Seeing What Isn't There

After attending Church this morning, I am so bewildered. There were over 300 people present in the worshipping community. Lifeless and seemingly uninspired, this congregation didn't sing, mumbled responses and resisted any contact with each other. During the sign of peace four people shook my hand. Three never made eye contact with me, and the fourth briefly glanced at me, but while shaking my hand looked on to the next person he would "shake" with.

If only the travel-size bottle of Purell in my purse could wash off the lingering scum of lukewarm spirituality.

The priest stood in front in his congregation and spoke in mono-tones. His words were uninspiring and his delivery of prayer lifeless. It was as if he was programmed, and his flock mirrored this quality... rote motions, boring and repetitive.

Then came the proclamation of the Word ....

This Sunday's readings have the despondent Job declaring he will never see happiness again. Then the gospel takes an opposite turn dramatically telling the story of Christ healing Peter's mother-in-law. This healing ignited a spark that spread into a conflagration in that community's sick, lost and despondent - pushing them to rush towards Jesus - overwhelming him in order to grasp some share in the miracle of his presence as seen at the sick woman's bedside.

This gospel never fails to move me - no matter how many times I hear it. Yet, I could feel no ripple of inspiration from my fellow worshippers today - even during the consecration, the priest didn't seem to notice the miracle. How can you not notice? Perhaps he's shy about showing emotion. Perhaps he's bored with it all.

I was not in my home parish this weekend, so Fr. Porter need not fear I'm speaking of him. I was out of town, but I see the same apathy and spiritual deadness in many churches I attend as I travel. This inspired me to write If I were Pope for a Day back in 2006, an article for which I received hundreds of responses - mostly critical, from readers that were quick to assure me I was committing a grave sin by leading others astray. Complaining about apathy and deadness in the Church always seems to stir up the ... what's the word?? ..... apologists! Their fury dominates the stage and seizes the spotlight. But if you look closely you can see that the stage is floating. It rests on no base.

I wonder if Ruth Gledhill, religious correspondent from The Times Online got hate mail when she commented on the article If Obama were Pope by Prof. Hans Kung. This article aligned Pope Benedict with much reviled George Bush and claims they both are "suffering from lack of trust." Kung, who was a colleague of Pope Benedict at Tubingen, claims the Pope still favors people who reject the freedom of religion. The article is just another liberal vs. conservative argument that plagues political systems and religious institutions globally stalling progress.

Still, where's the fire? The fire of the Spirit is never found in rhetoric or criticism. It's not that spirited discussions should be unwelcomed - but what good are they when the foundation is already lost? We've lost the fire in our faith communities, but we turn away from our community members and chase after the steely, cold support of ideals - ideals on which we can proudly pontificate - ideals that dominate those we turn from. We'd rather be right than be loving.

I recall a quote I love by the not-so-popular Donald Rumsfeld:

"Look for what's missing. Many advisers can tell a President how to improve what's proposed or what's gone amiss. Few are able to see what isn't there."

While the theologians and prophets of today advise the church on how to fix what's wrong and win souls back, they miss the glaring vacancy. They miss what isn't there.