The church in which I came to the Christian faith was a small thing of jumbled additions on a tried-and-true brick Protestant sanctuary with mottled-glass windows and a plain, wooden cross. When I was there we worshiped mostly in the fellowship hall, which was less a hall than a multipurpose room with a kitchen off to one side and some classrooms on the other. I learned to make noodles in that kitchen. I learned Scripture in that room. When I worked for that church as the secretary, I helped keep the classrooms stocked. I knew every inch of that building, that church. It was home.
I recently learned, indirectly, that my church no longer exists. The building is still there, though it’s been totally redone inside. It’s still a church, even, but not the church I knew; it has a different name, a different pastor, a different worship style, a different congregation. I have the feeling that, if I went back, almost no one would recognize me—nor I them, to be honest. My home is gone.
Every year at my annual conference (which, for all the non-Methodists, the yearly meeting of representatives of all UM churches in a geographical area to hash out things like theological stances and budgets and delegates to the global General Conference; kind of like a state’s House of Representatives), we close churches. Every year. Part of this is because Methodism in its heyday put a church within walking distance of everybody, which just isn’t necessary now that we’ve invented things like cars. Part of it is that the UMC, like every other mainline denomination, is shrinking in this post-Christendom world and we can’t fill all the churches anymore. Every year we as a governing body lament the loss of another church, and I’ve always been kind of skeptical of it because I see the bottom line of why we do need to close that church. My logic kicks in. My sentiment checks out.
When I found out about my old church, though, I understood in a whole new way why people lament the closing of their churches. It has nothing to do with the reality of too many bills or not enough congregants or pastors who are spread too thin. It has nothing to do with the fact that there’s another church a mile away and it’s not a real inconvenience to merge a couple of parishes. It has everything to do with the fact that that was home. That was a building whose every inch you knew, whose walls held huge portions of your life and memories that made you who you are.
We often remind ourselves, as the Church, that the Church is the people rather than the buildings, and that’s good. We should be careful not to get too attached to the structures such that we spend all of our time maintaining them instead of maintaining the communities around them. God didn’t live among us to teach us how to repaint a narthex or replace a boiler; God lived among us to show us how to grieve with the lonely and rejoice with the healing. The people are the Church. But I think that sometimes we fail to see that we humans get attached to stuff whether we’re supposed to or not; we are incarnate creatures seeking safety and belonging, and even those of us with oodles of wanderlust want a place that offers that to us when we are too weary to keep going. We are all, in our own ways, looking for home.
So I grieve the loss of my church, of my home that I haven’t even visited in five or so years. I grieve it the way we grieve a favorite childhood playground or our grandmothers’ houses that always smelled of mothballs or our best friend’s basement where a thousand sleepovers told secrets to the walls. We sentimental saps grieve the things that shaped us when we outlast them because we forget, for just an instant, that we still hold that shape without them.
Perhaps, Reader, I’m speaking too much for you. Perhaps you don’t have that sentimental bone in you; perhaps you are self-aware enough to hold the million selves you’ve been before without the external aid of a building or place. That is a gift; that is a sorrow. Just as sentimentality is a double-edged sword, a lack of sentimentalism has its own benefits and losses. Very few of the emotions we silly, sentient skeletons have are purely one thing or another. Being human is hard, so I wouldn’t expect any piece of what makes us human to be uncomplicated.
In any case, as I sit on my yoga mat on the floor on this Saturday morning, I am aware of having lost my church—and I am aware of others having found one, in this new congregation, and I rejoice in the people who will learn to make noodles and learn Scripture and find the Jesus that is in every structure and no structure at all. Blessings on the new church, and the new Church of people who go there. I am aware of the new churches I have found that have become home; of my home here in The Wicket Gate with the beautiful stained glass windows that make the pews gold on Sunday mornings, and of the place where my heart lives back in the Land of Pilgrims where the rafters creak with the wind like a chorus under the many, many prayers that sanctuary holds. These, too, are places that shape me, and these, too, will someday become unrecognizable to me, and I to them. And I will grieve, then, too, because the Church is the people but my church is also a building where I felt safe, and where I belonged, and that is perfectly okay. God is not bound to the Temple, but God resides there, and we who have lost churches know the holiness we found in that Presence.
But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. (Deuteronomy 12:5-6, NIV)