There’s church, and then there’s church, and it’s easy to get the two confused.
First of all, there’s the church building. Ours was built in the 1960’s. It’s got orange carpet, a skylight over the pulpit, and stained glass windows that have a retro feel – if you can imagine that. The particular church I attend — the organization, or institution — will be 145 years old on Wednesday. I don’t know too many things that old.
In 1867, a group of people got together at a home in Lincoln and celebrated the very first service of worship. That group grew and soon they decided they needed a building where they could gather and that could accomodate a group of their size while allowing for growth, as in more people. So, they moved from that house to a small white building, and that worked well for a while.
Eventually, the group of people who gathered to worship God grew bigger and they moved into a big brick building on a downtown corner, just across the street from the capital building. The building had stained glass and turrets and a magnificent pipe organ. A nearby army base meant business was booming in the town, and, as a result, the church grew, as in more people. Every Sunday, the church was packed to the rafters.
Somewhere along the way, the group of people who gathered to worship decided the brick building with the turrets and the pipe organ was too old-fashioned. So, they tore down that building and built a new one; the one with the orange carpet and the skylight over the pulpit. Marge was around when this was going on, and she tells me the baptistry was built without a drain. They fixed that design flaw after the first baptism, but not without first digging down to the water table and springing a leak.
Eventually, the army base closed down, developers built a mall on the outskirts of the city, and most of the downtown churches closed their doors and built new buildings in the suburbs. Back then, the people who gathered to worship in our church decided to stay put in the building they’d built with its new orange carpet and the baptistry with the brand new drain.
It takes a lot to keep this sort of church going. It takes money and time to maintain the building, and it takes an extraordinary amount of energy to maintain the institution, the organization, the establishment. The status quo.
Then, there’s the church.
And here’s the difference: The church as an institution (or organization, or establishment, or status quo) exists to make itself look good, and whenever I’m serving the institution, I’m in big trouble. People go on talk shows or call in to radio programs and say things like, “Deidra and those Anglicans / Methodists / Liberals / Conservatives / Intellectuals / Mystics / Lefties / Righties (take your pick or add your own) really know what they’re doing! Wow! Why isn’t the rest of the world just like them? What’s wrong with everyone else?” Before I know it, I forget why that first, small group ever met in a little house in the center of town because all I can think about is saving the skylight over the pulpit and the retro looking stained glass windows (although I have to admit, I’m not quite as attached to the orange carpet).
However (and I’m still talking about the difference, here), the church as a living, breathing, organism, made up of imperfect people whose focus is on God, exists to make God look good. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s so significant that to miss it is to miss everything.
I can either cling to the skylight or cling to the Light of the World. I can take my stand and go “all in” to make sure we keep our building with its retro looking stained glass windows, or I can get on my knees before the One who makes me stain-free. I can draw a line in the sand regarding the issue of the day and dare anyone to tell me my side is the wrong side, or I can choose to stay close to the One whose side was pierced for me and all of my multiple shortcomings. I can let go of my agenda, I can surrender my fear, I can stay close and let God be God.
With Michelle today, hoping I did justice to the sermon H preached on Sunday.