to begin the liturgy — and then the credits roll.

I think many people interpret the priest’s final action as an act of cowardice. You could say he does not have the strength to follow through on his convictions, or his lack thereof, and falls on the sword of convention instead. I am not certain that faith and cowardice are distinct to begin with, or even if they would need to be. I do think that when he retreats into the liturgy, he is doing the only thing he knows how to do. Perhaps faith is always a kind of resignation—faith is Simon Peter saying to Jesus, “Lord, where else would we go?” The 21-year old version of me found the final scene inspiring. I did not see what was so bad about retreating into the liturgy as your only way of not giving in to the night entirely, or what was so bad about preaching as “whistling in the dark,” in Frederick Buechner’s phrase—to keep your own spirits up as much as anyone else’s. I don’t know that faith is somehow faith no longer just because you return to it when you have no other place to go.

Bergman’s perspective on his protagonist’s choice is unclear in the film, but he later said it was not until filming Winter Light that he realized he had lost his faith. The son of a Lutheran minister, he was always ill at ease at the answers he was given as a child. But the big soul questions burned in him, and he could spin their fire into us from his reels. If his own questions didn’t precisely lead him back to God, at least in the ways he understood Him before, they can’t help but take us into the divine presence on sheer force of their fearless, painful honesty.

For all angst-ridden souls who dare to live the hard questions, whether we aim them toward God or into the great beyond, Bermgan was a kind of priest; his films, sacrament. They were both more visceral and more tactile than movies are supposed to be—as marked by taste and texture as a look or a style. You cannot just watch Bergman films, you have to feel them go down in you, like the bread and wine. And when you are done consuming, the images burn in you still, in a place beyond words—in a place past prophecy.

My visit to “Bergman Island”

It was in the middle of my own season of unraveling that I arrived on Fårö, the island Bergman would call home for the second half of his life, filming many of his greatest works there.

It was the last weekend that the small Swedish island, only inhabited by around 500 residents even in the summer, would still be dotted by people. The wind was turning cold. Soon, only a handful of farmers and a parish of livestock would be left here on Ingmar Bergman’s church. The harshness of the weather in the cold months demands that most inhabitants have a place on the mainland, so they migrate to Wisby or Stockholm.

Standing outside in my topcoat, I could feel the jutting rocks call to me like sirens, the way they called out to Bergman. I could feel everything about the landscape of that enchanted place pulsing with beauty and heartbreak simultaneously. Lost in the splendor of the windy, rocky shoreline, I could drink the cocktail of my own loneliness and aliveness all the way down. It is the sort of place that seems to have very old ghosts, but is also the right place for you even if you’ve already packed your own.

I walked the jagged coast in the evening until the sun sunk slowly back into the ocean, and again early in the mornings, only seen by the black eyes of the sheep and a few horses—without judgment. In the cold beauty of Fårö, my outer world could reflect the starkness of my inner one.

I was thrilled to be in the creative haunt of my film patron saint, hoping to bring him my questions, or at least interview his muses. There was a group of about 30 of us there to pay tribute for Bergman weekend, and I was the only American. I landed there feeling like a refugee, the day after arriving in Sweden and promptly getting my rental car stuck in a small alley in nearby Wisby (an incident which, hilariously, made the local paper!), and subsequently misplacing my cell phone. Seemingly unable to perform the most basic tasks in this beautiful country, I felt more like a ten-year old boy lost at sea that an adult man finding new adventure.

The day I arrived, the silver-haired lady with small spectacles, soft eyes, and a fashionable scarf—the film professor who runs the Bergman Center—greeted me warmly. But my heart sunk when she told me her friend saw the picture in the local paper of me stuck in the alley, and called her that morning: “Your American seems to be having great difficulty getting to you,” she repeated. The trip was already having the same effect that Bergman’s films have on me internally—stripping the soul completely of its ego pretensions, until you’re naked as a skeleton. I was able to laugh at all my mishaps so far.

Bergman could do a hell of a lot of things from behind the camera, but comedy was never really one of them. I had brought the comedy with my slapstick strand of errors, and they continued even after I got to the Center. The Center Director had asked a sweet retired art professor to translate for me, but he didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to do so. Thus I went to all the sessions on that first day unable to understand a word. Yet the sense of isolation, of being a stranger in a strange land, may have been the best way to experience the bleak terrain of Bergman’s films all over again. After walking the shore where Through a Glass Darkly was filmed during the day, we watched the film together that night in a small room. Predictably at this point, the remote wasn’t working properly, so they could not activate the english subtitles for me.

