I used to have a great little boisterous pug, Fifi, and one day my ten year old granddaughter, describing a friend’s dog, said “She looks just like Fifi, Nana, except her nose is different, and her fur is longer, and she’s bigger…. and she’s a German Shepherd.”
When we hear some familiar and common-or-garden words an image pops into our mind, and the strange thing about language is that all those images will be just the same for all of us and very very different for each of us. If I say ‘family’, it will conjure up a different memory for every listener, for some there will be warm memories, pictures of loved ones, for others the memories will be of anger, disapproval or even abandonment. But we all know what family should mean… a cross between ‘The Little House On The Prairie’ and ‘Cheers’. A secure, accepting, warm and mutually supportive group of committed people, mature enough to grow together and change together, to embrace and cope with life better together than they ever could apart.
Now I’m going to say another word: Church. I don’t know what image that word conjures up for you, but for me it used to mean statues, incense, the confessional box, a lamp glowing dimly in the sacristy…. a shrouded tabernacle…. rosary beads draped over the plaster feet of the Virgin Mary… candles…. embroidered altar cloths…. Stations of the Cross… penance… shame…. blah blah blah and on into eternity.
When I say ‘Church’ to you, do you see an ageing building, and inside it an ageing population, just a scattering of stooped backs and bowed heads? Or do you see the hallowed heights and arched roof of some grand cathedral, St Paul’s or Salisbury? Or forbidding patriarchs in black suits and narrow pews and a load of ‘thees’ and thous’? Or, perhaps the worst of the lot, a load of pious hypocrites, looking down on the world? Or just boredom, yawn yawn yawn?
When I think of the word ‘Church’ now, free of my past, and living very much in the present, I think of about 180 people of all ages and backgrounds, none of them millionaires, some of them living on the basic state pension, some eking out Social Security payments, some in full time and demanding employment, some looking for work, some ill, some bouncing with health, some giving support and others needing it, some married, some single, some little puffs of pink marshmallow and some quite difficult prickly thorn bushes*.
Church to me now is a rainy Sunday when smiling youngsters in high vis vests, soaked to the skin, cheerfully wave a stream of cars into a new site where we are going to worship. Church is the team who have worked and planned and practised to bring music to this new venue – it’s the I.T. wizards who have set up computers, sound systems, visual aids… it’s the steadfast plumb-line teaching and encouragement brought to us week after week… Church is the prayer meetings, the prayer groups, it’s each individual in their very different lives taking time to pause and pray for each other… Church is the Care Team taking meals and encouragement to sick people… it’s Junior Church when teachers and helpers miss their own service to serve the children….. it’s the support of an orphanage in Africa… it’s Street Pastors helping the drunk and disorderly in the wee small hours every single weekend for years on end… it’s the open doors of coffee mornings…. Church is the admin bloke who makes life easier for everyone else…. it’s the leadership team who follow God calmly and deliberately in the face of all sorts of problems…..it’s the outreach to a nearby village, bringing a worship service to the village hall….it’s the small groups who gather to support each other and talk and study and laugh and share…. Church is three youth clubs, serving over 90 children from the town…. it’s a ministry to local care homes…..Church is the Young Adults group heading towards maturity together……it’s the Women’s Conference…. the summer week of camping for children…. it’s Alpha and Freedom In Christ…. it’s pre-marital counselling… it’s the Deacons coping with all the grunt work, the paperwork, the legalities, the duties of the church community… Church is the small team of women who travel all over Wales talking to schools about God and the Bible… Church is the gift of money to keep all these ministries chugging along… but most of all, church is family, the family of God, open hearted, welcoming, messy and flawed but always, always, loving.
What is Church? Well, it’s a sort of cross between Little House On The Prairie and Cheers.
A secure, accepting, warm and mutually supportive group of committed people, mature enough to grow together and change together, to embrace and cope with life better together than they ever could apart, because God is at the centre of their lives and it is all with, for and through Him.
*In a sermon recently, our Pastor referred to some people who were prickly thorn bushes. Granddaughter no2, visiting for the weekend, was in the pew in front of me. She immediately, with a great flourish, turned and gave me the ‘that’s you!’ look.
It was unmistakeable.
She has been written out of the will I haven’t yet got round to writing.