Sunday is the day of the church year when we celebrate the birthday of the church. Pentecost. I smell the cake that I just took out of the oven. I’m teaching children tomorrow and we’ll imagine together the story of Acts 2.
We’ll feel the wind of the spirit (with a fan) see the fire (with the help of flashlights) and hear the sound of many languages (by reading the scripture text all at once in a dozen languages). Then we’ll eat a bit of cake and talk together about the good gifts of being church.
This week I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s new book The Pastor: A Memoir. It is a story of coming to pastoral vocation. It is also a story of beginning a church. It is a story about how church is church and not a shopping mall, social club or group therapy. In the early 1960s Peterson and a small group of pastors and one Jewish rabbi began meeting together weekly to try and understand together what exactly gave shape to their vocations as pastors.
They worked hard to make connections between Sunday’s (or Sabbath) worship and the work they did the other six days a week. Finally it was the Jewish Rabbi, Paul, who helped them to make the right connections which sent them in a direction worth going. Here is what Peterson says about that moment in the group’s life:
“There was considerable irony involved in this: a Jewish rabbi providing fifteen Christian pastors with a biblical-pastoral imagination that was designed to keep our week of pastoral work congruent with our first-day proclamation of Gods’ work. He didn’t do it by organizing our week into categories scheduled by time-management calculation. He gave us texts and stories that set everything we did on weekdays within the structure of what we preached on Sundays: prayer directing, storytelling pain sharing, nay-saying, and community building.” (154)
“I Don’t Know How People Manage. . .”
After a number of difficult moments in the past two decades – from illness and death to job changes and graduate school, I’ve found myself saying on many occasion, “I don’t’ know how people manage without a faith community!” I literally have no idea how I might have gotten through a variety of moments in my life without a faith community to walk with me. I’ve watched others who don’t have a genuine community of faith struggle and flounder and become isolated and bitter.
Don’t get me wrong. People in the church certainly struggle and flounder and they, too, can become cynical and bitter. But the possibilities for support, meaning, grace, compassion, prayer, stories, and loving presence of people who have cast their lot together, is far greater in the church (or other communities of faith) than outside them.
And of course the church can and does fail. What human institution does not? The church has a painful history of bigotry, idolatry, sexism, harboring evil, the crusades, collusion in the Holocaust, and most recently rampant sexual abuse and cover-up scandals. The church’s sins of omission can be staggering, too. Their unwitting participation in harm and injustice sometimes makes me want to throw my hands up in despair. But then I also feel this way about every other human institution from governments and schools to banks and health care systems to marriage, the military and the legal system.
Given the massive failures of every one of these institutions to address human need or make sustainable human communities, I find local churches to be among the more humanizing and transcendent communities anywhere around. Institutional church and local community of faith are not identical, but the enduring character of the church as present in a community of faith can be an expression of the best or worst of the history of the church, and is more often than not both. When church is good it is glorious. When it is bad, it is awful.
When at their best, churches help people through birth and death and innumerable life transitions. They are people who sing together. Think about it, where else does this happen any more? Concerts – which are on the whole one-time events? But to stand in the midst of people I know and love and sing songs that give voice to the way we are trying to live . . . takes me right into a sacred presence. Tonight at an informal gathering of my faith community, we found ourselves singing “here’s to you who are struggling just to get by . . . take up the cup of blessing . . . drink it dry. . . . pour out your cup of curse . . . and start again . . . take up the cup of the kingdom poured out for you” (Apologies to composer Jon Neergard, for words I’ve missed or gotten wrong).
Churches are places where we practice forgiveness and grace, where we give voice to our failures and listen attentively to the ancient wisdom of faithful people and think with each other about how to be generous with money, honest and caring about our sexuality, careful and repentant about power, intentional about making peace, responsible and faithful to the earth, celebratory and just with food, thoughtful and deliberate about politics, courageous and meek in God’s presence, prayerful and genuine about our lives. I could go on. What other institution invites all of this? And a company of others to think along with us?
Where else do we find a gathering week in and week out of those concerned with the holy? When Eugene Peterson asked his circle of pastor-friends “What is the most important thing that we have done with one another? What of our experiences has been helpful? Anything stand out that I can tell them?” One pastor answered, “To look at and understand my congregation as a holy congregation. That has revolutionized the way I have gone about my work. Treating my congregation with respect and dignity. I think ‘holy’ is the right word.” (160).
“It’s Hard to Kill a Church”
Sometimes when folks start lamenting the church. . . sometimes when I am lamenting the church, I say out loud, “It’s hard to kill a church.” Faith communities are durable. In the US we have a long history of worries over their splitting, and hand-wringing about the church’s decline.
Yet the history of religion in America also reveals centuries of revivals and renewals, endless efforts to grow the church, find its mission and expand its influence. The power of churches ebbs and flows in various regions and times. It’s power can be harnessed for good and ill. But even when churches appear in to be in their most desperate straights, even we are sure they should die (and I’m right there hoping for a funeral on occasion), churches are among the most enduring institutions and communities to be found. Even when fighting in small communities reaches a fevered pitch or when apathy seems to be sucking the very marrow from its bones, it is hard to kill a church.
The best news on this front, however, is that even when the church dies, as sometimes it well should, the ancient power of resurrection is not far behind. And so the church keeps being born again and again. And we can keep wishing the church a blessed and happy birthday.
Now I’m off to put icing on that cake . . . happy birthday to the church!