I had re-watched Through a Glass Darkly a few months before, and it strikes me as an awfully bleak-ass film even by Bergman canon standards. There is a lot going on in the film thematically, but the premise is basically this: A novelist, played by the same actor who starred in Winter Light, is with his son, daughter and son-in-law on holiday on an island. The daughter, recently released from an asylum, is there to recover from a mental breakdown. One evening, she accidentally discovers a manuscript where her father had been callously recording the details of her breakdown, and through it discovers that she is incurable. Along the way, she believes she has visions of God. The film climaxes when she sees what she believes to be God revealed as a spider, crawling out of a crack in the wall, coming to penetrate her. It is not exactly the feel-good hit of the year even in the best of times—but watching it without subtitles, unable to understand the words yet feeling my face pressed against the glass to behold these characters, was in its own category of desolation.

The next day my luck shifted when a kind, sixty-ish lady (who fortunately had once taught Swedish in an American university) offered to translate for me, just in time for our trip to Bergman’s former home. It seemed almost allegorical of my whole life then—to be the one lost in translation, dependent on the kindness of strangers to help me find a sense of place again. Drinking coffee on Bergman’s back porch, still feeling the chill underneath my skin, this gentle new friend spoke my language and warmed my spirit again.

She was there with her best friend since college, with whom she watched her first Bergman film when she was 20. On the bus, I asked her what her favorite Bergman film was. She said it was Persona. Her and her friend have apparently had a 40-year long debate over whether or not the two lead female characters in the film were intended to be two distinct people, or are in fact two sides of the same personality. I loved this detail especially, because it illuminated the side of Bergman’s filmmaking that had taught me so much about preaching: I had learned that bad sermons, like popcorn action movies, are forgotten the moment after you’ve watched them. But the great sermons echo the quality of Scripture itself, and won’t answer all of the questions for you. They linger long past their welcome, the way Bergman’s films do. Every once in a while, you may even hear one you could argue about with your friend for the next 40 years.

Mr. Bergman’s church

From Bergman’s house to the film locations themselves, the weekend felt like as much an immersion into the director himself than it did the island.

He was a famously tortured soul. On one hand, Bergman was beloved by the residents of his tiny island home, and the stories of his generosity are endless among the people on Fårö. But the brilliant director was notoriously difficult to get along with in his own closest relationships—with his five wives, scattered nine children and sometimes with close friends. By some accounts, his directorial genius seemed to almost plauge his personal life, with him too often trying to over “direct” the cast of friends and family.

Since Bergman was so often able to set my own soul on course through his work, I always wondered where he landed in his own experience of faith through his later years. Based on some of the fiction he wrote in the 90's, I assumed he had continued down the path he began earlier of abandoning his faith, at least in the form it was given to him, until his death in 2007.

But then we finally got to the little church—the only one on the island— where Bergman lies in the cemetery just outside. It was our last stop of the day. The lady giving us the tour was a retired math teacher and lifelong Fårö resident who had known Bergman well. As we walked through the church into the graveyard, she dazzled us with the story of his funeral—which like so much of his life, was scripted in meticulous detail. I was almost surprised that Bergman had his funeral in a church at all given his ambiguity about institutional religion. So when we finished the tour, I asked her about his relationship to the church.

Her answer surprised me. In the years after Bergman’s fifth and final wife died of stomach cancer, he went into deep depression. He stopped making films in 2003. He had a difficult hip sugery he never fully recovered from, affecting his mobility. Without his work and his companions, he felt increasingly alone. So for the last few years of his life, our guide said, he returned to the church of his childhood, attending service every Sunday. She told a beautiful story of a visiting children’s choir coming to do a concert one evening at the church, and of Bergman being moved to tears—giving them an enormous donation immediately following the performance.

Whatever judgments the younger Bergman may have once had on his priest in Winter Light, the priest’s journey became Bergman’s own. When he felt his own life fading, he went back to the only liturgy he knew. He returned to the Church and to the tradition of his father. Whether you call it an act of faith or cowardice is as open-ended as the conclusion of the film— and just as irrelevant, if faith and resignation are in fact indistinguishable.

