As I sit at my dining room table (a.k.a. my ‘home office workspace’), I ask the same question I have asked in one form or another for the previous 45 days: when do things go back to normal? More to the point, as a pastor of a small church I have a more specific query: when can we go back to church? At first blush it is a simple question: when will the stay-at-home advisory be lifted and on which Sunday will we be able resume meeting at our selected house of worship? As I contemplate this conundrum, my thoughts race to all the precautions and safeguards that would need to be considered and implemented for a resumption of corporate ministry.
As my mind performs what can only be described as mental gymnastics, twisting and bending various bits of information and analysis into a cogent plan, I find myself distracted by a song, first recorded in 1991 by AVB, that keeps repeating in my head. Its chorus reminds me: “You can’t go to church as some people say – the common terminology we use every day. You can go to a building, that is something you can do, but you can’t go to church ‘cause the church is you.” Perhaps I have been asking myself the wrong question. Perhaps a better inquiry is this: ‘How can I be the church today?’
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. Colossians 1:18 (NIV)
The church is not the building, nor is it the activities that take place in the building. The church is much more than an hour-long celebration of Christ centered around some songs and scripture. The church is the body of Christ – a metaphor describing the people who have been brought together by God’s grace to glorify Him (in word and deed) and have been scattered throughout every segment of society to declare His praises (again, in word and deed). If you know Jesus as Lord and Savior, that is who you are.
So, in this season of scattering, we need to be the church. We need to declare His praises with our conversations, within our household walls (delighting in and doting on our loved ones) and beyond our habitations (uplifting our local ‘heroes’ and offering hope to the discouraged). We need to demonstrate our trust in His promises (sacrificing our self-interest and securing the needs of those without essential resources). Until the doors to public spaces are opened, we can enter into private spaces through telephone calls and hand-written letters. We can engage one another through video chats and ‘yelling-from-across-the-street’ interactions. In these days of discouraging news and depressing distancing, we need the church to be the church, full of all her light and joy. We need you to be you.
I assure you, some weekend soon we will be able to go to church. Until then, we can do church; we can be church.
Last week, a number of people in my family, including me, watched the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory”. It was a fitting conclusion to the show, as we witnessed one of the main characters, Sheldon, uncharacteristically consider others more highly than he considered himself and utilize the spotlight afforded him through professional success to speak words of affirmation and appreciation to his typically disregarded friends. It was an exceptional picture of the concept of community. Those watching the program, 18.5 million in all, including the people in my home, were much less a demonstration of community: while we were all doing the same thing at the same time, we weren’t truly together.
‘Together’ is a word we like to use in the church. We gather together, worship together, pray together, serve together, learn together, and rejoice together. But is this togetherness similar to the relationships portrayed on television or to the relationships displayed in millions of homes on a Thursday night? What does being together, from a biblical standpoint, look like?
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…. Acts 2:44-46
The other night, as part of a Bible study on Acts 2:42-47, we were discussing the word ‘together’. The word is used twice in the passage, but two different Greek words are utilized: ἐπί (epi) is verse 44 and ὁμοθυμαδόν (homothumadon) in verse 46. These two Greek words mean two very different things. ‘epi’ is a preposition meaning ‘with or upon’, used to describe location or geography: in the context of verse 42, the disciples were in the same place or were locationally close. ‘homothumadon’ is an adverb meaning ‘having or sharing in the same strong emotion’ and is used to modify an action emotionally: the disciples were sharing the same passion or were emotionally close.
The togetherness that the church aspires to experience includes both proximity and community. It requires both being in the same place (proximity) and having the same heart (community). We need to be together in the same place: we must see one another and breath the same air as we hear and do the same things; we cannot help one another if we do not know one another and we cannot know one another if we are never with one another. We need to be together in the same spirit: we must embrace the same passionate pursuit – to know Christ and to make Him known – as we practice the disciplines of faith; it is not enough to do things together if we do it individualistically.
Spiritual growth and maturity require both proximity and community. We need to be close geographically and close emotionally. Think about that when you are making your plans for the weekend, and perhaps choosing to get together with others and be together with others at a church in your neighborhood.
This coming Sunday, June 3rd, our community will gather along the length of Dorchester Avenue to celebrate Dorchester Day and commemorate its incorporation on June 1, 1630 with a parade of police cars, floats and local politicians. So, after church on Sunday, we will sit on the curb with our neighbors to be (hopefully) showered with candy and treated to skilled performances by dance troupes, martial arts schools and school marching bands. Despite being firmly within the city limits, we will, for an afternoon, adopt the feel of a small town as we wave our tiny American flags and put aside our differences in order to enjoy all our community has to offer.
It is good to get together with people every once in a while. Having a sense of community is important. But, don’t take my word for it; these are the words of Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States:
We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher.
We are, despite all of our followers on Twitter and all our friends on Facebook, a bunch of lonely people.
I wish that all our neighbors – irrespective of economic, ethnic, racial or age-related distinctions – would have a parade to attend every weekend. I wish there were a regular event where we all could enjoy community. Rarely do we get together with someone somewhere outside of our well-defined demographics; that is, except for one particular occasion. God’s word has a remedy for this epidemic of loneliness: the family of God. That’s right, the church. If you are feeling isolated, attend a service of worship this weekend.
… not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:25
Accept the challenge to be counter-cultural. Be willing to gather for an hour to hear music that you haven’t chosen and reflect on topics you haven’t selected, surrounded by people who are not completely like you. Be willing to engage in prayer and praise with those who have more and with those who have less. Be willing to share your story with those of a different culture and with those from a different upbringing. Be willing to rejoice with those who have something to rejoice over (even when it is something you might not celebrate) and mourn with those who have something to mourn over (even if you cannot sympathize with their pain).
