Faith Works 3-1-14
A House Not Made With Hands
Truly, I can't complain that God didn't let me know what was coming.
Aside from all the hints and indications that were available demographically and statistically that anyone could have opened their eyes and seen back in the 1980s about where denominational and congregational life was heading, God gave me a clear moment of prophetic insight.
Like most of us, most of the time, I chose to not quite see it.
My ordination, which was 25 years ago this coming summer, was under a giant National Guard tent, in an empty lot next to a condemned church building.
Yeah, it is kinda obvious when you look back, isn't it? Prophecy works that way sometimes.
We had more people in Scout uniforms than ecclesiastical robes on the folding chairs and benches (it was Aug. 12), and the sound system was borrowed and brought from out of town. My family set up the communion service and baked the bread we used, the music was a capella and to an acoustic guitar (inside that condemned 1888 lovely old structure was an amazing 1893 pipe organ, which was cautiously extracted and went to a church in the Nashville TN area, the proceeds of which helped to build the new church building some years later).
The denominational official who came up to play their necessary and important role representing the larger church and the covenants between candidate and credentialing body, my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), never quite reconciled himself to the setting. He'd been warned in advance how we were doing it, but when he got there, he kept pointing at the church across Chicago Street and asking "did anyone ask if we could hold Jeff's ordination in their building?"
No, we didn't, and they were and are lovely people, who would have said yes in a heartbeat. But this lot was the property of the congregation doing the ordination (whoops, sorry, since 1968 the congregation hosts the ordination, but the region is the body which grants ordination), we had this beloved building I'd grown up in, visible all along the rolled up east side of the big tent which my Scout troop had erected, and did I mention my work in Scouts and at summer camp was where my call to ministry arose? Anyhow, no, we didn't ask. He mopped his brow and looked nervously around and asked where he would sit: there was a folding chair set aside for him.
In the congregation gathered that afternoon were people from UCC & Methodist & Lutheran congregations; many of the UCC folk were there from an urban congregation that had taken in the congregation I served in seminary after our church building burned down, until we could rebuild; they had made the hard decision to close and join with another UCC congregation, selling their building – but had pushed the date back another month so they could "officially" be one of my three sponsoring congregations.
If traditionalists are starting to worry that this was all an off-kilter sort of affair, let me reassure you: after the service of ordination, there was a large sheet cake with my name and our Disciples chalice in frosting, mints and nuts, and coffee (and punch which went fast, because it was hot). The proprieties must be observed, as Michaeleen O'Flynn would say.
What I did not observe was that Almighty God was giving me a very clear picture of what I was getting into that day. We are, indeed, a pilgrim people, from the Wilderness to the Diaspora; Paul reminds us in II Corinthians 5 that "we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens".
1888 German Romanesque brick structures that were unskillfully retrofitted in the 1950s, not so eternal.
My home church worshiped in a middle school, built a gathering space that they next worshiped in until they could build a "proper" sanctuary, and now it has been home for them long enough that many members have never known any other space to gather in… but they still do an early outdoor service every summer. Just to keep their edge.
And my other ordination sponsor, the congregation I was with as we rebuilt from the fire, has now reached a point where they are preparing to sell that building to a group that will "re-start" in the neighborhood, and that body, born in 1909, will "sink into union with the Body of Christ" after June 1.
Because, as God's been telling me for years, it's not about the building.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; being a sinful creature, he loves the church building he preaches in on Sundays. Tell him about your building for worship at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.