“Yesterday we got the old mosque into order, with rough matting round the walls & on the floor & our hymn roll hung above the well, & this morning we had our first meeting in it. It looks so beautiful & simple, with the whitewash & pillars & brown matting, & a gleam through the open door of the richly coloured tiles of the “skiffa” – later I hope to curtain off a corner of the mosque itself so that we can see both men & women from where we sit, without their seeing each other. We have morning prayers there every day in Arabic – ourselves.” 6 June 1893
Sunday morning. I sit in the pew, enveloped by music from the pipe organ. Sunlight illuminates the familiar designs of the stained glass windows. I view familiar and new (to me) people take their places for an hour of worship. It has been almost thirteen years since we left this church home of thirty-seven years. Memories flood my very being: sitting as a family with Dave leading worship, baptisms and weddings, conferences and concerts, fellowship and friendships. A cycle of activities and celebrations – year in and year out – anchored in this weekly sacred hour.
This is the capstone of an emotional weekend, coming back to Lake Wales, lodged in the church’s charming Mission House – “The Dandelion Cottage.” We visited Bok Tower Gardens, a place of significance to our family (day trips with young children, moonlight concerts, Easter Sunrise services) as well as for me personally as I retreated regularly, through the years, to the Garden Cafe to write – a break from the same children whom I now long to see. Our hearts are filled to overflowing as we connect with old friends and meet new people, now part of the church family.
The purpose of this weekend was an invitation to speak at a Tapestry Tea hosted by women of the church. The setting – Fellowship Hall filled with beautifully decorated tables laid with linen and set with lovely china plates and teacups, centerpieces of roses and greenery – ministered to the spirit with beauty and the love that went into the preparations. I was given a text (Hebrew 10:23-25), which prompted the topic: “Women Meeting Together.” The heart of the passage spoke to point: “Let us not give up meeting together.” A subject particularly apt given the pandemic-related season of isolation.
But now, sitting with our long-time “family of faith,” – spanning a fifty-year relationship – I find myself applying that admonition to the larger community to whom the writer of Hebrews intended: the church. Admittedly, emotions blur imperfections, remembering all the benefits of being connected in study and service and worship and fellowship – in community, this community – over time in countless ways. Yet I’ve lived too long to be sustained by sentiment. Church is not without flaws. People have been wounded or, inadvertently, slipped through the cracks when they most needed support. Church, for some, is a place of pain. For all the perks of community, it is not hard to see why some would choose to leave – or, to quote the author of Hebrews, “give up meeting together.”
Furthermore, I must admit that there have been aspects of pandemic-Sundays that we have come to enjoy: luxuriating in relaxed unstructured schedules, padding down to the den in comfy clothes, grabbing mugs of coffee and a slice of Sara Lee breakfast cake and settling in to a feast of sermons – listening to our two sons preach live in their respective pulpits, tuning in later to other favorite services. Home together alone. Quite nice, really.
“Let us not give up meeting together” – the writer instructs, adding “as some are in the habit of doing” making it clear that he is speaking to a specific people and situation – not just opining vague theory. Not only is there a clear directive in this particular passage but it is a theme threading throughout Scripture. Why is this so important? Or more to the point: “Why church?!”
I suppose because God instructs us to “meet together” should be reason enough but surely there is reason behind the instructive. At start, Scripture teaches that there is both a vertical and a horizontal aspect to relationships. We are made not only to be in relationship to God but in relationship with other people. To be perfectly honest, it is the horizontal – person to person – that gives us the most trouble. As someone said, “the only problem with church is the people. Yet, the people are the church. And the church is our “family of faith.” Just as within our nuclear families we have relational challenges, so it is with our church family. And it is in that very struggle that we are refined, rough edges sanded. Catherine Marshall wrote: “In relation to others we become full persons.”
Why Church? As I gaze out over the congregation – the family of faith that nurtured me and helped us raise our children, that question becomes intensely personal. I picture our children being baptized, us parents pledging to raise them in the Christian faith, the congregation giving their assent by raised hands to support us in our endeavor. And they did. I remember Sunday School teachers who taught them Bible stories and nursery help who gave us space from squalling infants and rambunctious toddlers. . . youth leaders who provided a Christian world-view through weekly meetings and small groups and took energetic teens on retreats and offered group activities all the while re-enforcing Christian life-style in their peer culture. . . individuals who encouraged our young with notes or words of encouragement, who modeled for them what Christian life looked like – in practice. . .
