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The Wandering Christian

The Wandering Christian

    This past week I have received four angry Emails about two different church reviews.  Finally.  I thought no one cared... or, more likely, no one was reading what I was writing. 

    The reviews which sparked the protests were of churches in the denomination in which I served as a pastor for forty-nine years. Knowledge of that tenure only aggravated the complaints, suggesting that I should join up, stop criticizing, and add my voice and energy to the cause.  I was accused of subverting the true purpose of worship.  As one critic of the critic concluded with an invitation to return, "Come to worship first and worry about halos some other time."

     The implicit assumption is that the mind shouldn't mess around with the heart.  That there are some human endeavors beyond critique. 

    The preamble to the reviews on the website quotes the first and greatest commandment by Jesus' reckoning, that we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds.  And I doubt this list is in descending order. 

    Among the tenets bequeathed Christendom by the Reformation is one credited to John Calvin, appropriate to cite in this context.  He insisted that the congregant sitting (or in Calvin's day, standing) in the nave had not just the right but the duty to "divide the Word" preached from the pulpit.  He wasn't advocating picking and choosing according to personal tastes.  He was encouraging Christians to measure what they heard from the preacher according to their own understanding of the Word.  In other words, be a faithful critic.

    I have sought to honor both Jesus and John in my reviews.

    I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by the consternation the reviews have provoked.  My friend and colleague in pastoral ministry, a Roman Catholic priest, observed in the aftermath of his struggle to persuade a recalcitrant congregation to renovate the church's sanctuary, that when you propose changes to the altar you aren't dealing just with wood and marble but with a sacred place of the heart.  When I made a similar proposal for the church building in Valley Stream, I met a wave of indignation from the congregation, including a member of my own family. 

    Going into someone else's sacred place and making critical judgments is, therefore, seen as the equivalent of the "abomination of desolation," the sacrilege committed by Antiochus Epiphanes in the Temple of Jerusalem (you can look it up). 

    The pain inflicted, however, has incited in my respondents no turning of the other cheek, but an impugning of my motives.  That I am a smart aleck.  That I am a warmonger.  That I'm trying to get back at the Methodist church for cashiering me.  Or, like my Ridgefield friend reported, a classmate's measure of me, that "Bob is arrogant."  Maybe. 

    I have inventoried my reasons for maintaining a website and writing, among several compositions posted, reviews of Sunday worship services on the Eastern seaboard.  First and foremost, Critical Christian is what I do.  It is my primary creative endeavor after nearly fifty years of composing sermons and prayers and writing church newsletter articles week in and out.  When the bishop made it clear the Methodist Church no longer needed me or wanted me, I determined I would go where the world is going, on to the Internet, and there continue what amounts to an electronic ministry.  In other words, writing and reviewing is one way for me to stay alive, mentally and spiritually.

    Of course, other possibilities have emerged.  Maybe I'll write another book based upon my experience as a peripatetic worshiper. Maybe I'll offer my services to Frommer or Michelin to prepare a booklet for pilgrims entitled, "The Praying Person's Guide to Worship in New England and Beyond."  I certainly could use such a guide for my summers in Vermont, where the spiritual pickings in recent years have been exceedingly thin.  

    Finally, I would point out to critics of the critic that my judgments are measured and temperate.  Check out by way of comparison the following website for a funny and cavalier approach to worship service reviews:

 I have tried, if I seem sometimes to have failed, to tell the truth in love.  Those who know me well can testify to my capacity for sarcasm and vituperative criticisms. Before posting reviews I read and reread what I've written to eliminate loaded words.  I may not always succeed.  But there is, I insist, an earnestness about the reviews that means no harm to anyone.

    And so, on to the next church.

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