"Actually, I think Heaven is probably somewhere here in Waco."
-- Avery Lake, Age 5.
I'm preaching on Sunday, as I do on most First Sundays of Spring Break. Ben said he wanted to talk through sermon stuff with me at the church today. So I went and if you want my honest opinion I'll tell you: I think he was tricking me into finally stepping foot in the building I have not visited since the end of October.
One downside of many of the offshoots of the Protestant Reformation is the belief that what can't be seen-- soul, spirit, mind, heart-- is the REALLY important stuff, and the stuff you CAN touch and feel have value only insofar as they act as a vessel for the invisible things. This manifests itself in church buildings with little to no symbols adorning plain white walls and a lot of talk of "functionality." Your worship space can become your basketball court before it becomes your fellowship hall.
You hear the word "only" a lot when these church buildings are mentioned. The building is not the church, it's ONLY bricks and mortar. (Except when it's ONLY aluminum and screws.) God doesn't care about the place, he's ONLY concerned with whether or not he is getting the glory through the saving of souls. It's ONLY a building. It's ONLY a place.
Yet the rejection of this mindset is one of the first things that attracted me to UBC. The first group of any kind that I belonged to at our church was what was known as Clean Team. Our bare-bones budget allows only for the absolute essentials. So the responsibilities of cleaning and maintaining the building that falls to a paid janitor in most churches are the work of whoever decides to get it done at UBC. This can be terribly inefficient at times, kind of like the gospel, but it prevents anyone from seeing something that needs to be done and saying "Whose responsibility is this?" UBC'ers know never to ask that question because the answer is always "Yours."
Yet a sense of shared responsibility isn't the only thing that makes this "model," stand apart. I knew very early on that the people who called themselves "UBC" took that building that was formerly an old grocery store on Dutton Avenue EXTREMELY seriously. It wasn't ONLY a place and it wasn't ONLY bricks and mortar and aluminum and screws, although it was all of those.
In many ways the church building is as much a part of our story as the songs we sing and the sermons we hear.
If you want to know what our story is I'll tell you about Jesus and his death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return. I can tell you about Paul and Moses and Lydia and John, the one Jesus loved. I'll teach you the lyrics to "All Creatures of Our God and King" and "Make a Joyful Noise," and in the telling of it all you will know a huge part of our story.
But I'll also take you back to the place I made my first turkey four years ago and began to realize how quickly you can fall in love with a group of people. If you want you can see the sidewalk where Tracey and I first met and I'll tell you about how our friendship opened up a world of new friendships for me and how sometimes living in community can suck ass big time and how sometimes it is the greatest thing in the world, but how it always seems to us to be God's way. I'll show you exactly where my parents were sitting when their theological doors were blown wide open upon seeing what they had previously had no categories for: A female preacher. (Thanks, Ann!)
If you'd like you can see the room where I embarrassed myself by referring to a female as "loose," which also happens to be the room where Josh Carney taught his first Sunday School class at UBC, thereby developing a following second to none. (Gotcha!)
Laughter, prayer, tears, forgiveness, first loves, ecstatic as well as sedate worship are all layers in the great story that building tells.
So is death.
If it is ONLY a building, then my fear of returning to it would be silly. When we all return and feel the simultaneous pangs of joy and grief, it will not be for a holiness that is missing. It will be because for many of us that place is TOO Holy. The Sistine Chapel replica and the Last Supper in black and white with the red apple and the Madonna in the back that exposes so much of our fears and bias and the aluminum siding in the hallways and the checkered room and the nursery where I was when I heard rumblings of an accident, even the new edifices that are just now being constructed-- all these things are part of the Grand Narrative of a little chunk of God's People and spill out Holiness from every crack and crevice.
We didn't talk sermon stuff very much but we did play MarioKaart. Ben, you are a genius. Offering to play a game was a ballsey move on your behalf, and it payed off. I shed a tear while you weren't looking because Kyle's presence and laughter was so thick. It makes no sense that he was not there. No sense at all. But his absence has become as much a part of our story as his presence and what better place to celebrate one and grieve the other than that building on Dutton Avenue, beating each others brains out with Red Turtle Shells and Stars that make you immortal, if only for a moment.