I was driving around Portsmouth the other day – making my usual trip between the churches. I took a different route, taking the usual main roads instead of hitting the backroads. And I noticed all the churches around and how much they all looked the same.
They’re all brick, the majority of them have red doors (I wonder if folks there know what that actually means?).
They all seem to have a preschool attached to them.
They all have that changing sign out there with some “clever” saying which usually comes across as cheesy.
I guess they all look the same – other than the fact their name and affiliation is different. Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran LCMS, Lutheran ELCA……what the heck does it all mean? Because they all look the same.
And I think that’s a good question: “What makes us different?”
I wonder sometimes if we asked ourselves that question – at both churches – what our answers would be. Or, would we even come up with an answer?
We often say things like “we’re welcoming and inviting,” or “we’re family,” or “this place has been like home to us.” But honestly, every churchgoer says that about their churches. And that’s not wrong…..but it’s not what makes us different. Because to give that answer assumes that other churches are NOT that – they’re not welcoming; they’re not family; they’re not like home.
This question came up at a pastors’ conference I was at this past week. And in the discussion, I blurted out that I think that what makes us different as a Lutheran church is that we’re called to be a church of the cross – the cross of the crucified, risen Christ. We’re called to be a church that “calls things what they are,” a church that doesn’t avoid the presence of sin, suffering, pain, and brokenness in the world – but rather acknowledges it exists. It exists and it affects people – real people – and in real ways.
The cross is a place of godforsakenness…..and it’s in this place, where God is seemingly not present, that God is most definitely present. God’s most present in God’s son, Jesus Christ. And God’s present in such a place so that we might know that life can come out of those places. God bears those things so that we might know God loves….and because God loves, God promises to breathe new life and hope into such places – those godforsaken moments of our lives.
And to be a church of the cross is to be a church that follows Christ into those places. The church is a place that bears the suffering and brokenness people experience with them….and waits in hope that in bearing such things, new life will be breathed into those experiences of suffering and brokenness. The church of the cross is open and honest about such things – and isn’t afraid to boldly proclaim God’s presence in such godless moments and places.
I asked, “what if the church became that, the church of the cross?” The reply I got from another pastor was, “We’d be a whole lot smaller Aaron. People would stop coming.”
Maybe he’s right. I mean, who wants to be honest about the ways we’ve been hurt, felt isolation, or screwed up? Who wants to come to church and not only hear about those things, but actually accept the people who those things happened to? Who wants to come to a church where it seems no one wants to just “forgive and forget” and be one big happy God family?
I think, perhaps, a lot of people.
I think about our two churches, and it’s what’s on the inside that makes us different. Because on the inside there’s a whole lot of broken, messed up, crabby, and imperfect people. We are a really weird bunch, and probably even weirder when you get to know us. Heck, we’re probably even a little dysfunctional if you stick around to notice enough.
But we still love each other in spite of those things. We still try to find grace for each other when we piss each other off and drive each other up the wall. We still struggle to stay together as a community when conflict and real hurt rip our congregations apart. We love….we forgive….we stick it out – because God in Christ has done so for us first.
We’re people of the cross. We stick it out in moments of godforsakenness……waiting and hoping and proclaiming up and down that God will do something new with us. God will make us whole. And in sharing such things so deeply, we might not grow, but we’ll witness to what Christian faith is really all about – a God who enters into and speaks deeply into the real experience of human life, and a God who acts and loves for the sake of it.
That is different. And I think my people kind of rather like being that. I know I do….and I like serving them because of that.