Being There

“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
~ Annie Dillard

My wife and I are part of a small church (attendance was up Sunday, edging above 40 for the first time since Easter) that has been in our community since 1853. To be honest, I wonder at times if it makes a difference that I’m there at all (and I’m the preacher), but then I look around and remember why it’s important that I am and that anyone else would be there too. There’s a young man on one side of the sagging sanctuary holding a little girl who isn’t his child, but she clings to him like he belongs to her. There’s a man my age who was just released from jail, signaling me with a victory sign as he enters. In the vestibule stands an older woman who sees life differently since her stroke, waiting to hug me and give the same greeting from her sister she gives twice every Sunday morning. To my left is the older man who lost his wife a few years ago and finds his purpose in life these days by tending the climbing roses in the prayer garden. There’s the sweet rancher in the choir who silently mourns the fact every Sunday that she can do everything with her weathered husband except attend church. There’s the bent and largely hairless woman who has helped so many others through times of crisis, but now wages her own battle against the onslaught of cancer. We are all different, but each Sunday morning we celebrate what we hold in common.

The reason, I think, that so many find it hard to go to church is that we’ve largely lost the notion of what it means to be church. We confuse participles for the noun. Singing, praying, dancing, preaching, teaching, these are all but modifiers of the real thing. I enjoy a measure of pageantry and am a person of habit, so I like ritual in worship. Predictability need not stifle expression; it may, in fact, liberate it. I thrill to soul stirring music (unless we repeat the same line more than seven times). Good Preaching always moves me and bad preaching perturbs me (not to say I haven’t done more than my fair share of it). But all these may be experienced alone and in private, particularly with the advent of wireless and television. What makes church “church” is that I am present with other pilgrims, connected physically as well as spiritually, and it is relationship that morphs worship into life transformation. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder; it cools the heart and dulls the spirit. This is not a new problem. One particular church in the New Testament was having a dickens of a time getting folks to show up, hence the admonition: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” Me loving you, and you loving me, liberates both of us to love and worship God.

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