The conversation I remembered went something like this…
“My friend goes to talk to God.”
“But why do you go to church?”
“I go to talk to my friend.”
I’ve been thinking about this dialogue for about fifteen years. I don’t remember where I got it, but I know I read it in seminary. The longer I do this work of leading faith communities as pastor the more truth I see in these two statements. I think they are complementary. The community life we share is just as important as our relationship with God. We form friendships and support each other in our common bond as believers in Christ which lends an intangible spiritual component to our life together. As people we need time to nurture both the spiritual dimension of our relationship with God, while also taking time for play and service and learning together. We need common prayers and liturgies that bind us and inform us just as much as we need a coffee pot (or its equivalent, hot tea or a cold drink of something else works perfectly fine too) to stand around and shoot the breeze.
This little dialogue asks us to consider, “What kind of church do we want to be?” I set out Monday morning determined to find the quote. I considered it a while and thought I remembered the author, so I grabbed a stack of books off my shelf and started rummaging through them. I found many other useful quotes and insights; but not what I was looking for at first. This particular author is a Jewish rabbi, who is a bit unconventional, but I liked reading him as a voice of contrast to other things I was learning while training to be pastor. After six books and a couple of hours, I found the quote I was looking for; and for fifteen years, I remembered it wrong. It actually reads like this…
“That wonderful storyteller Harry Golden, made this point in one of his stories. When he was young, he once asked his father, ‘If you don’t believe in God, why do you go to the Synagogue regularly?’ His father answered, ‘Jews go to Synagogue for all sorts of reasons. My friend Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle.’” (Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. [New York: Avon Books, 1981], 122.)
Golden was speaking specifically of his family and faith tradition, but I think this quote offers universal qualities of our experience. What strikes me after re-reading these lines fifteen years later is that this mock conversation is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. The opinion expressed is that friendships are enough and somehow God can either be secondary or completely unimportant as long as we are bringing people together. That doesn’t quite seem right, does it? It certainly doesn’t sit right with me. I hope our life together is about more than that. It seems to me one of the things we should be doing is evangelizing our own; especially those who get dragged along by a friend or a spouse, or who come just to spend time around the proverbial coffee pot. I started wondering how we can ever hope to continue to call ourselves “church” if we are too passive to even strike up conversations about God with one another in the building.
Then it occurred to me that we already do this; and whether it is intentional or not, we do it almost naturally. Without trying to “convert” the people who get dragged along, we do our best to include them. We do model what we believe about God and each other in the church and the fellowship hall. I can think of many people who over time became leaders in each of the places I’ve served who were first brought on the elbow of someone else; many of whom were reluctant to start coming at all. The word “evangelism” doesn’t have to mean shoving “religion” down people’s throats. All we have to do to evangelize is point out where we see God at work so others can catch a real glimpse of the kingdom of God. It is not as hard as you might think. Through you they can see what it’s like to be people who genuinely care about each other, forgive each other, tolerate each other, and want to do good things for others together.
When we start to model community we start to talk specifics in matters of faith and God. We start to take that faith with us and live it around others. We serve elsewhere in the community. We invite and welcome others because it’s who we have learned to be. We are less likely to “go to church” but consider ourselves “part” of a church community, because that is where and how we belong. The concept of God as a divine community: Father, Son and Holy Spirit is less abstract because we see the face of God in each other.
Who is the Father?
The Father is the one who calls us children. We are part of God’s family, created and claimed in God’s own image. We see the Father at work in each other as we welcome one another, welcome the stranger, and care for the world we live in.
Who is Jesus?
We see Jesus at the baptismal font, the altar at communion, in the crosses that adorn our art on display, as the words of scripture are read and talked about, and in the words of forgiveness announced for all who gather. We also see Jesus in our prayers for each other and the world, in our work and service to others, in every new face we meet, every partnership we make in the community that helps others, and in those whose lives are changed because of it.
Who is the Spirit?
The Spirit is both the glue that binds us together and the driving force that sends us out. The Spirit draws us into the adventure that is faith, and calls us to do things we never thought we could accomplish together.
What is the church?
The church is the body of Christ in the world. It is also the “mouth house” (as Luther described )because of all the holy talk between us.. We grow weary at times because we know what we have done and left undone. But as those created in the image of God who loves us, forgives us, and sends us into the world God also knows what we are capable of as Christ’s hands and feet in the community. We are part of God’s restoration project, and it starts in the conversations we share.
Holy talk with others draw us into conversation with God. Remember that the next time you say, “hello” to one another at church. Keep it in mind as you leave and interact with someone else. You never know, they might have sought you out, as the specific person they just wanted to talk to that day.
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)
Also of interest:
David Lose, “Why Do You Go to Church?” In the Meantime… [Online Available: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/03/why-do-you-go-to-church], 3/24/2014.