A bunch of stuff has been written about the church, and this summer I’m leading a Bible study with some friends, and church is one of the main topics. I went to my bookshelf and grabbed some of my favorite quotes from some of my favorite people to get my head on straight. What follows is mainly their words, not mine (italics will be my own commentary). May they inspire you the way they’ve inspired me!
I need to set the stage for this first quote. The Israelites have spent whole lot of time in captivity, but they were eventually cleared to leave Babylon and head home. This is the story of them laying the foundation for their new tabernacle since the old one was destroyed.
When the workers laid the foundation of The Temple of God, the priests in their robes stood up with trumpets, and the Levites, sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise God in the tradition of David king of Israel. They sang antiphonally praise and thanksgiving to God:
Yes! God is good!
Oh yes—he’ll never quit loving Israel!
All the people boomed out hurrahs, praising God as the foundation of The Temple of God was laid. As many were noisily shouting with joy, many of the older priests, Levites, and family heads who had seen the first Temple, when they saw the foundations of this Temple laid, wept loudly for joy. People couldn’t distinguish the shouting from the weeping. The sound of their voices reverberated for miles around.
-Ezra 3:10-13 (The Message)
I discovered this section of Ezra in one of those Bible-in-a-Year Bibles. Not gonna lie, I wasn’t expecting much out of my section for the day, but this chapter shaped my definition of church, community, and worship. The young people there didn’t remember the first Temple. They hadn’t spent time there, didn’t know what they were missing. So they shouted big time. The older ones—the ones who remembered the first Temple, who once put dusty footprints in its courtyards—wept. Sorrow was mixed with their joy.
But far away, no one could tell who was shouting and who was crying. The noice melded into one great roar.
This is community. This is worship. This is church.
“Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident. Death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life….
I realized that this was my place and work in the church, to be a witness to the truth that dazzles gradually. I would be a witness to the Holy Spirit’s formation of congregation out of this mixed bag of humanity that is my congregation—broken, hobbled, cripples, sexually abused and spiritually abused, emotionally unstable, passive and passive-aggressive, neurotic men and women. Men at fifty who have failed a dozen times and know that they will never mount to anything. Women who have been ignored and scorned and abused in a marriage in which they have been faithful. People living with children and spouses deep in addictions. Lepers and blind and deaf and dumb sinners. Also fresh converts, excited to be in on this new life. Spirited young people, energetic and eager to be guided into a life of love and compassion, mission and evangelism. A few season saints who know how to pray and listen and endure. And a considerable number of people who pretty much just show up. I wonder why they bother. There they are. The hot, the cold, and the lukewarm, Christians, half-Christians, almost Christians. New-agers, angry ex-Catholics, sweet new converts. I didn’t choose them. I don’t get to choose them.”
-Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 12, 27
This book is my guideline for my summer Bible study, and this quote is the one guiding my thoughts about the wonderful humans soon to fill my living room once a week. We are in this together, this world of death, learning how to live a resurrection life.
Not long ago, an aged woman in my grandma’s town passed away. She had lived very respectably in the community for years, to the age of ninety-seven.
My grandma attends a little Bible church, and that church was readying for the funeral.
My grandma’s church is a puzzle—I say this not as a put-down, but as a description. It had been built elsewhere (I heard someone say in another part of Texas, and someone else say Europe) at some point in the late nineteenth-early-twentieth century. The church stood in that early location for a while, but then the Lord moved, or the congregation moved—at any rate, the church building itself moved. It was dismantled piece-by-piece, board-by-board numbered and accounted for. And it was loaded on a train, and unloaded into this new would-be-orchard town. And they put the church back together—just like a coffee table puzzle.
So the church has been there, mostly in good shape. Not a lot has changed, though the bell tower has developed back troubles. The bell tower, in fact, was repainted not that long ago. But it seems that it’s insides are unwell, and the wood has either rotted or been gnawed at by insects or perhaps just resigned from long years. Anyway, ringing the bell became kind of a structural hazard.
