I nodded off in church on Sunday (okay, that’s a fiction, but go with it, please) and, immediately, I fell into a dream.
In the dream, I walked into a building I knew was a church. I don’t remember how the outside of this church looked. And I did not get beyond the entryway before I woke up. Somehow, I knew it was not a place to go in order to “get religion” for an hour, to be recharged for the rest of the week, to lead a “balanced life,” or to be given a perspective that complements one’s life without challenging anything fundamental, any core belief or disposition or practice.
The entry space was spare. In fact, all that was in front of me was a one person, sitting at a folding table. On the table was a series of clip boards with what looked to be sign-up sheets.
Second from the top of the sign-up sheets were words. There was one sheet for each word or phrase:
- Shame and Guilt
- Recognizing and Disempowering God-substitutes
- Fear, Anxiety, and Death
- Loneliness and Aloneness
- Anger and Love
- God and Money
- God, Soil, and Food
- Justice and Love for Yourself
- Justice and Love for Intimate Relationships
- Justice and Love for Your Family
- Justice and Love for Your Neighbors
- Justice and Love for Your Nation
- Justice and Love for Others
- Justice and Love for Creation
- Speaking Truth in Love
- Conflict, Brokenness, Penance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation
- God, Race, and America
There was also a heading at the very top of each page, before the words in the list above. The same heading on every page. “Christian Therapy,” followed by a colon. Christian Therapy: Self-Righteousness. Christian Therapy: Anger and Love. Christian Therapy: Justice and Love for Others. Christian Therapy: God, Race, and America.
I noted that #1 through #5 were listed as “prerequisite for all other studies.”
“What is all this?” I asked the woman at the table.
“The pages in front of you are sign-up sheets for courses at this church. If you are familiar with adult education offerings at most churches, then the courses here will need some explanation, for these courses are unusual, in our experience.”
I raised an eyebrow like Spock. “Why is that? What makes them unusual?”
“Because these courses are more like therapies than they are akin to classes one might get in a school.”
I sniffed and wrinkled my nose. “Therapies? Are we reverting again to the ‘triumph of the therapeutic,’ that reality begins and ends in how I feel? I’d hoped we left than behind in the 70s.”
“No, this is not touchy-feely stuff, although dealing with emotions is very much involved. Therapy here is analogous to physical therapy: repairing something that is broken or was otherwise weakened and that needs strengthening in order for the body or mind or spirit to function as it should, as they should together. You see, from a Christian point of view, from a Jesus point of view, anyone living in this society is misshapen, lives out of alignment with God’s purposes as revealed in Jesus, and needs repair. Everyone needs personal and social therapies. Racism, patriarchy, nationalism, competition between classes, how we value and make and spend money, the way we treat anyone without power—from children to the poor, from the incarcerated to those with disabilities, to immigrants to the mentally ill to persons who aren’t Christians of a particular type. The way we approach all these distorted isms and the people implicated in these labels is misshapen and misshapes. Plus, there are the ways people make Jesus to say and mean things that Jesus did not say or mean!”
“I’m with you there. So, these Christian therapies are ways of attempting to repair and heal all kinds of distorted thinking?”
“That’s closer,” she replied. “Thinking yes, but also practices. The therapies are not so much about conditioning people to think a certain way but to practice in a new way: centered in love, because this church believes that God is love, Jesus was the incarnation of God’s love, and Christians are persons called to follow the loving way of Jesus. May I ask: when you go to church, how long are you there?”
“An hour or two a week.” I was starting to feel wary.
“Have you learned to practice in a more loving way in your life by “attending” (she said with air-quotes) an hour or two a week?”
“I’d like to think I have in some ways, yes,” I said a little defensively.
“Well, here, all the therapy classes run one or two times a week, for two hours each, with homework in between sessions, and lasting at least ninety days each. It is hard, if not impossible, to change fundamental habits of behaving with any less time, energy, and attention.”
I was now feeling pretty humble, maybe even a little judged. “Hmm. That is a huge commitment.”
“Yes. Unapologetically. Yes,” she said unblinkingly.
I changed the subject to move away from uncomfortable feelings. “Tell me about this business of ‘prerequisites’ for the first five courses.”
“Ah, right. So, a person must take the first five courses (Shame and Guilt; Self-Righteousness, Recognizing and Disempowering God-substitutes; Fear, Anxiety, and Death; Loneliness and Aloneness) before moving into the rest of the curriculum here. I’m sure you’re wondering why. Because we think it is fundamental to deal with your own shame and guilt, rather than project onto others or avoid responsibility; to deal with your own humanity and fallibility, which also opens you do deal with others with compassion; to recognize the idolatries that tempt you; to deal with the fact that you are going to die; and to make your peace with your own mind and self. If a person can’t become at least a willing beginner in these practices, they will be armored against the rest of the curriculum.”
“Wow, so worship, service, Bible study? Where do these fit here?”
“In every course.”
“And children and youth?”
“There are age-appropriate versions of each of the practices.” Then, after a slight pause: “So, are you going to sign up for any courses?” she asked as she held out a pen to me.
I began to reach back with a trembling hand.
Then, something in worship startled me awake. The service closed. I drove home, made lunch, and took up the Sunday chores.