Coming Back to the Good Physician
About a month ago I went to the doctor for my first preventive care examination since my last sports physical as a senior in high school (about 38 years ago). I’m not proud of that nor particularly ashamed of it, though I realize it was a trip that I had postponed for far too long, especially since I’ve reached the point that my 60th birthday is now closer than my 50th. Over the years, Aimee (my wife, the responsible one) has gently encouraged me to go. But she never pressured me to do so. I think she knows from past experience that that approach would probably have the opposite outcome of its intended effect.
So, why didn’t I go? I suppose part of the reason was I was too busy. I didn’t see any immediate need to go. I felt well. Except for surgery to remove my gall bladder about eight years ago and a couple of other emergency trips for stitches and a tetanus shot I had been able to put up with the pain and discomfort until I felt better. But as time went by, I think the biggest reason I didn’t want to go to the doctor was that I didn’t want to hear there was something wrong with me. It’s easier to convince yourself that you’re doing just fine—if you stay away from the experts who can prove you wrong.
Finally, the combination of my nagging conscience, Aimee’s patient encouragement, and the promise of a significant reduction in our health insurance premiums prompted me to make an appointment. “You must be pretty healthy,” the doctor said when he heard how long it had been since my last appointment. I said, “I haven’t had too many obvious problems, but I guess I don’t really know. That’s why I came here.”
The doctor had a good “bedside manner.” That made my time easier there. If he would have chewed me out for waiting so many years to see the doctor, I would have been less likely to return. He acted as though he was glad to see me and happy that I seemed to be taking my health more seriously. I’ve been walking and running, trying to watch what I eat, and I had been lucky enough that whatever sickness or pain I experienced I had been able to deal with rest and over-the-counter medications. But none of that can take the place of seeing my personal physician. The physician has the skills and experience to diagnose my true condition. More important the physician has the skills and knowledge to prescribe the correct treatments and medicine to bring healing.
So, why do I bring this up? Not to give you a progress report on my health. (There are a few minor things I need to monitor and keep in check, but overall it’s pretty good). No, rather it is the way that I think many people approach their attendance at worship and/or Bible study. Most people don’t decide they’re not going to come to church any more. It happens gradually. They get busy. The need doesn’t seem urgent. They’re able to handle things on their own. And before they know it, weeks pass, months pass, finally years pass. Or they just start coming a couple times a year—most likely Christmas and Easter.
Right before Easter, one of my friends on Facebook posted: “It's been years since my faith has been ‘church strong,’ meaning I haven't been to church for probably 2-3 years. My wife asked me about Easter Sunday service and I declined. With the weekend ahead of us I thought I'd share my feelings. I just feel super hypocritical showing up one or two Sundays a year. Now tell me how I'm wrong (kind of hoping you do).”
His wife wrote: “Go to church! It will mean so much to your family. Especially me.”
One of his friends, knowing his Lutheran upbringing, reminded him of what the Small Catechism says about worship: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” That is true, and such application of Law certainly has its place. But this young man was seriously thinking about going back to Church. It seemed to me that reminding him of the commandment at this was kind of like a doctor chewing you out for making an appointment. It could backfire. The Law can tell us what to do, but in itself it can’t motivate us to do the right thing.
Another friend offered this counsel: “God is bigger than churches, or religion for that matter. You do what you can with your life, and that's all you can do.” Partly true, but certainly not very helpful. God is bigger than everything, present everywhere. But He also wants a personal relationship, and you certainly aren’t going to have that if you just do your own thing and don’t look for Him in the places He has promised to meet you in His grace.
Another advisor, one who seems to be more into spirituality than religion, was more specific: “You don't need church to believe. I can worship God at home, along with praying and an occasional hymn. I can read my Bible at any time and find the passages I may need for the day/night.” This sounds a lot like my reasons for not going to the doctor. Deep down, I was afraid of what I might find out. I would no longer be able to convince myself I was doing perfectly well. Self-diagnosis and home remedies might work fine for a while, but they don’t give you a true picture of your spiritual health, and they don’t give you the precise prescription needed for healing and life. Only hearing God’s Word of Law and Gospel from a trained caretaker of souls can do that. Daily devotions and prayer are certainly beneficial spiritual exercises, but they can never take the place of receiving God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament with your fellow believers, of hearing the Word of Christ and receiving the medicine of immortality from the Great Physician through His called and ordained servant.
One of his friends addressed the core issue this wandering sheep was experiencing at this time—the guilt of hypocrisy for waiting until Easter to finally come to Church: “Gotta start somewhere my friend. No better time than the weekend remembering where our salvation comes from. Church is not for perfect people, church is for those that are lost and broken. I am far from perfect, but the good news is that I serve a perfect God that loves me and fills in all of my flaws with His grace and love.” I, of course, added my two cents worth: “You're always welcome to join with your fellow sinners to receive Christ's forgiveness!”
One of my seminary classmates, David Juhl, posted a related thought on his timeline: “Another installment of ‘How My Mind Has Changed.’ I used to be indignant at people who came to church only on Christmas and Easter. These days I see the foolishness of my ways. If you're going to church, you pick the best two days to go. Two times is better than none.”
So, I share this with all of you, whether you’ve been sitting in the pew every Sunday, or you haven’t made it here for worship in years, and everything in between. You are always welcome to join us, your fellow sinners, in sharing God’s gifts. If you made here on Easter—great! We’d love to have you come back again. If you didn’t make this year—don’t fret! Come this next Sunday… or the one after that… or the one after that: every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of our Lord! Join us as often as you are able!