Truly Precious

Near the end of David Brooks’ recent book, The Second Mountain, he describes, of all things, his faith journey. It’s remarkable. I have been reading Brooks’ New York Times column for years and always find them thoughtful and provocative, even when I disagreed with his argument. Likewise, I rarely miss PBS’s “Evening News” on Friday because of the always stimulating conversation between Brooks and Mark Shields about the events of the week. I enjoyed Brooks’ book, Bobos in Paradise, and appreciated The Road to Character. There is not much religion or theological content in Brooks’ former thinking, although there has always been a strong concern for morality, particularly in public and political life. And then, several years ago, familiar names started showing up in his columns: Reinhold Niebuhr, the prominent 20th century Christian theologian, Thomas Acquinas, St. Augustine. I wondered if something was happening in his thinking.

It turns out something was happening. A painful divorce followed by deep despair led to a surprising encounter with Christianity, Christian thinking, Christian morality. At the same time Brooks was developing a renewed appreciation for his Jewish heritage and tradition. Gradually and slowly he found himself becoming closer to his long-time research assistant. They dated, fell in love and are now married. Anne is a devout Christian who introduced Brooks to the central Christian concept of God’s Grace, free, unconditional and prevenient.

Along the way Brooks discusses “religious experience,” references William James’ classic study, “Varieties of Religious Experience”, observes that religious experiences often occur in an encounter with nature. After just such an experience on a hike to American Lake near Aspen, Colorado, Brooks can acknowledge that he does not not believe in God, that he is not an atheist. It is a fascinating journey and at the end Brooks concludes, “I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.” I found myself underlining a lot in the book, resonating with experiences that sounded a lot like my own.

Growing up in Manhattan, Brooks’ parents sent him to Episcopal Pre-School, then Episcopal Elementary School, and for two weeks every summer to Incarnation Episcopal Church Summer Camp. I was struck by his description of walking into Grace Episcopal Church on a busy street corner in lower Manhattan. “To leave the sidewalk and enter the church is to walk into a deeper story. The Kingdom of Heaven is announced on the facade. You sink into a hushed reverence inside the door as the world falls away.” That’s exactly what happens when I walk into a church, particularly Fourth Presbyterian Church on one of Chicago’s busiest avenues. Now, I know the theology that teaches that God is not confined to a church building, that God is present everywhere, that the radical significance of the Incarnation is that all of creation is sacred, not just Tabernacles, Temples, Cathedrals, Churches. And yet….and yet….when I walk from the busy, noisy sidewalk into the silent stillness of church, I have always experienced and experience still something of the Holy.

Which brings me to the point of all this. I miss church! I haven’t been in church since March 1, five full months, the longest stretch not being in church in my entire life. Fourth Presbyterian leaders, like wise and responsible leaders in the vast majority of churches in the country, have cancelled public worship as an expression of love and respect for neighbors. The building is also closed. Worship and programs continue online. So at least we get to see the familiar and much-loved sacred space with the added advantage that the camera finds architectural and aesthetic details that most of us either overlook or have never seen before. And we can hear the organ, soloists, see and hear worship leaders and preachers. Two things, however, are very different. We are not in the space and we are a congregation of one or two.

It has given me a new awareness of and appreciation for the essential corporateness of worship and the importance of the spaces where we used to gather. I have noted before how retirement has allowed me to witness a dimension of church that clergy don’t ordinarily see. As worshippers arrive before the service, friends meet and are obviously and visibly happy to see one another and to be together. There is – or was – a lot of smiling, hand shaking and hugging. The same thing happens after the Benediction and Postlude as friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, say goodbye and depart. It takes a while. Custodians have to work around clusters of people reluctant to leave one another. In one congregation I visited exasperated custodians locked the main entrance and announced, a little edgily I thought, that the only way out was the side door.

There is a lot to criticize about church but there is a lot that is precious and beautiful as well. Among the lessons the pandemic is teaching is how very unique and important and essential and truly precious a congregation is.


  1. Barbara Fountain says:

    I too miss being in my church and the hugs from my church friends. Praying that we will soon be free of this virus.

  2. A lot said before he kicked the door. I’d have turned back and mingled more. (yeah, now) Loud and clear I read you when you talk like me: I do miss that church — ”from Whom all blessings flow”

  3. Jerold Shetler says:

    With you all the way John.

  4. I miss it, too! I will be coming back soon as a lay liturgist for one of those online services. If my five-month absence has an equal, it must have been when I was a baby. Thank you for this armor to get ready to be back in the strange, new way.

  5. stanley smith says:

    David Brooks gave a sermon at Washington National Cathedral this summer on July 5th
    and it was almost as good as the one our Pastor preached at National in November of 2009.

    Sunday worship is many things including an important social convention, almost as important as the Coffee Hour which follows it. For many years I worked closely with our Coffee Hour Coordinator and sometimes we would get into a heated discussion about how things should be done. Sometimes we would need to carry our discussion into the pantry for a private conversation on some of the finer points. Usually we would be pretty deep into it when I could hear the music sounding in the sanctuary which was a signal that the service was about to begin. At that point I would always excuse myself because I could not imagine missing the worship service. I sometimes wondered how Jeanette, the lady in charge of Coffee Hour, could bear to miss out on the very centerpiece of our Sunday to stay behind to worry about the spoons and napkins.
    To the best of my knowledge she never attended the worship service.

    Jeanette had been the secretary of the previous minister at our church and it occurred to me that perhaps the new minister was not particularly to her liking. I dismissed that notion because I had never encountered anyone who found our minister or any of our ministers to be anything but excellent. What I finally concluded was that Jeanette had heard a lifetime of superb sermons and she had total faith that this would always be so. Just like the tables lined up just right at Coffee Hour and the spoons all facing the same direction this would always be the order of things.

    The pandemic reminds us that it is most often when we are having the time of our lives that we are most shocked when it’s all over. I Wish someone had told us what a glorious time we were all having.

    Stanley Smith
    Chicago IL USA

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