This is the Church

A little over a month ago, pre-pandemic, I attended a pastor group meeting across town. Before the pandemic, these PC(USA) pastors began gathering for friendship and support. Who knew we would need it more than ever? And at this most recent in-person gathering, our facilitator brilliantly used an old-school Serendipity resource to get us sharing a bit more from our hearts than our heads, something that is not always easy for pastors to do, at least the Presbyterian kind.

One of the four Quaker questions used in this particular conversation asked about a source of warmth we experienced as a child. We conversed first – somewhat uneasily, but growing in trust with one another – about our childhoods, where we spent them, and how those homes were heated. And from there, our time of sharing grew more interesting and vulnerable.

Some answered grandparents’ homes. Some answered their sources of warmth were found at school or an aunt or uncle’s house. I thought of my grandparents with sadness, my remaining grandparent turning 98 this year. Yes, those were times of warmth as well. But when it was my turn to answer, my words surprised me. “The Church,” I answered.

My ordination into the PC(USA) was only a few months ago. It was better than well-attended, I was honored by old friends and new friends who played significant roles in a really meaningful service, and I never imagined – never! – that ministry would look like this just three or four months later. I spent half of my career outside of “the club,” a youth minister, a mom, a military wife, a pastor, with kids and the slow, long journey through seminary, only to finally (!) complete every requirement sometime in the mid-point of my career. The mid-point? It’s true! I had already been in ministry twenty-some years. This halfway point was truly special and so appreciated, marking a fresh start and a new season. That was fine by me, and I grew to be humbled by the entire experience and so grateful to my God for choosing me – imagine that? – for ministry. So at my ordination, I cried … I mean cried, the entire time.

A few months later, here I was with colleagues I still sort of forget are colleagues now, not Committee on Preparation for Ministry members, and we shared from our hearts and memories where warmth was found. And I answered “the Church,” an institution I am fully aware has hurt and abused people along the way, sometimes affecting one’s faith and trust in God and people for years to come.

I get that. I spent a few years outside church walls. Having served as a youth minister, I reached the point a good sixteen years ago when I felt I needed to leave my profession and leave the Church in order to save my faith. I was disappointed, I was textbook burned-out, and I had reached the point of apathy where you just don’t care what the course of your career looks like from there on.

The story of coming home is a long one. And so is the story of where it all began. But just months ago – at this pastors’ meeting – I answered, “the Church.”

I grew up in the Church. It is where I learned to drink coffee. It is where I learned to do karate. I spent several afternoons a week in tow by my pastor-father to his after-school program, only realizing years later this was a brilliant design for youth ministry, especially in the 80s and 90s. The Church is where I learned to love people who were not like me – I mean really not like me – like the gentleman from remote parts of Nevada who spoke in gobbledy-gook but you had to love him, he was there and he loved people and wanted better for his life. Like the man who would come to my parents’ house; that was the first time I ever smelled whiskey, from his paper bag. Whew! Like the kids – like lost sheep – my loving parents let sleep in our basement because their homes were tough. Mine was not. The Church was a place where they too would know they were loved and embraced – why others and not them? – no matter who they were or what they had done. It was where I played youth group games in the dark, sang Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs, held a dripping candle each Christmas eve, and got to direct a church choir! I fell in love at the church, I learned to care for children and teach them at the church, I lost friends and experienced heartbreak at the church, because of the Church, and for the Church.

I suppose that remains true. But as the Church remains its people – those with whiskey on their breath and scars on their hands and bags under their eyes and stories they do not want to repeat – it remains. It is still the Church. It looks a little different right now, as we gather for Zoom meetings and comb sides of our hair and brush our teeth for afternoon Bible studies or meetings. It’s a bit different now, as we wear medical masks and hold our breath as we grab boxes of pasta and TP and sauce and maybe a candy bar or something non-essential on the way out for those who need help shopping and shouldn’t be leaving their homes. It is a little different now, as we seek and pray and discern how to reach those who cannot Zoom, who do not care, who are hurt and lonely and do not know the love of Christ and do not know the love of the Church, at its best, the love of people, who just want things to be a little better, give you a cup of hot coffee, a shy smile so you know you are loved.

We will sit again in those pews and sing Amazing Grace at the top of our lungs, laughing over the coffee pot and running through the halls for youth group and leaving messes behind for the custodians. And we’ll probably take the Church for granted again too, its warmth, its people, its blessing and presence in the most important parts of our lives. But where two or more are gathered, we remember. We remember those times. And we will feel that warmth upon our faces and our hearts again. ❤

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion …
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Psalm 137:1, 6