I could not shake the image of the 89-year old director hobbling down the center aisle and taking his seat, nursing a lifetime’s worth of heartache. I imagined him sitting on the pew, just like anybody else, hoping something of the music or the sermon would fill something of the void in him, hoping for something that might alleviate his infinite loneliness. I pictured him there, watching the robed preacher climb the steps. And I wondered—did he sit on this pew just the way the same way I do at St. Peter’s Episcopal, hoping against the dark that the sermon might strike new life in him? Did he feel the anticipation start to shimmer in his stomach, hoping he could yet get lost in something outside himself again?

And then I wondered about the preacher. Did he speak tenderly into all the ache that enveloped him? What Bible stories did he tell to this master storyteller? I was seized by what struck me as a ridiculous but warm thought—that I would have loved to have preached to Mr. Bergman. It wasn’t that I was sanctimonious enough to think there was something in me that my favorite director would have needed. It was just that he had been a kind of companion to me in my own dark, lonely moments, and I would have loved to have been there for him in kind. I would have loved to massage the rough places on his heart the way he had mine. I would have loved to have spoken to him from my own heart, the way his films helped teach me to—proclaiming his belovedness to him. I would have loved to have placed the chalice in the old man’s frail hands.

Not knowing if I would ever come back to Fårö again, I lingered another moment alone in the graveyard after everyone else had boarded the bus. I imagined Mr. Bergman returning to his native wonder, the old man as bright-eyed as the boy in Fanny and Alexander—or like a boy in the children’s choir he loved so much that day. I imagined the tortured, beautiful soul melting completely at last into the sweet embrace of love Himself.

I smiled softly, thinking that the man who so studiously peered through the glass darkly of his camera had finally fallen straight into the wonder, and now sees face-to-face.

on going to (an episcopal) church

When I left the pastorate, I wasted no time finding another place to go to church.

There is no piety in that. I would not have had the time nor energy to think about “setting an example” to the people to whom I had taught the value of community. I would not have had the will to go out of a sense of duty or obligation—anything that ever rested on those pitiful pillars had already crumbled (as those twin terrors always should; they are far too weak to hold up a soul). I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord’s Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve. I was not over Renovatus—I don’t think I ever will be. I had no idea what sort of new life I might have, just that I had to somehow clear space for any kind of life at all. I needed a place where I could learn how tobe again.

I was not aspiring to go to an Episcopal church in particular. But in my own journey, my belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist had long become the center of my faith. I was aching to find a place where I could receive the body and blood of Jesus every single week. So that narrowed the field considerably. As a Pentecostal who has been largely shaped by women in pastoral work, I wanted to find a place where women would not be excluded from serving that holy meal. That narrowed the field even further. I was also craving a place in my town where ideally I could be a regular person for awhile, where most nobody would know who I was. Okay so I’m not sure if this is still even exactly a “field” now, maybe just enough grass or concrete to find a land where I’d be safe enough to land. But thanks be to God, I landed at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

I shuffled into the big red doors of St. Peter’s in uptown Charlotte a little awkwardly, a self-proclaimed hillbilly Pentecostal. The aesthetics of the place were foreign to me. Yet in a way, the simple artistry of the space made room for a sense of wonder, reverence and otherness that made me feel at home in a place I did not precisely know, but had longed for. I don’t remember how long it took for me not to cry all the way through every service. I could close my eyes when the choir was singing behind us, and actually felt like angels were singing over me. For all the ways some people may think of Episcopal churches in North America as rest homes for progressive white people, I can only tell you that St. Peter’s is as ethnically diverse church as I’ve been in. From the African-American male rector and white female associate rector, to the revolving door of beautiful faces on the pews around me, the church seems as integrated socio-economically and culturally as it does ethnically.

Ollie Rencher, our rector, and Joslyn Ogden Schaefer, our associate rector, trade off on preaching duties frequently. The sermons are shorter that I’m used to, but I love the focus, clarity and precision of them. Father Ollie speaks with a gentleness—a wise and weathered soulfulness—that breaks me open, effortlessly. Joslyn has something I would only know how to describe as the presence of God leaking through her eyes; a bright, sharp theological imagination; and an unforced poetry to her speech. The sermons are never overly adorned, not laden with academic or hyper-spiritual jargon—they are both authentic and artful.

