Sunday, May 27, 2007

Pentecost 2007

Happy Birthday, old girl. Nearly 2000 years since that ordinary day when the most amazing things started happening in an obscure, troublesome corner of the Roman empire.

The wind, the Spirit of the Lord - that same breath that moved over the face of the deep on the first day of creation - that wind filled their little room and tongues of flame appeared above their heads and a new creation was born.

Happy birthday.

You've been through a lot, Mother Church. Wars and dictators. Plagues and earthquakes. Saints and madmen. You've gone through it. And by the grace of God, you've come through it. The cheeks aren't as smooth as they once were, and the hair is touched with gray, but the eyes still sparkle from time to time.

We've done a lot with the flame God gave us in that upper room. We've used it to light the darkness and to warm the chilly bones of your suffering children.
We've spread it over the face of the earth. We haven't always been careful as we ought to have been. We've mingled our own breath with the flame, hoping to make it burn brighter, spread faster. In our impatience, we've done harm in the world, and done harm to you.

But you're still here.

Like a mother who will not give up on her wayward children, you weep with us, discipline us, rejoice with us. You help us to welcome our babies and you help us to bury our dead.

Travel the world and you will find the church's flame burning. Shining like a beacon in the middle of a sin-sick city or glowing softly in the middle of a forest she stands - a stubborn reminder that we are not alone in this lonely universe. The church has many critics, and many of them are right. She is old and stubborn, set in her ways. She doesn't like to change, and is often hard on people who try to change her. She keeps too much, gives too little, holds on too tight, and lets go much too reluctantly. She's got a mean streak a mile wide and often seems more interested in obedience than reason. Much too much harm has been done - too many wounded hearts broken on her stone steps and wooden beams.

But she's still here.

She has been my friend since I was a child. I remember the dark Presbyterian wood of my youth. The smell of lilac perfume and moth balls and Lifeboy as the hard working people in our church in Pittsburgh would crowd into the heavy pews with the hymnal racks and the hearing aids. Her dark stone walls reminded us that even on Sunday, life was hard work - hard as the mills whose stacks filled the air with the dark soot that colored our lives and stained her walls. Her tall square bell tower called us to church and called us to reflect upward - her finger pointing ever heavenward.

I remember the mystery of the communion cups, like a little shot glass in my grandmother's trembling fingers. She would drink when the minister said "This do..." and then place the empty cup in the wooden holder on the pew in front of her. Dad never came to church when I was little. I just thought it was something a man grew out of. There were a few grown men there, but mostly it was the women who greeted my mom and gramma. They would smile at me and talk while I tugged at my mother's sleeve, wanting only to go home and take off my church shoes. Women taught my Sunday school - Miss Margaret, Mrs Misplay, Mrs. Swango. The minister was a man, but it was pretty obvious to me who did the work and who did the sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

When I was older, I joined the Boy Scouts and Dad became our Scoutmaster. At camp, we always had Sunday services and one of the other fathers would speak about honesty or helping people or one of the other scout values. All this made sense to me. These were grown men, but they weren't really talking about church stuff. They were talking about being good scouts and becoming good men. Then one weekend, Dad stood up. I was a little freaked and a little upset. I thought it was kind of hypocritical of him to talk in a chapel service when he didn't even go to church. He read to us from Psalms. "The heavens are telling the glory of God." Dad talked about the trees and the mountains of Western Pennsylvania where our families had grown up. This was where he found God. This was where his own father had shown him how to recognize a bird's song or track a deer through the autumn leaves. When Grampa died, the church stopped making sense to Dad. The rational, compassionate Father and Friend who was preached about from the big pulpit was no friend of my fathers. He had taken away his dad. There would be no more hunting trips. No more fishing in Canada. No more evenings at Forbes Field watching the Pirates and eating hot dogs. His father would not get the chance to watch me grow up. The God of church had seen to all that.

Here in the woods, it was a different story. Here my dad spoke a language I had never heard. He talked about a God whose fingers had scooped out the valleys and whose voice sang in the night. He saw the Creator's fingerprints all over the woods. God had provided fresh water, plants to provide shelter and save food. Even the stones for our fire ring were gifts from God over which we were not masters, but stewards. God had placed all this beauty in our care so that we might find rest from the smoke and the noise of the city. This was the place where the God my Dad knew lived.

Soon after that, Dad started coming to church. I grew up. He grew old and tired. When he died. I was not angry at God. My father had taught me to forgive, even my Creator's sins. We buried my father on a hill in the woods, far far from the city. He is with God.

The church and I have had our ups and downs. I am in awe of her most of the time. She has been through so much, meant so much, helped so many. The old tricks of the cathedral architects still take my breath away. Flying buttresses, soaring domes, rose windows, tiny side chapels. The church has been all these things, but so much more.

She has been our flawed and beautiful guardian - our beautiful partner in the stewardship of creation. She is a glorious monster, a tender giant watching over us, yet reliant on us for her life.

We are the church. That is true. A church is not a building, it is people. But the church is much more than we could ever be on our own. The church is people, but it is not only people. "Only people" is a room full of disciples who have said goodbye to Jesus twice in a few months, lost and a little confused about what it all meant and where they should go from here. "The church" is a street full of apostles speaking in strange languages to suspicious ears about the glory of a Creator who leaves fingerprints everywhere - even on human hearts. The church was born of the marriage between God and God's people. She is our mother AND our child.

Happy birthday, old girl. God bless you.


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