My own faith journey can be mapped, in large part, by the instruction provided from the pulpit and augmented by teachings in smaller gatherings – Sunday School or Circle or Fellowship groups – where there was the freedom to discuss, even debate, what we’d read or been told. Holy Days – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost – we celebrated together the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of His brief life on earth, seasons of joy and penitence (Advent, Lent) and the ordinary days in the remaining weeks and months of the liturgical year. “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon and stars in their courses above.” And, of course, the sacraments – baptism and communion – reminding us along our plodding journey who we are – Whose we are – in light of Eternity.
Then there is worship! Oh, I can lift my weak voice in words and songs of praise but (!) when my voice is supported by the prayers and praises of other believers, my song under-girded with the swell of the organ or keyboard and choir – I am often transported to higher realms of worship.
Perhaps the value of community is most appreciated in the context of need. In times of woundedness – emotional or physical – placing the name of a loved one on the prayer chain (however broken it sometimes seems) insures that our need will be recognized and that some will respond in prayer – or maybe with soup bowl or flower pot. This past year when Dave experienced four unexpected surgeries, cards and calls from two congregations, past and present, brought unspeakable comfort and made us aware in a whole new way what it means to be part of a community of caring.
There are the benefits that come from corporate giving that ones single efforts can not duplicate. My small monetary gift, added to other gifts, can make a bigger difference than mine alone to both the operation and ministry of the larger body of Christ. The same can be said of service. Shoulder to shoulder, figuratively speaking, acts of service – church and beyond – likewise have greater impact together than alone. When we meet corporately – whether for a Missions Conference or a Women’s Luncheon or Church Family Retreat – we have the benefit of combined resources to provide the special speaker or event to edify our faith and inspire us in our daily walk.
No one understood this better than Lilias. She longed for a church visible in Algeria. From her earliest days in North Africa that was a defined goal: Christians gathered in community. Church. When in 1893, five years after their arrival in Algiers, they purchased their first home in the Casbah of the ancient city, Lilias was elated to discover an old mosque, amongst the rabbit-warren of many rooms, from a previous era. She immediately began to envision adapting this for their purposes – a sacred space – and set to work designating areas toward that end: an old masonary tank converted to a baptistery, mats on the ground for sitting as was their custom – even planning a curtained area to separate men from women, a requisite requirement, with leaders in view from both sides. She joyfully reports in her diary a fledgling meeting with three women on one side of the curtain, several men on the other side – harbinger of a church – but alas, this would not materialize in her lifetime. Young Christians – “baby souls” she called them – would have to struggle individually without the support of a Christian community. It must be noted that now, a century after her life, there is a church visible in Algeria! It is credited, in part, to seeds planted by Lilias and her fellow-workers along with others of like heart. What is planted for Eternity will produce fruit eternally. .
Why church? There are countless reasons to meet together beyond those of my musings. And, admittedly, there are many reasons not to risk community. Church is not always – in truth, ever – the place that it should be in ideal. Just look at the early church and the letters to young congregations calling out divisions or argument or false teachings. Indeed there is a case for both sides. But, on balance, in a time of fragmentation and undermining of values that have, in the past, sustained our society, church has the potential of providing ballast to our fragile souls adrift in a rough sea. By simply showing up we make ourselves aware of need, present to help and available to the Spirit’s leading in and through our lives. We make ourselves vulnerable to be helped. To forgive and to be forgiven. We were not meant to go the journey alone.
Meeting together can be a refreshing cup of cold water. It can, at times, save our lives. We can shore up each other’s faith in a culture where Christian faith is trivialized, even mocked. When our faith is flagging or wavering due to circumstances or intimidation by the world around us, we are encouraged – heartened, strengthened – by each other. Tish Harrison Warren wrote: “Belief isn’t a feeling inside us but a reality outside of us into which we enter, and when we find our faith faltering, sometimes all we can do is to fall on the faith of the saints. We believe together. Thank God belief isn’t left to me and my ever-fluctuating faithfulness.” James K. A. Smith puts it this way: “Some days I show up at church with my doubts and I’m kind of counting on you to sing for me.” We need to sing for each other. We can be a life-line to each other in pain, struggle or doubt. And joy.
I leave this sanctuary with a refreshed heart and renewed conviction as to the importance of church – yes, church with all its flaws. I’ll return to our community of faith in Mt. Dora buoyed by this reunion and with revived appreciation for our present church-visible and for the Church Universal which unites Christians in all places and all time: past, present, future. And I will remind myself of the admonition of Scripture:
Let us not give up meeting together
Let us encourage one another
Let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds
(from Hebrews 10:24,25 NIV)