This past Saturday we spent the evening at Disney Springs with some friends who were down for vacation. On the drive over to meet them, I asked Sarah for her thoughts on whether or not we’d be attending a church service the next day. The week had been a long and tiring one for her – her first week at her new teaching gig – and I could only assume we were going to get in quite late after our visit.
“Oh, I had figured we were still going to go to one of the later services,” she said.
“You know, I think I need it,” I replied.
I recently posted a note on Facebook that explains what my family is going through right now. In short, at the first of the year the church we moved down here to minister to and within had to close – perhaps better put, needed to close (for the sake of blessed resurrection of many stripes) – and it’s left my little family of three in the deep end of uncertainty. I’m moving along at a good pace toward not feeling much shame over it all, but there are other things I’m just barely staying ahead of in this mess. There’s an anger that’s always lurking about under the surface – a beast of a thing born and fed from aspects of this experience. If I let it, this anger could consume me in one swallow. And there’s such confusion right now, too. Why would we so clearly sense an invitation from God to leave everything we had up north to come south for disaster? This Easter it won’t be terribly difficult for us to place ourselves in the sandals of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And fear. Talk about a beast of a thing that can consume in one swallow.
“I think I need it.”
I wish I could say it was mercifully short, but there was a long stretch in my life in which I constantly questioned the validity of the larger Sunday gathering – with its smattering of songs, its monologue, its quick-service Communion, its passing of the plate, its surrender to a sea of faces. I huffed and puffed and did my best to blow the whole thing away in the name of Acts 2.
And then scales started to fall from my eyes.
I choose that language carefully, because I can’t rightly say the scales fell in some grand, singular moment. More often than not, spiritual immaturity dies a drawn-out and quiet death. A few scales fell when I slouched my way into a worship gathering the Sunday before my father died, and I was caught off guard and put right by a throng of voices, 300-strong, singing of how a Redeemer lives, how the centre holds. A few more scales fell when I found myself in a worship gathering in Cleveland just as our church-planting work was taking a turn toward the overwhelming. I was caught off guard and put right when I shut up for a good, long moment, and – along with everyone else there – chose to believe that at select times God is quite content to speak challenging and consoling truth through just one frail man or woman who has fitfully and tirelessly opened themselves to a word from God meant for the community. And I suspect a few more scales fell when some Sunday I limped into a gathering, laboring under the memory of some sin, and I was caught off guard and put right when I – when all of us limping fools – let Him back in, the bread hitting our tongues, the juice washing it down (with our hearts surely burning within us). A few scales more to the floor when the plate was passed and I was caught off guard and put right by a glimpse at collected mites that prove there is an enduring and selfless generosity in God’s people. And that sea of faces – some still shining they are so fresh from the womb, and others wrinkled and pocked. I’ve lost count of how many scales I’ve shed as I’ve gathered in mass with brothers and sisters from all over, caught off guard and put right when I see him and her, because to see is to think of several stories with plot twists that can only be explained by grace.
“I think I need it.”
And so there I was yesterday at a worship gathering of just north of 200 souls. What happened didn’t catch me off guard, because I’ve come ‘round to expect it: I was put right again. I was put right if only through two things that happened – though I suspect through even more than I realize. First, I heard that throng of voices singing. They were singing a greater story over me that has a beginning, middle, and end. This is quite something for someone like me, currently stuck in the messy middle of a story. I heard the story sung – the story sung – by 200 varied voices, and I believed it once again, and I sang along, joining the throng for the sake of my neighbor who might need to hear it from me, too. (Because we are “comforted to comfort,” you see.) And then, at the close of the gathering, a helpful, shaping word from our friend Lisa. Actually, let me say that differently to prove the unfolding point of this post: And then, at the close of the gathering, a word from Lisa, a friend we perhaps would not have seen this week – and a helpful, shaping word we perhaps would not have gained – had it not been for Sunday. And I do hope we offered her a helpful, shaping word in return. (Because we are “comforted to comfort,” you see.)
Yesterday morning I was found in a mass of folks in worship not as some Sunday duty; it was my accepting a gift from the mass, and my giving that gift back in return – even it was somewhat swept up in the morning’s overall wave of activity, or was doled out to just one friend.
Now, can the church be the church without the Sunday gathering – the pulling together of all her threads into a tapestry for one hour? Goodness, yes. I know of several here and abroad who are only able to pursue a house church model, either as they begin the good and holy work of church planting or as they tremble in the shadow of persecution, and they are fine – more than fine! And I would never even flirt with speaking any sort of condemnation to anyone who seeks a house church-only ministry for the foreseeable future. But I do think that when we are able – when the times allow it – we ought to chase down a Sunday together. Because the pulling together of the scattered threads – that tapestry of diverse voices: What a gift.
Are some Sunday gatherings that are made available to us a foul-smelling mess of performance for performance’s sake or multi-step instruction in sin management and self-messiahship? Goodness, yes. And you and I would do well to avoid gatherings that revel in spectacle and offer antidotes that prove themselves as helpful in healing as cotton candy would be. But the need to avoid the diseased Sunday gatherings is not a call to avoid any and all.
Is it possible the church can celebrate Sunday at the expense of doing life together and life on mission? Goodness, yes. And yet I’ve found the difficult Sunday work of holding together a community of strange strangers for just one hour has taught me an awful lot about how to do life in the everyday with my believing and unbelieving neighbors – and in return, my doing life in the everyday with a community of strange strangers has taught me an awful lot about how to better do that difficult Sunday work. It’s wonderful how it works out, really.
It’s no small matter of importance to note that in Acts 2, Luke tells us the early church gobbled up the fruit of gatherings both small and large – that the church met in homes, but always pushed themselves to spill out into and down the streets, that all might come together in the temple courts. It took me a while to get around to saying it – and it still sounds like a pretty pompous thing to say even today – but I think the early church was on to something.