I loved the warmth and compassion that seemed to radiate off the walls in there, and I loved being stone-cold anonymous. Off the grid from my Pentecostal and evangelical circles, I felt completely safe to come as I was, to receive, to just be. I loved that it never felt like the church was trying to sell me anything. I loved that really, nobody is fussed over at all—there is just is not that kind of VIP treatment for anybody. The vibe is, “this is the kind of worship we do here, and you are welcome to come and do this with us…or not.” The liturgy there does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience, but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God. I have commented to friends that I have never actually prayed this much in church before.

With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow—sometimes. And that is enough for now.

It’s never felt like a tragedy there to not be up the guy up front speaking—I’ve been preaching since I was 19 years old. That part is only gift. Ironically, as long-winded of a preacher as I am, I love investing in a way of being and doing church where preaching really isn’t all that central to begin with. In the Anglican tradition, preaching is never the main event. Preaching is only foreplay at most. All the weight of the liturgy lands on the Eucharist—preparing for it, receiving it, reflecting on it. I love being part of a worship experience where so much emphasis is placed on the broken body and shed blood of Christ. I love that I get to come and actually kneel at the altar, where someone will look me in the eye (when I hold my head up high enough for them to do so) and give the elements to me. I’ve cried around that altar week after week. When my heart is too overwhelmed, I slip out the side door after I receive the Eucharist, where a sweet older man and woman lay their hands on me and pray for me. After years of being in healing lines down at the front of the church waiting for evangelists to lay hands on me, I surely don’t feel any shame or self-consciousness about just sliding into that back room for prayer. I go as often as I need to, without reservation.

I don’t feel any less Pentecostal than I ever have. In fact, in ways I don’t have the space to develop here, I have had some of my most mystical church experiences in the holy silence of that place. I have not disowned or detached from anything in my past that has come before. I love the Pentecostal church of my grandparents. I want to “include and expand” in my experience of God and Church, not replace anything.

The things that oriented my pastoral concerns theologically when I pastored Renovatus are still very much in tact. I still feel that the liturgy and the shout by no means need to be segregated, or for that matter, the head and the heart. I’m still crazy about the experience I had at Renovatus, however clumsy I was as a facilitator, of exploring those intersections—putting all the combustible stuff in the lab out and seeing what could explode. When I’m in churches like Sanctuary Church in Tulsa with Ed Gungor, or Word of Life in St. Joseph, Missouri with Brian Zahnd, I feel something of the same thing we had at Renovatus. For that matter, I know that she is only going deeper in her own experience of that kind of integrated worship under the leadership of Jon Stone, a wise old soul with an enormous pastoral heart, who is taking her all the places she needed to go, but I could not have taken her.

But as much as I loved my life planting and growing a church, that is simply not my life anymore, though it will mark me forever. In the meantime, my own experience of liturgy has been pretty impoverished historically. And in response to my hunger, the deep-rooted, whole-hearted worship at St. Peter’s has been beyond anything I could have hoped for. I love not being the kid with his father’s keys to a big car you don’t yet know how to drive, trying to feel my way around the city. I love being in the hands of compassionate leaders and a rich tradition that make me feel safe. By the way…I get to go to my pastors and openly tell them all of my business without shame or fear of judgment, and let them speak into my life. Who knew?! All this love and beauty, and they give the body and blood of Jesus away for free every week to anybody who wants it. I want everybody in the world to experience it, and yet to bury it as a secret from the world at the same time.

In short, I love going to church—maybe more than ever, even when I feel like I limp in and out the big red doors. I feel like I come up for air every time I walk through them, no matter how I might feel in the hours in between. I feel like I can love and be loved as a human being, without my gifts or my life being commodified in anyway.

I don’t know what any of that means for my future. Getting out of bed takes a surprising amount of discipline and focus sometimes these days. Trying to decide what I will have for lunch today alone sounds intimidating in this moment, much less how to make long-term decisions about ecclesial life. I can tell you that performing the liturgy every week is shaping me, very slowly, in ways that are subtle but deeper than my comprehension, and that there is something about this Anglican way of life that orients me when I have no other orientation.

