‘Not another church!’
You might expect these words from a teenager on holiday in Europe, but not from me. Not from the mom whose 9-to-5 (make that 24/7) revolves around the Church – the Body of Christ.
Nevertheless, after walking dutifully through gothic and ornate church building after church building, these words may have been muttered a time or two – by me – on my family’s recent European vacation.
Almost always grandiose, sometimes crossing the line into garish, the gold-gilded altars of centuries-old church buildings hit me – a follower of a Jewish carpenter – as something of an affront to the message of the Gospel…
Which is, as I understand it, Jesus Saves. Not the church building. Not tradition and ritual. Not the relics we bless and call holy.
Jesus. Saves. Period. Right?
So as I found myself seated on a train for seven hours, diverted by rising flood waters on my last full day in Europe, it was no surprise to find myself watching churches go by. Village after village paraded past the train window. Each and every one – every single one – sported a church building of some era past. A spire or a cross that stood higher than every other structure in town. Never mind how small or large these communities were – they all had, at their center, a church.
After awhile, ‘not another church’ began to sound more like – ‘hmmm… another church.’
Whether 50 or 150 years ago, these communities were built around the church. Physically, but also experientially, with the heart of the town being the building where its people gathered – the place where they all belonged.
At the center of their life together was the church, and even from a distance they could find their way home because the spire of the village church marked the spot.
Last weekend, flying into the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, I was overcome with a nostalgic wave as the plane broke through the clouds and the Minnesota terrain came into view. I remembered summer vacations and years of family road trips through this area, en route to our family homestead in the north.
As the plane descended, what looked like a steel mushroom caught my eye. And then another. Pretty soon I was able to read the words on each water tower – elevated high above the township whose name was boldly painted on the side. While not physically the center of town, these towers hold the resource that allows life to go on, day after day, for the families who do life in these communities.
Driving in to work today, my eyes scanned the landscape of my own home town…
Nope. No spires. No elevated crosses in the sky.
Not even a water tower (which actually makes me nervous and got me wondering… where does our water come from?).
This town that I live in is typical of today, and its center isn’t the church. Not even a towering water tank announces that you are here.
Feeling kind of sad as I walked out of Safeway with my morning java, I realized that the center of many an American town is its movie theater. The mall. Starbucks. Can it be that entertainment and retail are the heartbeat of America – the center of our communities? The gathering places in our towns?
Traffic was crazy this morning, with road closures that altered my route to the church. Sitting at a red light, I turned and caught a glimpse of a giant white rooftop – attached to a building that I have driven past nearly every single day that I have lived in this Arizona town. From a distance, this place looks something like an ark. It houses everything from hockey games to Christian concerts, cage fighting to high school graduations.
A building where, even as I write, thousands of people are gathered inside – and thousands more sit in the hot July sun on lawn chairs among a sea of fire and rescue vehicles – because there isn’t enough room for everyone within its walls.
Never mind that those assembled aren’t all from around here – they are a community nonetheless. A family gathering to lean on each other and to share in their losses and to take care of their own… who take care of us.
I have to ask myself – and yes, I’m asking you – whether we prefer museums disguised as churches or churches in camouflage and in the trenches of real life – taking real risks for real people in real time.
When community is built from the stuff of real life and from the depths of real love, you’ll find no bold print name on the tower overhead, but what is held inside is the sweetest, cleanest, most refreshing Water you can imagine. Perfect for quenching thirst and drowning fires in the deserts of our lives.
From a distance, those country churches and city cathedrals look really good, yet most sit half-empty on Sunday mornings.
From a distance it’s clear that those Minnesota water towers serve a purpose, but the words on the outside matter so much less than the Water to be found within.
When Sunday morning just isn’t enough and we tire of the labels on the towers we erect, what is a community to do when tragedy strikes? Can the vestiges of faith and the salt of the earth be combined to make a hockey rink holy?
You bet they can. You bet God can! But you’d better come in a little closer…
You’re never going to experience it from a distance.Written with great respect for those who serve our communities and in honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.