Several weeks ago, my church’s community pastor, wanted me to come to his office to visit and talk through some things. I was preaching the next Sunday, and he said he wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be spewing heresy from the pulpit (which at my home congregation, University Baptist Church, takes the form of a bar-stool.) I think, however, his main intention was to get me to step foot into the building I hadn’t returned to since October when my best friend and pastor, Kyle Lake, was killed in a tragic accident.
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 in that they act as a vessel for the invisible things. This idea manifests itself in church buildings with little to no symbols adorning plain white walls and a lot of talk about "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 in our case when it’s only aluminum and screws.) It’s the idea that 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 University Baptist Church. 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 becomes the work of whoever decides to get it done at UBC. This can be terribly inefficient at times, but it prevents anyone from seeing something that needs to be done and saying, "Whose responsibility is this?" UBCers 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 our feelings about our church building stand apart from other views of sacred space. I discovered 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; how sometimes living in community can be hard 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.
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 have been 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 for us to stand.
Little details of our church’s building like the Sistine Chapel replica and the Last Supper in black and white with the red apple and the Madonna in the back, the aluminum siding in the hallways, 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 the day I went to meet my pastor, but we did play video games: MarioKaart, Kyle’s favorite time waster. I think my pastor showed signs of genius that day. Offering to play a game was a gutsy move on his behalf, and it payed off.
I shed a tear while he wasn’t looking because Kyle’s presence and laughter was so thick in my memory. It made no sense that he was not there with us. 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, playing a game that lets characters catch stars that make them immortal, if only for a moment.