In San Francisco, where I live, Sunday mornings are some of the most popular social hours in the week. Brunch lines spill down the sidewalk, and those of us with children—for whom neither a two-hour wait nor bottomless mimosas are prudent—find ourselves fielding birthday-party invitations, sports events, performances, and sleepovers. And it makes a certain sense: we live in a hard-working, productivity-worshiping, packed-calendar city. Sundays are the last open prairie of otherwise unscheduled time, ripe for colonization. Unless, that is, you go to church.
According to the Barna Group, ours is the most unchurched city in the country. As of 2017, around 60 percent of San Francisco Bay Area residents had not attended a church service—apart from a wedding or a funeral—in the past year. There are plenty of good reasons for this: we are also one of the most politically left-leaning regions in the United States at a point in history when self-identified evangelical Christians continue to staunchly support a president who many people in the area find politically, morally, and personally repugnant. As I write this, we’re awash in new revelations about the depth of the moral rot in the leadership of the Roman Catholic communion. If you don’t already have a healthy connection to a Christian congregation, and your understanding of what Christians do when they gather is gleaned from news coverage of the White House’s dinner to honour evangelical leaders or the evil that was visited on children in Pennsylvania, why on earth would you jump in now?
There are other reasons so few people in the San Francisco Bay Area go to church, though; reasons that are more deeply woven into the social fabric of life in twenty-first-century Northern California. People have historically come to the West Coast, and to San Francisco in particular, in search of wealth, opportunity, or at least a new start: it’s a city of newcomers where people shrug off—or try to—old places, traditions, prejudices like the winter coats they don’t need any longer. This is also an area that lives by a creed my husband (a Midwestern transplant who spends most of the hours in his day immersed in the tech-startup world) noticed almost right away: “You should live better.” You can’t live here long without breathing it in the air, drinking it in the water. So much of our cultural, civic, business, and social life in this city is organized around optimizing everything, all the time—a habit of mind that, over time, forms people in ways that make traditional churchgoing, much less a deep embrace of any distinctly Christian vision of the good for human life, increasingly hard to understand.
“You should live better” starts out innocuously enough. Drink better coffee. Eat better food (whatever that means to you: paleo, vegan, locally sourced, humanely grown, ad infinitum). Optimize your exercise and mindfulness routines. Craft a healthy work-life balance. Don’t waste any time on chores that technology can solve for you, but do occasionally detox from your devices. Get your systems in place. Establish your flow. There is a Life Design Lab at Stanford—which, to be fair, my husband and other people I highly respect admire—dedicated to “applying the innovation principles of Design Thinking to the problems of life, education, and vocation.” Building a better life, it turns out, is a common project for software developers and public school teachers, artists and lawyers and baristas and architects.
Innovation, design, intentionality: these are the core values many of our (white, privileged) neighbours embrace. When married with humility, contemplation, and kindness, they can help us craft lives of creativity and balance. But in a culture that’s rich in money and opportunity while short on time, introspection or connection with the transcendent, the mantra “you should live better” becomes shorthand for “you have the duty and the right to optimize your limited time on this planet in whatever way you see fit.” I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that many of us go about cultivating, curating, designing, and improving our lives as a kind of grand exercise in existential justification. We want to earn the right to the space we take up on this planet, or at least to squeeze the very best out of our patch of it.
And that is a creed that, at best, can muffle a healthy discomfort with privilege, burnishing self-indulgence with the patina of moral obligation. At its worst, it is a confession that teaches us to look at life in the world as a potentially perfectible experience and grants us permission to simply drop anything or any person that is unproductive, ineffective, or simply a waste of time.
And so, in this city, at this point in history, as much a product of our moment as anyone else, we choose to do something countercultural. We say no to Sunday-morning birthday parties and athletic games, and we pick our children up early from Saturday-night sleepovers. We drink our own coffee at home and have yet to hit any of the really great brunch spots in town. Instead, we go to a lot of trouble to engage in an activity that is patently unproductive, often uncomfortable in its demands on us, sometimes boring, and occasionally anxiety-producing: we go to church.
