Today I wasn't able to attend church due to illness, and it was a very special day to have missed. Our congregation celebrated it's 125th birthday!
As I have made my way through ministry classes, I have had many Big Questions that I needed to find answers for. What IS church anyway? What does it mean? What is it's value? Is "small" church better or worse than "mega" church? Do most of us consider ourselves part of our local church only, or do we see we are part of the larger church?
I have come to some conclusions, and I think others will remain sketchy for years to come as I experience church in a variety of ways over time.
"Church" to me is not a building, it is a body made up of a wonderful, wacky array of individuals who all have THEIR own definitions of what church is...and those definitions often look nothing like my own! Within our local church, our body has it's own versions of hands, hearts, feet and heads, and as I type this I have faces emerging that match each of those roles. Within Christianity there are those same roles that are fulfilled by various denominations, who sadly often see themselves as the entire body instead of recognizing the value of all the other parts/denominations that fill needs and appeal to those who would not find themselves attracted to other particular parts of the Christian body.
Church is where I meet God...sometimes. Most often I do not necessarily meet God there though, as God tends to speak to me in the shower, in a quiet conversation with my feet propped up on our coffee table, in the whispered words coming from a child half asleep on the floor of our bedroom. Sure, I encounter God there in the Sanctuary once in awhile, but most often I think of it as a place to talk about that God, to explore the meaning of that God, and to praise and give thanks to that God in a place where others understand what I am feeling without having to belabor the point.
I wonder if sometimes people go to church expecting to have God standing at the door to greet them, and don't return because that expectation is not met. They see God as being contained in a space, like those in ancient times who had to go visit God at the temple. For some, I guess God is containerized, compartmentalized, and separated from "real life". Sort of like your best shoes you keep stored in a shoe box on the top shelf of your closet, pulled out for those special occasions.
When you can met God while washing dishes, pumping gas, or when standing in the local Salvation Army with a load of Halloween costume apparel draped across your arm, I think it makes God more real. I don't want to have to go to a specific location to be with my God! I need more regular visits than that would allow.
Our church has saved me in more ways than one. Salvation takes on many different meanings when we are able to wipe away the "blood" and see the wound below. My soul was deadened, yet hopeful, the first day I walked through the less than impressive doors of our church. We had the intent of it being the beginning of our church search, and had no idea yet that we had come home. I had pushed God aside for so long, unwilling to pursue what it was that was not working for me with faith and yet equally unable to escape the quiet God tug I had experienced since I was a very young child. I was handed a Mother's Day carnation that first visit, a soft pink one. It was all so unfamiliar, so awkward, and I felt very, very conspicuous standing there with 2 wee ones and my carnation, not knowing when to sit or stand, finding this new way of worship and preaching of God's word so different from the few years of churchgoing I had done in my early marriage years.
I was saved by realizing God loves me and is not as obsessed with my sin as I had previously thought. It was in this Sanctuary where I began to understand mercy and grace for the first time. It was here where God became real, where the club left the hand that was beating me down over all my inadequacies and the gentle hand lifted me up and embraced me.
I have learned more in the past 5 years at this church than I had in all the previous 39. I am a new person in Christ...a phrase I would have laughed at 6 years ago, seeing it as false and oh-so-virtuous. I am a new person, in large part, because I see others more clearly. I understand their failings, I see their frailties and do not blame them as much as I used to (I am not THAT virtuous...I'd love to say "I blame them no more" but that would be false of me). I have more compassion than I used to, I guess you could say in that over worn way that I have Jesus in my heart. I do not feel as distanced from the human condition, I do not feel set aside, I see me in everyone where before, I could not. My pedestal was very, very high, I am afraid, and I have no idea why or how it got that way. I am ashamed to admit it.
More importantly though, I see GOD in everyone else. I see and feel connection rather than separation. I see similarities rather than differences. It was a complete turnaround of my personal worldview. And it happened because of "church".
And maybe, that is what it has taken to help me see God in me.
So tonight I give thanks for my church, Hillcrest Congregational United Church of Christ. I give thanks for all who passed through those doors long before I ever did, I give thanks to those who kept the doors open through good times and bad, I give thanks for those whose honesty sometimes hurts and whose hurts are sometimes healed. My life...our family's life...is radically different because this church survived 125 years and is still going strong.
Thanks for being a place where I truly met God and had the Spirit envelope me. May we be as committed to keeping those doors open for another 125 years as those who came before us. For I am certain there will be others who will one day walk through them who need this place just as desperately was we did.
HAPPY 125th BIRTHDAY HILLCREST UCC!