One week a few months ago, I felt strangely compelled to visit an Episcopal Church closer to my house instead of going to St. Peter’s. It was a nice little brick church with about 60 or 70 people adults in the sanctuary, but didn’t have any of the beauty of St. Peter’s—their extraordinary choir, the architecture that in and of itself tells your soul to bow when you walk in the door. I very much liked that I could go into this very different church and know that I would just as connected to the exact same liturgy that is shaping and growing me every week. But the experience, at least within the first few minutes, frankly felt much more pedestrian by comparison.

But you know, it was funny—just a few minutes into the service, two things happened that made me feel like I understood “why” I was there. One was in the hymn before the Scriptures would be read. There was a middle-aged interracial couple sitting in front of me, and while everyone was singing the hymn with a kind of austerity, the African American woman gently lifted her hands in worship. I am not quite sure even now why that simple gesture, in that particular hymn, in that particular environment, had the effect of breaking me open so much, and making me feel so much more at home. It was just a moment that slid in between my ribs. I was irritated to once again be unable to make it through a service without crying.

The rector got up to preach. I liked the sermon just fine, but found myself wishing I could be listening to Ollie or Joslyn instead. And then he said something toward the end of the short message that just smacked me in the face like some kind of wave. He did not claim this originated with him, and I’m not sure where it came from. But he told us that in other parts of Christian tradition, when people think of worship they think of God as the director, the choir or band as the actors, and the congregation as the audience. “In the Episcopal church,” he said, “we think of the priest as the director, the entire congregation as the actors, and God as the audience.”

The air was suddenly still. It felt like I was in a sci-fi movie where time freezes for a moment, and every movement in the room was on pause. The analogy started slowly clicking through all my gears on the inside as it went down. I marveled at just how much, on a soul level, this way of thinking about church made sense to me now—how much more resonant it is to understand Christian worship not as much as being for people as it for God. I was surprised that my heart could agree with such a statement so quickly and easily. It was evidence of how sneaky liturgy can be, and how much it had messed with my insides—while I was just going to St. Peter’s ostensibly just trying not to drown outright. Sometimes you don’t know you are on the boat until you wake up already out in the middle of the ocean.

reflecting on the broad story so far

To be clear, I don’t feel like I’m Columbus discovering America over here. I always think it must be funny to friends in the Catholic and Anglican traditions when people like me say are saying things like, “Hey guys — whenever you practice the sacraments, God shows up EVERY SINGLE time! Can you believe it?!” This is just telling about finding a church that means a lot to me. I am just a guy who quite imperfectly loves Jesus and thus loves the Church, and does not know how to not talk about either. I’m an ecclesial mutt with no particular point to prove, and no particular claim to authority or credibility.

But given the context of my own story so far, I can’t help but reflect on my own experience, and how it fits into my broader understanding of Church. For all the ways I’ve lost my naivety and childlikeness, and often misplaced hope altogether, I am just as hopeful about the Church in all her diverse expressions as I’ve ever been. I don’t know how much longer Charlotte will be my city, but as long as I am here I will be happy to cheer on the kingdom wherever it may be found. I love to go to Elevation Church to amen Steven Furtick, one of my best friends. I love to go to my adopted big brother John P. Kee’s church, New Life Fellowship Center, and get down with surely the best gospel music you could find in America on any given Sunday. I see, hear and feel God in all of those places and in all of those people. And yet I am thankful for my particular place in this very particular moment of my life.

People still talk to me a lot about their own experience of trying to find their place within the Church, and it is always a conversation I am interested in. I have always thought that when you can, it’s ideal to find a way to integrate things that you need from other parts of Christian tradition into your own—while staying where you are. But there are other times where you need to go a little bit more directly to a stream that is different from your own in order to get the nourishment you need. This is such a time for me right now, though I still feel very much invested in the life-long project of trying to learn to live at the intersections of the traditions that are shaping me in some way.

Truth be told, I think it is good to stand within most any sort of Christian tradition and be nourished by it. I think it’s not so good to stand outside of any and all forms of Christian tradition, and make yourself a judge over all them. I know there are a lot of people these days coming from evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds who, like me, are looking to connect their experience with the rootedness and ground-beneath-your-feetness of more ancient liturgy. In and of itself, I think that’s a good thing. I am sometimes concerned though about how we can be attracted to the ascetics of liturgical worship, but not allow ourselves to invest in the content and form of it. Liturgy then becomes little more than an exotic fashion statement, when we aren’t really willing to wear the clothes.