Occasionally when we’re hustling everyone through breakfast and out the door to church, the first lines of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning” hum in my mind:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
I don’t own a peignoir and I have a tortoiseshell cat, not a cockatoo, but there are plenty of weeks when late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, or (more likely) the San Francisco Chronicle under a blanket in my window seat looking out at the fog, sounds much more alluring than the quotidian reality of actual church: the coffee that is always a little too dark; the creepy black-and-white photos of Russian men who frown from the hallways in the cultural center where we meet; the children who race up and down the stairs without watching for older people, no matter how often an adult yells “walk!”; the pervasive damp chill of an old, inefficient building; the weekly argument with my eight-year-old about whether he gets a whole doughnut (no); the mouse droppings in the toddler room and the perpetual shortage of children’s ministry volunteers. Dissipate the holy hush of ancient sacrifice and all that it asks of me, please.
Still we go. On the right morning, I can squint with one eye and find the coffee and the weird tsarist eagle hanging over the Communion table and even the inexplicable disco ball charming. Sometimes. On other days, especially when I listen to what that table is demanding I hear, I sense the deep strangeness of the entire ecclesial project and my own ambivalence. “So come to this table,” says one of our pastors each week, “you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for awhile; you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who have failed. Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.” We are issued an invitation, not an imperative. Someone is waiting, regardless of our response. We—our selves, our lives, our visions, our projects—are abruptly de-centered. We find ourselves guests in someone else’s home, on someone else’s schedule, oddly powerless yet loved and honoured, strangers and sojourners but welcome nonetheless.
Church—especially the worship that takes place around the eucharistic table—does not fit into any optimization scheme. It does not help us to “live better” or design our lives with intention. For that reason, the promises and demands of worship can be inscrutable or puzzling to many people in our culture; they are also, paradoxically, practices that can interrupt, arrest, and redirect us in surprising and life-giving ways.
If we peel away the religious language that has encrusted it and just look straight, the Lord’s Table—whether there is a creepy double-headed eagle above it or not—is weird. There is a body on it, right in the middle of everything. There is a cup of blood. Honestly, I’m not really sure how any of us ever get up the nerve to invite someone to church. And before we’re too quick to pull on the rubber gloves and sanitize the whole thing with agricultural metaphors (grain from many fields, grapes from many vines) and theological language about Real Presence, let’s look at that corpse for a minute. Because that Body is what makes church unlike any other club, organization, or association we might join. He is the reason we come, and the ground of our hope and confidence for inviting others in as well.
When we choose to set aside time for worship as part of a larger congregation, we are choosing to come and sit in the presence of that Body. In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well as many Protestant congregations, that Body is broken and passed around weekly. In other Protestant churches, Communion is celebrated less often but the Body is nonetheless present; after all, it has been eaten and metabolized by the other bodies around us. Although I am fed by Christ’s body at his table, I am not at the centre of this story. When I take Christ’s body into my mouth, I become a part of him. There is a larger story of which I am a part. And as hard and broken as the story of Christ’s body across history is—as broken as it was on Golgotha, really—it is also the only story that makes sense of all the things in our human lives, both as individuals and as a collective catastrophe, that no amount of optimization or self-improvement can ever whittle into acceptability.
When we go to church and see a Body in the middle of the room, we are confronted with the one thing we hold in absolute common with every other human being on this planet: this is our end too. We are dead men and women walking. (Again, I wonder: how do any of us ever think it’s a safe or sane idea to invite a friend to church?) The question this silent Body poses is whether this verdict is good or bad news.
