Monday, July 9, 2012

Finding Church

Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twenthieth centuries in North America, finding "church" meant staying within the believing/practicing community of your ethnicity or immigrant group. "Churches" became synonymous with bricks and mortar--which many of them were. Evangelism was by and large gestational. We made more members by having kids. Demographics change. How many people shop for food, shoes and clothing at neighborhood stores today? We don't. We drive miles to the big new ones. And the old ones die. Now we drive miles to the "attractive" church, passing others by right and left, to find the one that suits us. Christ's church or consumer product?

There's a story in today's paper about how the forest canopy of Portland will be changing. 100-year-old trees will have to be replaced. The tree specialist quoted in the story said trees are like people: they eat, they breathe, they die. I submit that churches do too.

A couple of years ago, an Evangelical pastor I knew returned from another state in frustration. He'd gone back to the congregation he'd planted two decades ago hoping to referee a conflict and help them move forward. He felt he'd failed, and he concluded that maybe it would be best if all churches had a lifespan of 25 years after which they would dissolve and regroup. May be a great deal of wisdom in that. The kingdom of God wouldn't vanish, and the church as the bride of Christ wouldn't cease to exist. To the contrary, perhaps she could emerge from behind her many veils for the first time. Rebirth is, after all, sorta central to our theology and doctrine.

"Church" for me has become the group of volunteers who provide a simple supper for our homeless and low income guests. It's the two AA vets who help at Bible study night. It's sharing their griefs and joys as they share ours. It's G, the one-armed man with a heart for God's kingdom as big as the Rocky Mountains. It's T who finds the most amusing religious cartoons in back issues of the New Yorker. It's R who prays weekly to stay out of prison and complete his probation. It's A who came on her bicycle in blue scrubs from the burn unit at the trauma center to play sweet music on the baby grand with the big, ugly white spots in the crackly aging varnish on its lid.

It's gathering around tables and chairs in a fellowship hall of a downtown church with a dirt floor basement that grows puddles and ponds in our wet months--where our giveaway blankets and clothing are stored... It's S, the Army vet, who recently lost one of his 13 younger siblings but has returned to this city where he has climbed out of eight years of homelessness back to housing and employment. At his dying brother's bedside, S contacted us via Facebook to ask for prayer. We were church to him. Community. Home. The kingdom of God. All of the above.

I never expected church to be this or to look like this, but it's now about the only church I can think of honestly as church. In the five-plus years we have been gathering, an offering of nearly $10,000 has gone out the door, every red cent, to food pantries, Haiti, Japan, Joplin, Chile, Somalia. And now we are starting a new venture: our nickles and dimes and pennies and dollars will go to help wage war against malaria in Africa where 90% of the world's cases exist.

There's a difference between doing church and being church. And if our gut tells us we don't fit where we are, it may be the Holy Spirit's call not to go "find" another church but to go "found" another church--without going in with some kind of preconceived crystal palace notion of what it will become. Christ never calls us to things in order to set us up for failure. We do that for ourselves. If we let ourselves "be" the church, we will find all the church we ever need.

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