Just another manger

church in winter(Christian Courier column, Dec. 23, 2013 issue.)

Today I’m doing a fun job, creating a slide show for our New Year’s Eve service, highlighting our church’s activities over the past year. Now it’s time to sort, crop, zoom and arrange the photos into a visual narrative. It’s almost as much fun as writing — sequencing the pictures to tell a story, the story of God’s love made visible at our church.

The photo story magnifies what we know and profess — the communion of the saints — showcasing it for the treasure it is, holding it up for an appreciative gasp, a necklace draped on black velvet, a strand of precious living stones, the sparkle enhanced by proximity, the lustre multiplied.

We don’t see each other this way enough. We see one another’s shortcomings so much more readily — Eugene’s impatience, Dayna’s perfectionism, Rudolph’s parsimony. The names are made-up; the flaws are genuine. Still, the real-life photos tell another, equally true story.

This year’s slide show isn’t finished yet, so to avoid a spoiler alert, let me share some clips from last year. There’s a shot of Susan holding a blanketed bundle at a baby shower with Jane and Jessie awaiting their turn. There’s everyone lining up to shake hands with Mike and Jen and the others who made profession of faith. Next — the fellowship hall, crammed for a potluck luncheon to welcome our new pastor and his wife. Shane and Clay climbing the tree in front of the church, Jesse and Caleb playing their Gameboys on the piano bench during coffee, Kailey and Brooke doing a whimsical jig. Baptisms, choir concerts, Sunday school graduation, HANDS Team pancake breakfasts, Friendship Sunday, VBS, Gems Mother and Daughter banquet, Serve garage sale, Mindy and Marisa playing their instruments, Harry tuning up the soundboard, Jim and John peeling potatoes. Exquisite moments of hugs, friendship, worship, work, support for one another. In isolation, fleeting images, seemingly inconsequential. Collectively, an optical amplification blazing like a single laser beam, a God-blessed coherence of space and time so straight and true, it takes your breath away.

Band of disciples

These days it seems like I’m always writing about the communion of the saints. This is a bona-fide miracle. In my younger years I experienced the church as the offensive locus of carping conformity bent on quashing my need to think for myself. I strongly resisted constraints. My church (and denomination) still has that tendency to clamp down on speculative thinking. But I have more patience, restraint and forgiveness now. Maybe because I’ve experienced so much patience, restraint and forgiveness.

As an adult I’ve been fortunate to have visited many different churches — St. Paul’s in London, England, churches in the Netherlands, the historic Graafschap CRC in Holland, Mich., dozens of Ontario churches. Vacationing in Florida recently, I worshipped at the Bradenton CRC and the South Tampa Fellowship, an impressive megachurch. I’m always moved by the connection I feel with fellow-believers wherever I am.

Still, the fiercest longing and belonging remains staked at home in the church I joined when I was 23 years old. I gaze at the serious grey heads and bouncy blond curls in the pews in front of me and surprise myself at the surge of passionate loyalty. Why? Not because our church is particularly exceptional in any way. But I know the stories. I know who is battling demons, who is fighting to overcome a long-held grudge, who is bleeding from unhealed sorrows of the past. I know who keeps volunteering when they are bone-tired and who picks up the leadership reins even when they’d really rather not. I know who sticks with us despite compelling reasons to walk away. I know these Christ-followers. They know my story, too. We’re a haphazard spiritual family trying to live together in a dwindling house in need of repair. Sinners who have heard the call of Jesus “o’er the tumult,” as the old hymn says, banding together to love one another for better or worse.

As the photos flash by, we’re invited once again to see beyond ourselves — beyond our individualism, beyond our family clan, beyond our Coffee Break group, our Music Committee, our Board of Stewards, our Council. In the right light and with the right spirit, we see what God sees . . . his people, his friends, his delight. In the right Light and with the right Spirit, we see miracles. God dwelling in us and among us. The Wyoming CRC as just another manger.

Dec. column pic 2013