Friday, April 19, 2019

Church Building

      …[S]ince we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 
-Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

Like most everyone, I guess, I watched the fire at Notre Dame cathedral early this week with a mixture of shock and sadness. I thought back to standing in that magnificent building with my wife and son a few years ago, and about how that experience affected me in a way I can't really articulate or explain. As the week went on, other voices reminded me of churches built by black Americans burned intentionally in our own country. I thought of Pilgrim Baptist Church in the Bronzeville neighborhood of my own city, a church that was central to the Civil Rights Movement and that also burned accidentally in 2006. 
     In truth, I’ve always been interested in churches. I was saddened by those racially-motivated burnings, and by the loss of so much of the history of both gospel music and the Civil Rights Movement at Pilgrim Baptist. I can’t deny, though, that the Notre Dame fire seemed “bigger” to me, somehow. I wondered what it was about an ancient cathedral on the other side of the world that caught my attention so dramatically. 
     It’s strange that churches interest me. There’s a section of our Christmas tree every year reserved for my church ornaments. I like visiting churches when we travel — historically significant ones, and not so much. I know, I’m a minister; it might not seem like that big a stretch that I’m interested churches. I grew up, though, hearing over and over that “the church is not a building; the church is people.” We didn’t meet at a church; we were the church. We met at a church building. (I still have this compulsion to add the word “building” any time I refer to a structure as a “church.”) The joke was that if you were in a strange town and you wanted to find a Church of Christ, just drive around and look for the ugliest building in town. That would be us. (That’s just as often not true, however.)  
     I still agree that the church is people. (Not, however, in the same way that Soylent Green is people…) The church in the New Testament, of course, didn’t even own buildings; it doesn’t seem like that happened much for 300 years or so, until Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. I’ve met with the church in homes, schools, and funeral homes. I do believe that it’s a mistake to associate the church too closely with a building, and indeed sometimes it feels like we’d be better witnesses for Christ if we’d just do away with owning buildings entirely. (They certainly cost a lot of money.)
     So why in the world did I care about the Notre Dame fire? Why do I run my family ragged visiting churches when we travel? I’ve been thinking about that all week, and I think I’ve figured it out.
     Churches — the buildings, I mean — are the history of the church’s — the people, I mean — engagement with the world. People of faith built those structures to say something. Look at the way Notre Dame’s bell towers raise the eye upward, above the life bustling around them. Or the way the bells have drawn the attention of generations of Parisians to the things of God. The art housed in churches reminds us of what earlier generations of believers thought was important enough to be memorialized. The crypts preserve the remains and the names of some of those believers. I think maybe it’s appropriate that one day, when Jesus returns and the graves are opened, a lot of those who died in Christ will awaken in church. 
     Churches remind us that the church — the people — is a spiritual body that exists in a physical world. They remind us that we follow a Lord who lived in a physical world, and that in fact that’s where our salvation lies. The “pioneer” of our faith blazed the trails and laid down the foundations for us in this world. Our hope isn’t that one day we’ll be delivered from this world. It’s that we’ll be part of a redeemed and restored creation. Building churches seems to be one of the ways we acknowledge that hope, one of the ways we anticipate that day’s coming. 
     Building a church reminds me a little of Jeremiah’s message to Israel that they should build houses in exile and settle in and be good neighbors. God promised them they’d be going back to the Promised Land eventually. Until then, he wanted them engaged in the world they were part of.  
     Building churches — buildings — is one way the church — the people — through the centuries has tried to engage with the world around them. Even those of us who look at “the church building” with a utilitarian frame of mind recognize that. As simple as it may be, we still have a building. We still want a building. We still believe that a physical location helps us in proclaiming and living out the gospel of Christ. 
    As we celebrate Easter this week, we will more than likely meet with other believers at a brick and mortar building. We’ll proclaim our belief again that Jesus was raised from the dead, that his flesh-and-blood body was given life, that a physical stone was rolled away, and that he walked out of a real tomb. We’ll say again that our faith is in a Savior who lived among us, died for us, and was raised to life for our redemption. 
     And people can come to our buildings and hear us say this. They can hear this story rehearsed again sitting in seats, surrounded by walls and windows, sheltered by a roof. Our voices will echo off drywall or stone or acoustical tile. They’ll see us, real human beings who suffer what they suffer and yet find strength and hope in a Savior who suffered too. And they’ll see, hopefully, how we live among them in the way Jesus did, and that even though our hope is not in this world, we are here in words and acts of grace, mercy, and love. 
     We’re not somehow more the church when we’re at the building. Neither are we less a church if we don’t have one. God’s work is certainly not confined to “the church building,” or even happen primarily there. Of course, we have the responsibility to be more in our world than caretakers of the edifices we construct.
      But let’s be reminded by our Lord’s resurrection that we’re people of the resurrection living in a world of death. Let our presence be real. Let’s not pass through our neighborhoods; let’s build and settle down and be a part of those neighborhoods. May our neighbors know what the insides of our buildings look like. May they feel at home in those buildings, and may they experience there real love and hospitality. 

