Exercise, Eat Your Veggies and Go to Church (Why Even Go to Church Part V)

Think of it as free health care. Who would guess that church attendance is good for both mental and physical health? Not running around the perimeter of a church, not climbing its tower – just regularly going to worship services, has shown itself in a whole body of research, to be really good for us.

New York Times writImage result for running to churcher T. H. Luhrmann, an anthropologist, describes studies connecting church attendance with increased immune response and decreased blood pressure. Peter Haas, author of Pharisectomy, cites studies tying church attendance to lowered risk of depression, higher goal achievement, higher grades and completion of degrees, and longer life expectancy.

In one depression study, psychologists Rita Law and David Sbarra, studied the relationship between church attendance and mood disorders in older people, and found that church attendance protected this population from the development of depression. The study even corrected statistically for physical health and social support, since these are known to impact depression, and they still found significantly lower rates among the church attenders.

Going to church also correlated to lowered smoking and drinking rates, more physical exercise and more stable marriages, in a 30year study of 2,600 people. The study also demonstrated that religious groups did not just attract people who already behaved in healthy ways; they helped create these behaviors.

I didn’t need to know about any of these studies to know that attending my church, has been good for my own health and that of others. College Hill Presbyterian in Cincinnati has had a powerful healing ministry for decades, and prayer is offered both during and after services. We have seen partial blindness disappear (the lady could read again), cancer tumors disappear, and an eating disorder loosen its grip, just to name a few.

In longer sessions with volunteer counselors, I have been substantially (not completely, alas) healed of depression. Less dramatic but just as important, I have observed that spending year after year in a community where people love and respect me has empowered me to make steady improvements in everything from diet and exercise to the capacity to forgive.  (I guess you could argue that I’d figure stuff out as I got older anyway, but you would be underestimating my former enslavement to self-destructive people, negative thinking, and chocolate.)

Many behavior studies are correlative; we observe that church attendance leads to better health but we don’t necessarily find out why. Social scientists theorize that it is the social support in churches that improves health, or the peer encouragement away from addictive behaviors and towards responsible, faithful action that does the trick. That only makes sense, but I would also point to the promise in James 5:16  that if we pray for each other we will be healed, and in 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sins, we will be forgiven, and in Isaiah 40:31 that those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.

Good church services give us the space and help we need to pray for one another’s healing, to confess our sins, to wait on God. I have observed over and over that during the week after I have had to skip church, I am more tired and emotionally discouraged by Thursday night than during weeks when I go. It’s not that God abandons me if I bag church, but I have missed out on the joy and centering and renewal that come from gathering with people who are seeking God. Going to church literally gives me strength for the week ahead. Apparently, it’s good for my health in many other ways too.

A Giant Barometer of Sin (Why Even Go to Church Part IV)

Here’s why I don’t always want to go to church: There is no experience that will more accurately diagnose the spiritual illness I would rather deny, than living through a worship service.

Church is a giant barometer of sin. A friend of mine who sang in a church choir told me that during the time in his life when he was spending Saturday nights in gay bars, the only way he could walk into church was to pretend to be a completely different person. He couldn’t reconcile what he’d done the night before with what he was singing in the morning, so he tried to keep his life carefully split. This tension was not something he could keep living with; eventually he gave his whole life to God and stopped the promiscuous behavior. He could no longer hack the craziness of not being integrated.

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Going to church is one of the ways I stay integrated and a lot less crazy than I would otherwise be
. The weekly discipline of gathering with a big group of believers and focusing on God invariably shows me how I need to repent. A few personal examples:

  • After a week when I have over-committed and overworked, I walk into church and see a needy person who usually wants to talk longer than I want to listen. I have a powerful impulse to hide. As I duck into the ladies’ room, it’s pretty clear to me that I am running on empty and no good to anyone until I take time to be alone with God.
  • During the time of confession, the worship leader asks God for forgiveness for “all that we have done and left undone.” Immediately I remember something I promised to do for one of my kids over two weeks ago. I realize I remembered to do what was important to me, but forgot what was important to him.
  • During the sermon, the pastor reads from Matthew 7 about removing the log from your own eye before taking a speck out of your brother’s. I become aware that I am actually thinking resentful, judgmental thoughts about the person sitting next to me as the sermon is being preached. Oh the irony.
  • As I listen to a song during the offering, I find myself rating its production values, and am forced to admit that I am choosing criticism over worship.

By the time I leave the service, it is more than clear to me where I need forgiveness and change. If I’d stayed home and made French toast instead of going to church, it would have been easier to believe myself a pretty good person.

When I’m at church I especially need  to ask myself the following:

  • Do I feel superior to someone? (That’s the sin of pride.)
  •  Am I easily irritated? (That’s intolerance.)
  • Am I anxious among this crowd? (I’m probably over-focused on my own performance and what people think of me.)
  • Am I overwhelmed by people’s needs? (This points to a weakness of faith.)

Everyone will have their own custom list of sins to watch out for, generally in the areas of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath or sloth. Digging up our sins is no fun, but it shows us our need for God, and when we go to God he heals us and sets us free.