Those of us from evangelical traditions often end up going more or less outside of it when it starts to feel too constricting, without exactly going inside another tradition either. We can stubbornly refuse to reflect seriously enough on the Church in her diverse forms to have to contextualize ourselves—which is a tradition in and of itself, but only an American one. We can spend our days being outraged by fundamentalists for being fundamentalists, and feeling very good about ourselves for not being like the people we don’t like. You know—like fundamentalists. Sometimes I think it is far too easy to get used to being the smart ass kids at the back of the class complaining about all the Church is not, without ever taking the initiative to come into a tradition and humbly learn from it. And yet, we may be equally critical then if we don’t find our experience of church to be entertaining enough. “I want the aesthetics of liturgy, without the tedium of all that actual liturgy.” It’s a way of being the guy who doesn’t really want to read the great book, but wants to be able to say they read the great book. But I digress.

Whatever respective traditions we do find ourselves in and however we get there, I become only more convinced that the practice of coming to the Table together in the Eucharist is the only hope we have for any sort of unity, cohesion, and renewal in the Church as a whole. The problem in Protestantism in general, historically but much more profoundly now, is that have we far too much emphasis on getting the beliefs right. No wonder we now have over 40,000 denominations—the search for perfect doctrine is endless, and thus so are the schisms. It is one schism after another, in search of perfect belief. The thing I love about Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal tradition (when it is rightly understood), is that they are based on shared practices rather than shared beliefs. At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer in general, and the shared experience of the Eucharist in particular, is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.

I believe this is the great hope for the unity of the Church: that though we may hold almost nothing else in common we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, know that somehow Christ is revealed to us around the table, and have burning hearts afterward to prove it. The experience of God in and through this meal gives us the resources to transcend the temporal boundaries that might otherwise divide us.

I know that across church traditions, we can all fall too easily along existing cultural fault lines—skewing too much toward garden variety conservative or liberal politics. But perhaps there is actually far less difference between competing conservative and progressive ideologies within the Church than we once thought. The divisions are not just about how we interpret Scripture and tradition. They may be less about what we believe, than what we have failed to believe about the Eucharist. When we don’t believe that God is revealed to us in the bread and wine, something else will be more determinative for our understanding of church—music, politics, ideology, culture, popular current conversations about sexuality and gender. Yet being the Church can never be about being on the “right” side of these lines, but rather the abolition of these lines through the blood of Jesus. Without an over-arching belief that the love of God expressed around Christ’s table is bigger than any and all such things, we damn ourselves to a temporal tribal identity based on belief, rather than a transformational identity located in the cross of Christ.

I suspect that sounds the worst to those who find such a sentiment to be broad and oversimplified. But I would not know how to nuance it more. I want to be part of a church where the practice of coming to the table is more determinative than anything else. I find St. Peter’s to be blissfully free of bland cultural rhetoric of “tolerance”—but I’m sure it would be too inclusive for many of my evangelical friends. I am okay with that. And if you think I favor a more inclusive church experience because I fear I would not otherwise be myself included—BOOM. YOU GOT ME. That’s absolutely true. Being in great need of grace does in fact radically alter your experience of church.

I can tell you this: I have never heard less talk about passing ideological battles and culture wars in all of my life than I have at St. Peter’s, in one direction or the other. There are no secret litmus tests or cultural shibboleths. There is less of the rhetorical tumult I find in popular culture because there is too much talk of the gospel; and less time for debate because there is too much time devoted to feasting at Christ’s table. There is just the prayer book and the table spread for whosoever will.

Between those Eucharistic meals, some of these days are better than others, and some days worse. But it always does my heart good to remember that I am never more than a week away from no longer bearing the sole responsibility for my own sins. In the corporate confession, my brothers and sisters will share mine, and I will share theirs, and we will hand them over to Christ together—then hear words of absolution. I do not always know how to keep my heart open and my desires known. I feel like a secret even unto myself as often as not. But on Sunday when I walk through the red doors, the clouds will part again when Father Ollie begins:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”