And all of this meandering takes us back to the funeral, because as the church readied for the celebration of life, one of the younger old men of the church began arguing that the deceased’s important to the community merited a longstanding church tradition.
“We have to ring the bell for each year of her life,” Allen said. “That’s the tradition.”
“I have lived here all my life,” my grandma replied. “And I have never heard of this being done at any funeral.”
Recall that the deceased was 97. And the bell tower is out of order. But Allen is in the VFW and sometimes he wears a leather jacket, so people listen to him, I guess. The plan, as Allen puts it, just needs a little resourcefulness. Sure, we can’t ring the bell by pulling on the rope. But someone could crawl up the tower and beat the bell with a sledgehammer wrapped in leather. And Allen knows just the guy for the job.
“Why can’t he just use a rubber mallet?” my mom demanded.
“He said it has to be a sledgehammer in leather,” my grandma said, coolly.
The next time I saw my grandma, I asked about the funeral. I was really interested in how the community felt about the 97 tolls.
“Ah,” my grandma said. “It got too hot in the bell tower. He only got to 32.”
-Kaitlin Ruiz (Twitter)
Kaitlin is one of my favorite humans on Twitter, and I read this story in the middle of thinking about church and my Bible study. I just thought this story was beautifully written and wonderful. Simply wonderful.
“I remember once when I was a young child my father helped to pull down a church that had burned. Lightning struck the steeple, and then the steeple fell into the building. It rained the day we came to pull it down. The pulpit was left intact, standing there in the rain, but the pews were mostly kindling. There was a lot of praising the Lord that it happened at midnight on a Tuesday. It was a warm day, a warm rain, and there was no real shelter, so everybody ignored it, more of less. All kinds of people came to help. It was like a camp meeting and a picnic. They unhitched the horses, and we younger children lay on an old quilt under the wagon out of the way and talked and played marbles, ad watched the older boys and the men clamber over the ruins, searching out Bibles and hymnals. They would sing, we would all sing, “Blessed Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” and the wind would blow the rain in gusts and the spray would reach us where we were. It was cooler than the rain was. The rain falling on the wagon bed sounded the way it does in an attic eave. It never rains, but I remember that day. And when they had gathered up all the books that were ruined, they made two graves for them, and put the Bibles in one and the hymnals in the other, and then the minister whose church it was—a Baptist, as I recall—said a prayer over them. I was always amazed, watching grownups, at the way they seemed to know what was to be done in any situation, to know what was the decent thing….
The ashes turned liquid in the rain and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you would hardly know one form another. My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands. “Never mind,” he said, “there’s nothing cleaner than ash.” But it affected the taste of that biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it’s rather forgotten now….
My point here is that you never do know the actual nature of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing “The Old Rugged Cross” while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. In those days no grown woman ever let herself be seen with her hair undone, but that day even the grand old women had their hair falling down their backs like schoolgirls. It was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was.”
-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 94-96
The sorrow of a burned church mixed with the joyful faithfulness of community and the steady hands of a father emblazoned this section into my head when I read it. It put words to that lump we get in our throats, that hope-and-sorrow which floats just beneath our sternum. This is truly a remarkable reflection on communion—the greatest example of sorrow and hope.
I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I loved the different voices all singing one song, the various tones and qualities, the passing lifts of feeling, rising up and going out forever…
I thought that some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place. The people didn’t really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still they liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude. I loved to hear them sing “The Unclouded Day” and “Sweet By and By”:
We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blest…
And in times of sorrow when they sang “Abide with Me,” I could not raise my head.
-Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 162-163
To close us out, I have my man Wendell. The book Jayber Crow is all about the church, really. It’s about heaven and what it looks like to live and love on the margins. I think this quote captures the “normalness” of the people who make up God’s church. Luckily, we’re not the ones who make those old hymns special.