There is nothing like gathering with a bunch of people whose company we haven’t chosen, to worship a God who sees right through us – to clarify our sins for us. We can’t grow without it.

A Weekly Dose of Beauty (Why Even Go to Church Part III)

So far, I’ve made a case for showing up at church to be grounded in truth and involved in a community of love. Now I want to plug our desperate need for a weekly dose of beauty.7190209497_49c2cdc6d3_o

Clearly God values beauty, what with the creation of sunsets, flowers, waterfalls, people from LA. The first thing God told his people to do after he rescued them from slavery was to build a place for worship,  to use their most precious stuff for it and employ their best artists to make it. All its architecture and objects were their visual reminders of the law and character of God, skillfully made with gold, silver, precious stones and fine fabric. The tabernacle was beautiful.

Just as clearly, it is in us to seek beauty. In “Beauty Pays, ” economist D.S. Hamermesh demonstrates that beautiful people are more likely to be employed and are better paid. Even against logic, we gravitate to beauty. It soothes us, delights us, renews us, gives us hope.

Christian communities have always valued beauty, making their buildings and worship events as lovely as they could manage. Gothic architecture points us to heaven. Stained glass hints at a glory beyond the glowing panes. Modern churches may be stark in design, but they shoot for beauty with their music production and their screen work.

Some churches are ugly, but not many, and never intentionally. Traveling with a Christian theater company takes me to a lot of churches, and even in the simple ones, people bring flowers, hang pictures and practice their music to make it flow. In preparing something beautiful for God, we do Him honor, but then, as so often happens with God, our giving ends up blessing us and we find ourselves nourished  by the beauty we soak in as we worship.

It may be a song’s haunting chord progression, a few seconds of riveting movement in a dance, a few eloquent sentences, or an awesome movie clip – but sometimes, one sublime moment in worship can stir us to a new level of faith, or hope, or love.

Life can be so harsh. Some of us work in tough, ugly places all week. Most of us are bombarded with the media’s disturbing sounds and images. One of the important ways we can care for ourselves is to soak in the music, art, poetry, drama and crafted speech that we experience in church.

Beauty is the physical demonstration of God’s goodness. Where evil prevails, places get ugly. Part of the horror of concentration camps, battlefields and crack houses is that all beauty has been destroyed. Where God rules, beauty takes hold.

We need to get together to celebrate the beauty of our God, and be renewed by it.

(Next in this series, “A Giant Barometer of Sins.”)

You Can’t Love People You Never See (Why Even Go to Church Part II)

Image result for college hill presbyterian church cincinnatiIf truth is the compass for Christians, love is the whole forest we’re moving through. The New Testament is filled with commands to live lives of love. We are told in 1 John that God is love. John 3:16 tells us that God loves us so much he came as a man to rescue us. Paul makes it clear that if we don’t have love, nothing else matters (1Cor.13.)

So here is where going to church comes in. Love is generally written as a verb, something we’re supposed to do. I can’t learn to love people unless I hang out with them on a regular basis. In many of our other arenas of life, we’re with people we’ve chosen, or have something in common with, or at least people we’re paid to tolerate. But anyone can show up at church, so it’s a real training ground for love.

Worshiping with a bunch of people I may not otherwise choose to be with is a marvelous antidote to my persistent selfishness. Little by little, week by week, my heart enlarges to take them all in. When I began going to church at sixteen, I was looking for people to help me and teach me. In my twenties, I was mostly checking out men. For years, it was about me. But when you stick with it year after year, you eventually find yourself falling in love with old ladies, children, mentally ill people, people whose speech you hardly understand, people with dreadful political opinions, people who dress weird.

This weekly showing-up keeps love from being theoretical. It does no one any good if I lament child poverty rates in my city, but stay put in my recliner. I have to go find a kid in poverty and start giving him what he needs. Where do I meet kids in poverty? I see them every week at church. It’s harder to stay distant from childhood poverty when you see its beautiful faces every week.

It can be argued that you don’t have to go to church to find social diversity or be in community. True, but when you worship with people, when you’re all gathering to make God the main thing, you are more powerfully and equally connected. Before God, there is a common ground where everyone belongs and is safe. We meet at the cross, and one good look at it strips us of all our pretending and posturing.

Each Sunday I’m not in church, I’m not hearing about births, deaths and illnesses. So I don’t get a chance to pray for those people. I don’t get to look into people’s eyes, so I’m not sure how they’re doing. I don’t know that a teenager I’ve been teaching is in despair, or that a lady who had back surgery last month is still in a lot of pain and could use a meal. My voice is absent from the songs of praise going up to heaven, my body is not there for the holding of babies or the words of welcome to someone new. Plus, I miss the chance to build a little spiritual muscle by straining against my own will to get out of bed and do these things. Will God still love me if I bag church? Of course, but I’ll miss an opportunity to love God, others and myself.

Jesus sums up the whole law by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37,39.) Going to church is a great beginning.

(Next in this series, “A Weekly Dose of Beauty.”)