|Flame, Babbitt, Minnesota Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2003, Tammy and Kevin Gilmore|
Church with a capital C: the church universal, the community of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, active across continents and cultures for almost two thousand years.
On Thursday my husband I took part in another birthday celebration, the two-hundredth anniversary of the start of the American Bible Society. Over a thousand guests gathered under a very large tent on the terrace of the Philadelphia Art Museum to commemorate the vision that began with providing Bibles for every indigent American family.
Among the guests were representatives from 140 Bible societies working in more than 200 countries, gathered for the United Bible Societies’ World Assembly, a conference that occurs just once every six years. Many wore the traditional dress of their home countries, a visual reminder of the expansive reach of Christ’s body.
I found myself conflicted during the grand event, just as I’m often conflicted when I think about the Church itself.
It was all so grand. Lovely, well-coordinated, carefully timed, beautifully choreographed. A great deal of thought and expense had been marshaled to provide a stunningly memorable evening.
I found myself watching some of the international guests. One man I noticed kept glancing around with a wry, almost quizzical look, an occasional raised eyebrow.
I can imagine there were representatives there who would find other ways to spend the hundreds of thousands such an event must have cost.
How do we balance a love of excellence with awareness of grave inequality?
I swallowed the question with my wonderfully tender cut of beef, but found myself chewing on another: where were the women?
There were certainly women, many beautifully dressed, many wearing shoes that hurt their feet and dresses not quite warm enough for the unseasonably cool spring evening.
But I was the only woman at my table. Of the women who made it to the front platform, only one spoke, Dr. Diane Langberg. She was part of a brief three-way conversation about trauma as a mission field, and the challenge of being fully present to those shattered and broken by violence and loss.
Tiptoeing around the word “church,” poking it gently with my toe, it occurs to me that part of my struggle is that the word won’t quite stretch to fit different meanings:
One “Church” is a patriarchal establishment, a club with membership dues, inflexible traditions, hierarchies, power struggles, sharply drawn rules about who gets to speak and who does the dirty dishes.
The other Church is diametrically opposed: a breathing organism, gentle and loving, eager to see every gift used, every voice heard, every broken-heart mended.
I see both on display in my interactions at my local church, at other churches, with other Christians.
Yes, I know, we live in this already/ not yet world.
The Kingdom of God has come; the Kingdom of God is coming.
We are not what we were. We are not yet what we will be.
Even so: I read the chapters of Acts and wonder:
In a deeply divided world, where is the Spirit that draws God’s people into unity?
In a broken, suffering world, where is the healing power that repairs, restores, renews?
In a time of captivity to addiction, anger, anxiety, where are the agents proclaiming God’s amazing freedom?
Where is the radical welcome that insists there is no longer male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free?
In my own church this morning, I was reminded that experience of church takes shape and meaning in real relationships over time.
Come sit in my church and I’m not sure what you’d see. An odd mix of people with not a lot in common?
I start describing us, and stop: from one angle some of us look wealthy and aloof. Some look tired, sad, barely holding it together. Some have worn jeans, tattoos, spiked hair. Some have been wearing the same suit for decades, or just bought it in the thrift shop across the hall.
From another angle, we are dearly loved children, woven together with chords of memory, love, prayer. I know these people’s stories: the struggles with depression, the shattered relationships, the longing to grow, the delight in giving.
From one angle, we fall far short: we are not always warm and welcoming, often preoccupied. Our prayer is sometimes half-hearted. We doubt, debate, waste time in foolish ways. We have our own agendas, and pursue them to the detriment of others. We too often look the other way when called to help.
And yet: I look around again. We are fellow travelers on a journey full of detours, unexpected stops. When we can, we carry each others’ burdens. When we can, we urge each other on.
It’s easy to sit on the outside and judge: to sit at a dinner and notice what’s missing, to visit a church and coolly assess its failings.
Maybe Church – global Big C Church, local little c church - only comes alive, is only known, from the inside, not the outside. In relationship to others. In communion with Christ himself. In the shoulder-to-should, life-to-life conversations that happen across years, good times and bad.
But it seems that there should be a visible reality to the church that is so warm and welcoming that those outside find themselves hungry to be part of it.
I’ve seen that happen.
See it happening still, as newcomers wander in, watch, listen, then find themselves part of the family.
|Church of the Good Samaritan, Paoli, PA|
I wish it happened more.
I'm in awe it happens at all.
Lord, forgive us when we live church as club, tradition, hierarchy, patriarchy, gated enclave, private performance, exclusive enterprise.
Fill us, unite us, renew us in your Spirit.
Make us a visible witness to your love.
Other Pentecost posts:
Resurrection Power: A Prayer for Pentecost May 27, 2012
Pentecost People of Blessing May 19, 2013