     For their sake, may we be the church in our churches.

Friday, April 12, 2019

On Getting Older

   In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
   Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.
-Daniel 1:1-4 (NIV)

Something happened to me. Something inexplicable, unexpected, unbelievable.
   Oh, in hindsight, I should have expected it. It’s certainly happened to other people. I guess I didn’t really think that it couldn’t happen to me; I just never really thought that much about the fact that it might. That it could. That it would.
    I’m not even sure exactly when it happened, just that one day I noticed that it had.
   What happened is that I got old.
  Some of you who know me might be shaking your heads, saying to yourselves, He’s not old. Let me tell you, gently, that you’re saying that only because you’re older. I’m closer to 51 than I am to 50. Closer to 70 than I am to 30. I’m certainly not ancient, but I’m not young either. Sometimes I make noises when I sit down or stand up. I don’t hear or see as well as I used to. I don’t run like I used to. (Though that was never all that good.)  
    I’d prefer to say I’m middle-aged, but that strains even the most optimistic of predictions on my potential life span.
   And along with some gray hair, a need for reading glasses, and the fact that cheeseburgers stick with me longer than they used to, something else has happened to me at this point in my life.
   I don’t relate to younger people like I used to.
   I find myself now mentally shaking my head and saying things like, “They’ll understand one day,” as I’m sure people did with me twenty or thirty years ago. I find myself a little shorter on youthful idealism than I used to be. I can officially say that I just don’t get most pop music. I sometimes even roll my eyes at what passes for fashion among the younger generations.
   I’m really starting to realize that I just don’t see the world in exactly the same way as someone who’s half my age does. There are things that I assume, and they don’t. And vice-versa. Some of that has to do with living longer and going through different experiences in life. (I heard someone once say that a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t had to pay for college...) Some of it has to do with the fact that the world in which I grew up and the world in which younger adults have grown up are very different places. It’s not necessarily that I’m wrong, or that they’re wrong. It’s just likely that there are some things we’ll never see alike.
   But even given those differences, I’m not willing to say that the future isn’t in good hands.
    I had the privilege a couple of weeks ago of being with a group of college men and women from the campus ministry at Southern Arkansas University who came to Chicago instead of Cancun for Spring Break. (Excursus: “spring in Chicago” is an oxymoron. At least in March.) They came here to feed the hungry, serve the poor, visit the lonely, and instruct and encourage the church. We had some interesting conversations over the course of the week, and discovered that there were some things we saw differently. But we also bonded together over what we have in common: Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and a Father who calls us his children. How could I fear for the future seeing how these young men and women cared so passionately for the people who are especially close to God’s heart? How could I doubt that he will use them hearing them singing praise to him while they packed potatoes for hungry families?
   I don’t always understand younger people, and yet the teenagers at my church sit still and listen respectfully while I help teach their Sunday morning Bible class. They’re willing to look past the fact that I’m old (at least to them) and out of touch. And more than sit and listen respectfully, they make insightful comments and ask good questions that show they’re really trying to engage with the word of God and take it seriously. Sometimes they even hang out with me when they don’t have to, and they pray for each other, and for me. And they, too, care about hurting people and want to figure out how to bless them and offer them the hope of the gospel. Often, they teach me more than I teach them. How can I doubt that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives? How can I doubt that God has big plans for them?
   How could I fear for the future when I know young adults like the ones who are part of my church? When they share with me their ideas and passions for what the church could be and should be, when I see in their lives and hear in their voices how much they truly want to follow the Lord and be his people in more than name? When I see how they serve and care and pray and worship, I have to be optimistic about what their role in the kingdom of God will be in the next few decades.
    Don’t you know that there must have been lots of people in Israel during Daniel’s time who were pessimistic about the future? Conquered by a foreign king, the temple destroyed, the people uprooted from the promised land - how would they survive as God’s people? How would they, in the words of the Psalm, “sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land”? And don’t you imagine that they must have been horrified to hear about good Israelite boys learning the Babylonian language and culture to serve the very king who had destroyed them?
   What the future showed, however, is that Daniel and his friends were just figuring out how to be God’s people in a changing world, in shifting circumstances. As it turned out, they didn’t give up anything of consequence. They were still pious enough to call an idol an idol, even if they used Babylonian words to do so. They were still God’s people, and God used them to proclaim his name to a foreign king.
   What should we take away from Daniel’s story? How about this: To doubt the future generation is to doubt God.
   Who cares if they don’t see things exactly the way we do? I’m not sure my generation has exactly proven itself to be infallible. Who cares if we don’t understand how God will use them? It’s enough to say with faith that he will, and to trust in him enough to work with them in building the future of the church and the world. Or, failing that, to trust him enough to get out of their way.
   I’m optimistic about the future - of the church and of the world - because I see what God is doing among teenagers and young adults right now.
   So maybe, as it happens, I’m not quite over the hill yet.