If you are uncomfortable around people who are not quite like you and are a little scared to enter the doors of a church and be surrounded by strangers, come to the parade and look for me (I will be the only guy standing near Ashmont station in a suit and tie). I would be blessed to celebrate the community with you and develop some community with you. Maybe we can shake the mayor’s hand as well.
Please excuse me if this post is a bit ‘scatter-brained’, but my wife and I just returned from a few days in New York City. It was wonderful – we saw a Broadway musical (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, a song-and-dance, nearly all libretto adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which was so much better than how I just described it), stayed in a tiny hotel room, did some window shopping along 6th Avenue and ate at the world-famous Katz’s Delicatessen. The best part was the time Jeanine and I had together on the train – the four hours of adult conversation each way was wonderful.
As I sought to connect my thoughts with motivation for the spiritual journey, I thought about writing about the despair of Russian story-telling and quickly decided against it. I thought about the tiny hotel room and the benefits of hospitality in an unfamiliar environment, but our amenities were nothing to write home about. My thoughts keep going back to that warm brisket with ground mustard on light rye sandwich that I enjoyed at Katz’s (as well as the corned beef with mustard on Italian sandwich Jeanine savored). That is what really made me think about God.
Saying all this about a sandwich may be tantamount to gluttony, but being there was a bit like being in church. For those who have yet to experience all that is Katz’s, allow me to share a few things: first, there are no counter seats or tables for two, just four-tops along the walls and long tables which seat eight in the middle of the floor; then, you must walk up to a (meat) cutter, who will prepare your feast before your eyes; and last, people from every walk of life will be there (while we were dining, there was someone there with bodyguards who was obviously someone special). It was like church because it epitomized community, generosity and acceptance.
So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find. Matthew 22:9
The opportunities we have for community dining are quickly passing away. That is tragic. As we were eating, a chair’s width away from us was a bowl of matzo ball soup and we were humored by the size of the ball amidst the broth (it was about equal to a softball). We were shared pleasantries with a businessman who squeezed in behind us. There was lively banter between perfect strangers all around us. It was the closest thing to a church supper I’d experienced outside of church, and it was awesome.
With the norm of dining out being fancy meals that can fit on a tea saucer, it was a breath of fresh air to see and consume the sandwiches we were served. I watched the cutter take out a whole brisket and, after a bit of trimming, slice half of it. I watch him fan out the meat and place it three layers high on the bread, as well as offer me a taste as I watched. It had to be two pounds of meat – more than necessary, more than generous. He did the same for Jeanine’s sandwich and then sent me on my way with my food and a plate of pickles. It was the closest thing to grace I’d experienced in a while – for I received so much more than I imagined.
As we sat there wondering who the man in the suit (surrounded by two guys with earpieces) was, we speculated that maybe he’s the mayor, or a politician, or a business leader. Whoever he was, he too, waited in line (in truth, one of the earpieces did) and had to sit at a community table. No one got special treatment. Everyone was treated the same, and that treatment was exceptional. As I ate my sandwich, I was blessed with the knowledge that I was being treated the same way every celebrity who had entered the deli was treated, and if the décor was an indication, plenty of celebrities had passed through the doors. It is the closest thing to heaven I’ve witnessed in a while – everyone treated equally, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.
The experience has whet my appetite for the real thing – heaven – where we will live in community, be blessed with generosity and experience acceptance. Maybe heaven will have heaping mounds of brisket, too.
Over the past two weeks, I have travelled with my youngest son back in time courtesy of two historic dwellings. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of serving as a chaperone for his third grade to the Pierce House, built in 1683 and located about four blocks from Joshua’s school. Then, last Monday, the family went to 83 Beals Street in Brookline, the “modest” home built in 1909 where the thirty-fifth president of the U.S. was born. Both these houses have been restored to reflect an earlier time period and give those who visit a unique glimpse of life for those living in the past.
The Pierce House was restored to reflect its namesake’s ownership, Colonel Samuel Pierce. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the Pierces farmed and worked a 20-acre plot of land and the house was furnished and fashioned to depict colonial life in New England. It gave my son and his classmates the opportunity to experience life from another person’s perspective. One activity the children played during the field trip was a trading game: each student was given a role in the community (wheelwright, farmer, shoemaker, etc.) and a shopping list, requiring them to interact with others to secure what they needed to survive. From this humble home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of community.
We visited the birthplace of John F. Kennedy on what would have been his one hundredth birthday. While the brochure describes the house as “modest”, it seemed opulent for the times (electricity, indoor plumbing and maids’ quarters). The home was restored to its appearances in 1920, according the “living cultural translator”, a maid-of-all-work named Marie. She told us about the modern convenience of the toaster and the Cupcakes she was working on to celebrate Jack’s third birthday. She seemed proud to work for such a prominent family and grateful for the opportunities her new life in her new country provided. From this well-appointed home, I hope my nine-year old gained an understanding of the value of hard work.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
These two homes gave me pangs of melancholy. As I stood watching third-graders trading food and fabrics with their classmates, I longed for a time before supermarkets and department stores when we knew our neighbors and their importance to the community: everyone had something to offer and everyone helped everyone else. As I stood in a Brookline kitchen, I longed for a time before Apple© products and electronic apps when we sought to serve others and share our lives with more than a small circle of like-minded individuals. I long for a place where the values of the past are appreciated in the present.
This nostalgic sadness subsides as I think about the role of the church in our culture: it can be the place where we find real community and the place where we foster real opportunities to serve. Perhaps your longings for a better world, if you have them, can be satisfied at a house of worship near you.