What do you think of when you hear or use the word “church”?
Do you think of the Greek term for it? Do you consider the academic/linguistic definition, as if reading or writing a dissertation?
Do you think of a building? A physical structure providing shelter, comfort, aesthetic or cultural engagement conducive to prayer, meditation, preaching and worship? A place with pews, a podium, a heated baptistry, a sound system, candles, flowers, stained glass and all that?
Or do you resist thinking about the structure in which worship happens and instead consider the assembly of worshipers? The gathering of saints? The community of believers?
Or yet again, does your inner eye, your imagination, immediately gravitate to the activities associated with worship?
Do you think of a particular faith heritage? Maybe Catholic? Maybe Baptist? Presbyterian?
Do you think of a particular political organization and of either libertine or oppressive politics that seem associated with some of the more vocal vitriol spewed by more than a few church people? Do you think of a voting block? Of a special interest, pressure group?
On the other hand, do you think of a bunch of Fundamentalist has-beens, out of touch with reality, and caught up in their pie-in-the-sky religious beliefs which very nearly match any form of delusion associated with mental illness? Of these people becoming increasingly irrelevant in a modern, technological world, yet clueless about it?
If you are like me, depending on the context in which the word is used, you likely race to any one or two of these angles associated with the word “church” at any given time.
The CHURCH of my youth.
Even though I live in a complex world of modern, scientific and technological advancements, of political and civil rights and economic forces, of pluralism, post-modernism, and political correctness, I am a churchman, which means, among other things, I have deep affection for the church. And like most people who love church, I was raised in it and have rich memories of my life’s formation in it.
No matter how erudite, hifalutin, or just plain careful I am when thinking about church, I have strong magnetic pull toward a rather mythical, childish sense of comfort in my memories of church when I was a kid which at the very least delude my thoughts if not govern them. Like a pair of comfortable, old shoes, they may not be the most sensible or practical, but I can’t hardly stand to part with them.
I remember my grandfather shining his shoes on Saturday night, of getting dressed up in “church clothes” and hustling and bustling through the bathroom and waiting in the car for the straggler so we could leave “on time”. I recall familiar liturgies and old songs (many of which we don’t sing anymore), and I chafe at the new versions of Amazing Grace. I recall how my particular faith heritage held a very devout and strong belief that we were the “true church” and all of the others were counterfeits doomed for destruction. (And I recall the comfort I felt in that since it meant I was “in”!)
Actually, I could go on and on and on with this nostalgia. But this is enough for my purpose presently. No doubt some reading this will recognize themselves in the exact description I offer here while others will need to tweak it just a bit, but will still resonate quite powerfully.
But then I start thinking how far all of that is from what I read in my Bible. Just imagine worshiping with the church in Rome when Caesar is feeding Christians to lions or using them as torches for his garden parties! Bro. Wilson might think it a priority to shine his shoes on Saturday night, but if Sister Johnson’s usual spot on the pew is left empty Sunday morning because she and her children were fed to the lions last Friday night, then just mentioning such a priority feels a little petty and cheap. If the Atkins girl wants to have a “church wedding” in the family tradition of her mother and grandmother, but she is getting married to a Lutheran boy that knocked her up whom we don’t recognize as “Christian”, and thus the elders deny her access to the sanctuary for her ceremony, that just doesn’t compute in a world where a dozen Christian brothers were rounded up and crucified last weekend and set on fire as entertainment in the royal court. And for that matter, parking our Lincoln in the lot next to the Jones’s Lexus (as we keep up with them) which we raced from the red light just doesn’t sound like the bunch in Jerusalem who sold all their property, gave it all to the church so that the poor among them lacked nothing.
And it’s about this point that I realize I am not alone in this broken nostalgia. This comfort I take in the heritage of my youth is not a comfort in Jesus – not the same comfort our forebears took! But it sure is popular among my friends and family who NEVER discussed ANY of this stuff with me before. Not even a little.
I’m not sure now if I have actually ever attended a real church at all! In fact, I am a little scared of the prospect.
Thank you Ron Highfield! (If you want to know what I am taking about by that, see this link to his very insightful blog post.)
Yeah. We got this crazy little thing CALLED “church”, but not only have the gates of hell withstood it, it did not withstand the pressures of American culture. And it has me wondering where I belong.