Common sense, experience, and our central nervous system all shout, “No!” It’s because death is such bad news—so final, so ugly, so indecent and undignified—that we want to live better now. We may turn away from the Body, laid bare and embarrassing, right out there for everyone to look at. Or we may approach it as yet another self-improvement project: maybe religious practice can help me live a better, more whole and balanced life. But at the end of the day, we will die, and honestly? The fact remains that the human experience is, in that sense, one giant failure that is wholly resistant to innovation, design, creativity, and optimization as we know it.
Again, the Body and blood that lie waiting on the table ask: Is this final accounting such bad news? The reason that we set it out each week, and eat it, and remember Jesus’s story over and over again is because it’s only a bad thing to be dead if it’s also up to you to get yourself out of it. When we go to church, we are reminded that we actually don’t have a say in the matter, and that’s the very best news of all. My friends outside of church may be having a beautiful hike up on Mt. Tamalpais, and NOPA may serve mimosas and the best brunch burger in town, but I come back to the stale air of the Russian Center auditorium every week to hear, remember, and believe that “God raised the Lord, and will also raise us by his power.”
In his commentary on the parable of the two brothers in Luke 15, Robert Farrar Capon imagines the father’s loving rebuke to the elder son who refuses to join the party celebrating his brother’s return: “Look. We’re all dead here and we’re having a terrific time.” If I ever started a church—and if I could get permission—I’d paint those words right above the Communion table and put them on the worship folder and website. And those are the words I want to say to anyone who wonders how I can possibly go to church in San Francisco in 2018, and why on earth they would ever want to join me.
There’s an old Saturday Night Live sketch with Bob Newhart as an erstwhile therapist who offers his patient just two words to deal with her fear of being buried alive in a box: “Stop it!” That’s exactly how I imagine the father in Luke’s parable talking to his elder son, and sometimes I imagine the silent Body on the altar interrupting me, my plans and projects, and my miserable attempts to justify my existence in the same way: “Just stop it!” Weekly, the eucharistic celebration asks us to turn our gaze up and out of ourselves and to look around. If you have a dark enough sense of humour, you might even laugh: a whole collection of dead people, all powerless to arrest even our own petty failures and cruelties let alone our last breaths, are nonetheless invited to a party and made alive—not just eschatologically, but right now. The meal itself is the evidence. Look around some Sunday morning, and add up just how many people you might invite over to dinner if the guest list were up to you. (If the answer is a majority of the people in the room, you might want to find a another church.) A new gathering of people, a community that wasn’t there before, is in any healthy church forming right before our eyes.
On any given Sunday in our own church, a motley collection of finance executives, recalcitrant teenagers, transgender men and women, stay-at-home moms, social workers, lawyers, venture capitalists, married couples of all orientations and varied levels of contentment, software developers, quilters, musicians, and teachers all shuffle forward to hear the words, “the body of Christ, given for you.” Unproductive people, ineffective people, unfaithful spouses, and lapsed addicts, all of us. With each taste, we remember that the life we have now was never ours to start with. The life we are given isn’t ours to control. Someone else has broken in—has yelled, “Stop it! Stop trying to get up already: you’re dead!”—and then resuscitated us out of nothing more than love. Sometimes we’re actually surprised enough to look up and see the people around us; on a really good day, we might actually recognize that we’re made of the same renewed dust and we’re all here by the same invitation.
This meal, and the practices that surround it—confession, which is no more than an honest recognition of the fact that we are ultimately powerless; passing the peace, in which we admit out loud to everyone that we’re all in this together and want to help one another along; benediction, or the good words from our host that we try to remember until we’re back in his house again—is so unlike any other social, cultural, familial, or professional gathering we’ve ever been to because it’s the only event that asks nothing of us but to lie still with open hands. It has also, tragically, been abused and debased by Christians who speak and act in ways that make many people understandably wary or totally unwilling to come to the party. Those Christians, though, are just as dead as everyone else. It may not be fun. It may not be convenient, or entirely explicable, but it’s the only table on this planet with room for every single person who shows up. We’re all dead here, and we’re having a terrific time.