(Christian Courier column, August 24, 2015)
In June I attended the funeral of a dear aunt who passed away, as the program said, “Sure of her salvation through Jesus Christ, her Saviour.” Tante Jaike (Aunt Joyce) had lived an exemplary Christian life, serving in many capacities, including volunteering at a nursing home for decades. It was a blessing to hear comforting Scripture passages read aloud with deep reverence, to sing majestic hymns –“Be Thou My Vision,” “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” “In Christ Alone” — and to pray for God’s presence to surround us in our sorrow.
The simple experience of togetherness thrummed in my heart for days later. Frail, elderly faces from the past, cousins settled almost unrecognizably into middle age, convivial handshakes that conveyed mutual history not forgotten. To me, the gathering was quintessentially “church” – people interested in one another’s well-being, sharing hugs and coffee, united in faith.
In July I witnessed the wedding of one of my former students. Again the press of individuals assembled in a charming (and hot!) sanctuary, standing together hopefully before the face of God, affirming the vows of the happy couple. A palpable blessing. I didn’t know many of the people in the pews ahead of me. A few bald heads, one hipster long hair, a tyke with blond spikes. But I sensed a connectivity, invisible halos conducting shared joy. We sang: “By faith we see the hand of God … in the lives of those who prove his faithfulness, who walk by faith and not by sight.” Our presence at the wedding was just that, a walking by faith, proving God’s faithfulness for the next generation.
Now, it’s no secret, I’m a wannabe theologian. Not a day goes by that I’m not inhaling articles and blog posts on Christian topics from a wide array of perspectives. Sometimes the divergence of opinion – biblically well-articulated and well-supported — is dizzying.
What grounds me is the Body. Sitting in the pew among worshippers who are singing the same hymns, reciting the same Creeds, passing the bread and wine, and bowing their heads simultaneously to pray. It’s those lives, right next to me, who “prove his faithfulness,” who keep me from flying off into never-ending circuits of super-charged suppositions, statistics and arguments.
Michelle Van Loon, a Patheos blogger, using historian David Bebbington’s distinctives (conversionism, activism, Biblicism, crucientrism) and Barna Group’s definition of “born-again” Christianity, explains why she is still evangelical and what’s good about it. But then she goes on to list some of evangelicalism’s deficits: “Evangelicalism … is a highly individualistic expression of faith. These definitions don’t include any reference to baptism, communion, community, or of picking up one’s cross and following him daily; there is no frame of reference for the kingdom of God.” Her criticisms are valid and pinpoint precisely what I treasure about church. That concretion of sin and redemption we are as a congregation, those aggregate bits of clay and holy imprint we plunk down beside each other every Lord’s Day, those “ties that bind,” provide essential context and responsibility for my faith. A sacramental life is lived in the round. My thinking, reading and writing, and my actions have local parameters. Belonging equals sacrifice. It’s the cost of love.
Sarah Zarr, in “Wrestling with Sunday Mornings,” (Image) explains why she is taking a break from church attendance: “I deeply want to better understand why church matters. Maybe it will take letting it go to figure that out.” She’s not giving up on Christianity, she says, but she’s just not sure about the institution. I want to ask her: Don’t you love the people in your church? Won’t you miss them? Won’t they miss you? Your church attendance is not just about you! I want to refer her to Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith where author Kathleen Norris relates the gentle rebuke of a pastor friend: “… we go to church for other people. Because someone may need you there.”
Last Sunday we celebrated two baptisms. Cousins – a girl and a boy. Their fathers, brothers, have both served as deacons in our church. So has their dad, many times. Family members crowded the front pew, three generations hearing again the promises of a covenant-keeping God. Their lives are proving his faithfulness. And so is mine, as I witness the sacrament and promise to receive these children in love, to pray for them, and to help nurture them in the faith. God helping me.