“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” – 1 John 4: 7
There are many ways to define a church, but this verse from John distils the many into one that works for me. A church is a community of friends, loving one another, able to do so because of God’s original out-pouring of love.
It’s perilously easy for Christians like me, long-term believers attending a traditional church, to ignore the good that happens and focus on the bad… the weekly, daily, and hourly ways we fail each other in our interactions as “church”. We know our own church members so well. Our shared history means that we have experienced each other’s faults and weaknesses often. We are sinners still.
I have been guilty of exercising that roving critical eye. I could fill any number of blog posts with the crud that clings like gnarled barnacles to my own church family. That’s not what a God of love calls me to do, though. God calls me as a Christian to repeatedly re-focus and adjust my vision so that I see the love around me. Like a snapshot, I need to frame it, keeping it front and centre. And I need to share it. By the very act of seeing and tellling, I am shaping the love and sending it forth again.
That’s why I want to tell you about all the things I noticed in my own church over the past three days. When I went to church on Friday, to run off the bulletin, one of the first things I noticed in the sanctuary was a new set of Advent candles. In contrast to the skinny wax candles from the dollar store we used in the past, these shimmering metallic pink and purple pillars, and the white Christ-candle embossed with the Chi-ro symbol, were regal and elegant. A generous anonymous gift, the pastor informed me, when I asked where they came from. Now I don’t think for a minute that the Saviour was offended by our former puny candles, if our worship was pure, but these new candles were like anointing perfume … evidence of love for our church, for Christ himself.
Only a few moments later, as I was still doing my bulletin tasks, folks started arriving to set up for a dinner that night. This was a Seniors and Singles’ dinner held periodically as a fun social event. A superb home-cooked meal is prepared and served by volunteers from our congregation and the nominal cost of the supper goes to a special fund for church projects. Conversation and games abound. This evening is a highlight for many in our church family who are in need of fellowship for various reasons …the loss of a spouse, mobility issues, lack of transportation, financial hardship. It’s a love ministry, mandated simply by need and by the success it enjoys.
I bring the bulletin to my mom and stepfather who do the collating and folding. Another snapshot of love. Then I bring a meal of stuffed manicotti I have prepared to a church member who recently had back surgery. She shows me her massive scar. We chat about her recovery. She and her husband express appreciation for the caring and practical help from the church. Of course, behind the scenes was a care group leader who had arranged this meal delivery several days earlier. Still another love vignette.
On Saturday, I deliver the folded bulletins to the church. A delicious aroma wafts upstairs. I go down to the kitchen to investigate. There are the Gems Counsellors, along with some GEMS, ready to serve a hot lunch to eighteen Habitat for Humanity volunteers who are building a home in our community. The Counsellors are wearing smiles along with their cheerful pink scarves. I compliment them on their “visible serving”. Of course, I know that our pastor has already been involved, too, leading devotions at the job site early that morning.
As I walk through the sanctuary, I notice that the Christmas decorations have been hauled out of storage and put up. A Christmas tree decorated with white chrismons, or symbols for Christ. Wreaths, garlands, candles. Two handcrafted banners to inaugurate the Advent season. I saw Ron’s van in the parking lot and he was carrying a ladder. No doubt he and his wife put up the decorations for the first Sunday of Advent tomorrow.
I wanted to photocopy a couple of large-sized bulletins, but the photocopier was in use. A member of the Safe Church Team was photocopying the finalized policy for distribution to all teachers and leaders. It was good to see the project in a finished state. I postponed my job until the next morning.
Sunday brought more busyness. Sunday School students and teachers were piling into vehicles and heading to Meadowview Nursing Home, to join in a worship service there organized by members of our church. The children would be singing Christmas songs and playing handbells. A couple of grandpas there would be so thrilled to have their grandchildren join them in worship. Our Sunday School superintendant was bustling around still photocopying some colouring pages for the three and four year old classes who would not be heading to the nursing home.
Lots of visitors were entering the foyer. These were our Friendship students. Today the Friendship Ministry of our church was celebrating its 25th Anniversary with special participation in the service and cake afterwards. I counted at least fifteen adult volunteer teachers standing at the front singing with their students and even more special “friends” who are bussed in every Wednesday evening for a Bible lesson, fellowship, and fun. It was a blessed moment to see our pastor assist one of our friends in lighting the Hope candle.
After the service I chatted with a friend. She asked about my blogging and encouraged my writing aspirations. I asked about her studies and encouraged her in her efforts to obtain a Masters degree in business. I met her sister and learned about her mid-life change of career. She left a satisfying job to go study at Harvard and follow her passion for building bridges of healing and creating societal change. We shook hands and wished each other well.
This is a church. An abundance of love. Serving, sharing, connecting, And I haven’t even mentioned the regulars. You know, the ushers, musicians, nursery attendants, elders and deacons. The powerpoint guy who showed a Christian Reformed World Missions slideshow during the offertory. Church – where God is present and where he is glorified.
Now I am not saying that our church is perfect. I’ve already alluded to our ugly underside. I am not naively putting on rose-coloured glasses. Undoubtedly there was grumbling here and there. There was annoyance with someone who forgot a bulletin announcement. There was probably some foot-dragging and elbow-twisting to get some of this love stuff done.
But the miracle is that it does get done. The Saviour is re-incarnated over and over again in selfless acts of service in churches full of sinners. Like mine. I have seen and testify.