Saturday, June 13, 2015

Where -- and what -- is your church?

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Fujifilm X-E1, 55-200mm @ 148mm, ISO 200, 1 sec. @ f/16

Pope Francis has a lot to say about what the Church -- big "C" -- and the little "c" as well -- ought to be.  "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security," he wrote. "I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures."  

He added: "More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'"

I was moved a lot by this and by his call for churches to be hospitals for sinners as opposed to museums for saints.  This, of course, is nothing terribly new.  In the early 19th century the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote: "The church bells call to prayer, but not in a temple made by human hands. If the birds do not need to be reminded to praise God, then ought men not be moved to prayer outside of the church, in the true house of God, where heaven's arch forms the ceiling of the church, where the roar of the storm and the light breezes take the place of the organ's bass and treble, where the singing of the birds make up the congregational hymns of praise, where echo does not repeat the pastor's voice as in the arch of the stone church, but where everything resolves itself in an endless antiphony."

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Fujifilm X-E2, ISO 200, 50mm, 6/10 sec. @ f/16

And so I struggle with my own church -- the small "c" -- which is embarking on a capital campaign to "finish" the worship space which is not carpeted and parishioners sat in chairs until the recent addition of hand-me-down pews and kneelers, a throwback to the "Good Old Plastic Jesus" days.  How do I reconcile this with what the pope is calling for these days -- a church that is frugal, humble and out in the streets?

My parish held its first Mass nearly 17 years ago in a school cafeteria which we quickly outgrew. We then went into the gym for a few years until the banks let us build a worship center which had high ceilings, huge doors and a big debt in a troubled economy without the money to "finish" the project.

But despite the financial stress in the ensuing years there was something special about the "unfinished" church because it did, in fact, symbolize that building the church was a work in progress.  Our faith didn't need high ceilings or pews or kneelers.  We were a church active in the community, reaching out in social ministry despite our own troubles.  The church wasn't a building but rather the people.

Somehow that began to fade a bit and now there is a focus on "finishing" the worship space.  This doesn't seem to square well with what Pope Francis is telling us to be.  Yes, we need a "base camp" for our ministries which is what I would add to the papal call for us to be a hospital for sinners.  But that's what our churches should be -- hospitals and base camps, not monuments,  We are expected to get (at least figuratively) bruised and bloody in the streets, not comfortable inside.

It's a delicate balance.  I always liked the idea of the "unfinished" project as a symbol that our mission is a work in progress, reinforced by our simple chairs and concrete floors.  We were a community of faith and a beacon of hope when we were in the cafeteria.  The building doesn't make the church, the people do.  And the presence of God is not necessarily confined to a structure of stone, concrete and steel beams.  It can be experienced in the solemnity or simplicity of outdoors and in the grace of His people.

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