I braved a snowstorm yesterday to get to my church, which is about 35 miles away. I didn’t really have to go. The Senior Pastor was preaching, my small part of the service could easily be handled by someone else, and the predictions were for major snow and wind blowing through the day. But at the last minute, I decided to risk it, and once I had, a happy calm came over me. I would get there, one way or another. I packed my snow boots and a shovel, just in case.
Once I arrived at church, I realized why I had come. A few brave teenagers were shoveling the sidewalks along with the custodian. A Sunday School teacher reported he only had one student, and by ten, the congregation had swelled to around 50 souls, not counting a dozen choir singers (we usually have at least 150). The rest stayed home “snug in their beds” (the wimps!).
A happy little family sat in the front row holding a child dressed like a frosted cake for her baptism. The pastor walked the baby around the sanctuary, talking to her about this new family she now belonged to, and how these strangers would become friends, teachers and fellow travelers on the journey of faith beside her. Then the pastor preached about the passage we make “from longing to belonging”; from loneliness and alienation to connection and community, and the way that is mediated by a living Christ, who embodies for us the love of God.
While he was preaching, I remembered one Christmas Eve not too many years ago when I did not have a “home church”. I was unemployed. I attended a neighborhood church that night with my family, but no one there knew my name, and the liturgy was unfamiliar. I was a stranger in a strange land, in limbo on what can be the holiest– or the loneliest– night of the year.
Since then, every Christmas when I have found myself at home in a congregation, I am filled with gratitude, and a deeper understanding of the value of belonging, even the temporary belonging enjoyed by an interim pastor. While no church is perfect, and no human community is permanent, we can glimpse there a momentary vision of the great, welcoming Kingdom, and our longing subsides for awhile.
All loneliness, I think, is a longing for God. We who practice a faith regularly understand that on some level. But there are many people out there this Christmas who don’t understand that. They know the emptiness, but haven’t experienced the fullness of God’s love within a faith family. They know how flawed our human versions of church can be; but they haven’t experienced the miracle of what God can do with messed up people like us.
Have you experienced that miracle? And if you have, who are you going to tell about it?