In Europe one cannot avoid the presence of ancient church houses. Their towers dominate the skyline while the influence of the congregations who built them has waned. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978.
I saw much of the public kind of religion growing up. I saw it put on like Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, but it did not always fit well like the too tight dress shoes you out grew not long ago. I saw. I was not blind. I could tell that it was a show that made no difference most of the time. But many of us for “Momma’s sake” or “old time’s sake” or just for “Pete’s sake” went through the motions. I wondered if some folk were touchy about religion because the one they had was not really theirs. They must have borrowed it, for even bringing up the subject made them feel a sham, and a good thump from a question was enough to produce an echoing hallow “thud” from the empty shell of their faith.
Even I went dutifully to church despite such considerations. In defense I cultivated strategies to endure the deadening weight of stultifying music inexpertly rendered with pretension and immodest but undeserved pride; I sat through endless pompous orations delivered with stentorian rhetoric that seemed so interminable, irrelevant and beside the point of my life. I found that I could entertain myself with mental games that only occasionally were disruptive. For example if I stared at the podium, spot lit with a single bright light, I could burn into my retinas the image of the scene so that I could erase the figure of the sweating evangelist and he would disappear. I could still hear his voice however. I counted the holes in the tiles and did mental arithmetic calculating the average number of holes per tile and per square foot. As much as I could I often went elsewhere in my mind.
Despite the boredom I complied with my parents command to get ready every Sunday morning without audible protest partly because of the guilt I felt whenever I was apostate and partly because of the deep-seated hope that flickered in my breast that perhaps I would at last meet God in the church and that He would begin to answer some of my most troubling questions. But I was taught to look with suspicion on novelty in matters religious; questions raised by science and “Higher Criticism” were dismissed by most as new fangled and suspect. The “old time religion” we sang about that was “good enough for Paul and Silas” had to be “good enough for me.” Unfortunately and paradoxically, the religion of my fathers I learned was a twentieth century contrivance, and I suspected that the novelty of the first century Jesus-way would have shocked the congregants and parishioners of my church with its alien form and Middle Eastern subtlety.
All Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds
Now don’t get me wrong; there were plenty of things that I liked about the church, but they mainly had to do with the people, imperfect as they were. We were a family, or a community at the very least. I felt loved and cared for by people who did not have to give a care about me, but did nevertheless. This community of a few hundred souls was nowhere more evident than when we had “All day singing and dinner on the grounds.” The church potluck was something I looked forward to with the pleasure of a healthy adolescent appetite. Of course there was an etiquette and morality that was not spoken of in public nor declared explicitly but that you learned at home. I can still hear my mother’s admonition: “Never take as much as you want. If there is only a little left in the pot take no more than half. Remember the people in line behind you. Don’t embarrass your momma or your God. You don’t want to make God or me blush, now do you? Instead make them both proud of you.” I perversely dreamed of an all day dinner (and singing on the grounds) when we could have as much as we wanted. When I heard stories about heaven this metaphor always leapt to mind. I wondered about what was the church, at the first. I hoped it was like what I dreamed of.
The study of the origin of words that we daily use tells us much about how humans have used (and misused) them over the ages and what we are unwittingly saying when we speak them. The etymology of the word “church” in English versus the New Testament word “ekklesia” (the called out ones) that it translates is informative in this regard. Scholars of language tell us that “church” originates in the non-Biblical Greek word “kyriakon” (literally “of the Lord”) perhaps also a contracted form of “kyriake oikon” (Lord’s House). Over the centuries the word slipped into Gothic dialects as kirche that, in turn, migrated to “church” in English. How different is the current meaning and connotation of this word from the original meaning it translates! It seems that “church people” have mistaken the church house for the “called out ones” that assemble there, substituting architecture for biology. The Apostle Paul likens the ekklesia to the body and bride of Christ, a living entity, not a brick and mortar edifice.
Over the decades of my life, as I wandered from place to place, I came to understand more of this reality. I saw empty church houses throughout the world: beautiful buildings dedicated to God but that had no life within them any more. I have also observed ecclesiastical institutions that still functioned but were as empty of real vitality as a deserted kirk on the moor. Gratefully, I have known exceptions.
When we arrived in Pasadena for our sojourn in a postdoctoral assignment we, as was our custom, visited the local church house on Sunday early in our stay. When we walked into the meeting room we were immediately embraced by the group that included (to our surprise and delight) friends that we had known years before and thousands of miles away. The seminarians in the small gathering of the Sunday School, who were as transient as we, showed us that we must “love in a hurry.” Strangers no longer, we went deep and were loved well even to this day.
A Sojourn in the Desert
Our assignment called for a time abroad in Germany and Hungary. Despite our best intentions, we were unsuccessful at connecting with a local congregation in the six months we were abroad. Surrounded by kind but secular friends and coworkers, we were nevertheless “on our own” spiritually. It was a sojourn in the desert, dry and difficult. We felt the presence of God as we traveled but we missed the encouragement and fellowship that we had known in Pasadena. Great was the rejoicing when we returned. I resolved never again to live in isolation.
Thus, as we have relocated the several times in our itinerant life, we have sought out where God would have us graft into His body, the church. There were occasions of heartache, for sure, on this journey when human imperfections caused hurt in the body. There were times of desperation that drove us to our knees, as when our long-time faith family came close to shuttering the church house doors. But from our humbled position God amazed us and filled our hearts with joy as we realized that it was not “our” church but His. Yes, it was a Lazarus moment when the congregation roared back to life as satellite a “campus” of a larger, healthier body. Ultimately, the resurrected congregation became again a separate and independent entity, unique in its context and membership. It was then that I re-learned that a real church was not a social club but a living, breathing collection of Christ-following but not yet-perfected-saints committed to Christ and one another.
It was there I was known most intimately for the first time outside of my family and—wonder of wonders—loved anyway by my brothers and sisters in Christ, a terrestrial example of heavenly grace. When we were led at my retirement to leave the college town to be nearer our children, we grieved our separation from the dear saints we had come to love. In our annual migrations to and from our summer retirement home in the Colorado mountains, the pull of this faith family is irresistible. We inevitably find reason to deviate a few hundred miles from a direct route just to worship again with our sibs there, for it was there we learned that church means “doing life together,” complete with mutual accountability and encouragement. You cannot long mutually care deeply about others and appreciate them without it becoming habitual and natural.
The church/Mosque in Pecs, Hungary that was constructed as the Pasha Gazi Kasim Mosque during the century-long Turkish occupation, demolishing the original Gothic church to obtain stones to build the mosque. Then in the 19th century, the building was rededicated for use as a church. In the foreground the Matteson girls pose in the late fall of 1978. Photo credit: Sam Matteson
So now that we have moved in retirement to two new locales, we as genuine “snowbirds” we have identified two congregations where we can do life. As we alternate seasonally between the two ranges, the Rockies and the Cumberland Plateau, we have endeavored in each venue to invest in the lives of our Jesus-sibs and be shepherded and nurtured in return. Thus, we hope that in a real sense we can continue to partake of an appetizer of the banquet that awaits the church, the All-day-singing and dinner-on-the-grounds.