The old church leans awry and looks quite odd, But it is beautiful to us, and God. ~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”
The church knelt heavy above us as we attended Sunday School, circled by age group and hunkered on little wood folding chairs where we gave our nickels, said our verses, heard the stories, sang the solid, swinging songs.
It could have been God above in the pews, His restless love sifting with dust from the joists. We little seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting to grow toward the light.
Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside, an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp- edged shadows back to their buildings, or how the winter air knifed after the dreamy basement.
Maybe the day we learned whatever would have kept me believing I was just watching light poke from the high, small window and tilt to the floor where I could make it a gold strap on my shoe, wrap my ankle, embrace any part of me. ~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”
There could be so much wrong with the church overall, comprised as it is with fallen people with broken wings, looking odd and leaning awry, determined to find flaws in each other’s doctrine, rituals, tradition, beliefs.
What is right with the church: who we pray to, why we sing, whose body we comprise so bloodied, fractured, yet healed despite our thoroughly motley messiness~ Our Lord of Heaven and Earth rains down His restless love upon our heads.
There’s coffee and pie with a widow from the church. Why do you sit in the back pew? she asks. I’m close enough, I say. Can I sit back there with you? I’ve always sat there, I tell her, with my same two friends, and their clicking oxygen pumps. One sat next to me for years, called herself my church girlfriend, who metastasized, telling me she was tired of waiting to die. Now, there’s just my 88-year-old friend, his pump echoing in the sanctuary, and there’s that empty space between us. I’d like to invite the widow to sit there, but I miss my dead friend’s laugh, her loving stories about her husband, and how we were always glad to see one another. I tell the widow all this. What if I just sat there? she asks. It’s a free country, I tell her, and she smiles. ~Bruce Pemberton “Autumn 2017” from Third Wednesday, (Vol. XI, no. 2, 2018)
We used to occupy the back pew with our young family, figuring a wiggly child would be less disruptive if we stayed in the back. Our children would sing loud, draw pictures on index cards, take notes on the sermon and sometimes fall asleep under the bench. As they got older, we slowly made our way to the middle benches, and even sat in the very front when we walked into church late.
Sometimes we go sit in the back again for old times sake and find the most interesting group holding down those pews.
There is a fellow over ninety years old who still drives himself to church and he prefers the back because he can see everyone else who is in church without having to turn around. He decided the back was the place to be after seeing a 16 year old girl who always sat in the back pew bring her baby daughter to church for the first time, and how she was the center of a swarm of church ladies who came to oooh and aaah over the baby at the conclusion of the worship service. He told me he knew there was special grace and acceptance in that back bench.
It’s a loving and safe place to be. Everyone should try it sometime.
Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery — those moments when we suddenly know there is a God about whom we “know” absolutely nothing –– accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives.
And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots. ~Christian Wiman from My Bright Abyss
Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. ~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk
Unexpected God, your advent alarms us. Wake us from drowsy worship, from the sleep that neglects love, and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. Awaken us now to your coming, and bend our angers into your peace. Amen. ~Revised Common Lectionary First Sunday of Advent
We are only a few weeks away from the beginning of Advent, a time when I am very guilty of blithely invoking the gentle story of Christmas Eve’s silent night, the sleeping infant away in a manger, the devoted parents hovering, the humble shepherds peering in the stable door.
The reality, I’m confident, was far different.
There was nothing gentle about a teenage mother giving birth in a stable, laying her baby in a feed trough–I’m sure there were times when Mary could have used a life preserver. There was nothing gentle about the heavenly host appearing to the shepherds, shouting and singing the glories and leaving them “sore afraid.” The shepherds needed crash helmets. There was nothing gentle about Herod’s response to the news that a Messiah had been born–he swept overboard a legion of male children whose parents undoubtedly begged for mercy, clinging to their children about to be murdered. There was nothing gentle about a family’s flight to Egypt to flee that fate for their only Son. There was nothing gentle about the life Jesus eventually led during his ministry: itinerant and homeless, tempted and fasting in the wilderness for forty days, owning nothing, rejected by his own people, betrayed by his disciples, sentenced to death by acclamation before Pilate, tortured and hung on a cross until he took his last breath.
Yet he understood the power that originally brought him to earth and would return him to heaven, and back again someday. No signal flares needed there.
When I hear skeptics scoff at Christianity as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate the courage it takes to walk into church each week as a desperate person who will never ever save oneself. We cling to the life preserver found in the Word, lashed to our seats and hanging on. It is only because of grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt to let go of our own anger in order to confront the reality of the radical mystery of God.
It is not for the faint of heart, this finding a “definite belief” within our ordinary unmysterious lives and giving it deep roots to thrive. It is reasonable and necessary to be “sore afraid” and “bend our anger” into His peace.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave, He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave, So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave, Our God is marching on.
(Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! While God is marching on. ~Julia Ward Howe — final original verses of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
We are Your lilies, the glory of this Sabbath morning. Consider us, Oh Lord, Consider us the tears borne of love from Your eyes, So brief and so beautiful.