The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

September 7, 2008

Successful Church

There is a lot of talk these days in church-land about what make a successful church. What does a "successful" church look like? Is it growth in numbers? a balanced budget? cross generational programming that provides an activity for every age group?

Recently our oldest daughter has developed an Annie Dillard fixation. The good thing about this is that Rachel now reads me all the gerat parts of Dillard's writing that I read years ago but have long since forgetten. Driving down the highway the other day, Rachel pulled her latest Dillard book out of her pack and read to me from Teaching a Stone to Talk a passage that I think sums up a vision of "successful" church that I can sign on for. Dillard writes:

It is the second Sunday in Advent. For a year I have been attending Mass at this Catholic church. Every Sunday for a year I have run away from home and joined the circus as a dancing bear. We dancing bears have dressed ourselves in buttoned clothes; we mince around the ring on two feet. Today we were restless; we kept dropping onto our forepaws.

No one, least of all the organist, could find the opening hymn. Then no one knew it. Then no one could sing it anyway.

There was no sermon, only announcements.

The priest proudly introduced the rascally acolyte who was going to light the two Advent candles. As we all could plainly see, the rascally acolyte had already lighted them.

During the long intercessory prayer, the priest always reads “intentions” from the parishioners. These are slips of paper, dropped into a box before the service begins, on which people have written their private concerns, requesting our public prayers. The priest reads them, one by one, and we respond on cue. “For a baby safely delivered on November twentieth,” the priest intoned, “we pray to the Lord.” We all responded, “Lord, hear our prayer.” Suddenly the priest broke in and confided to our bowed heads, “That’s the baby we’ve been praying for for the past two months! The woman just kept getting more and more pregnant!” How often, how shockingly often, have I exhausted myself in church from the effort to keep from laughing out loud? I often laugh all the way home. Then the priest read the next intention: “For my son, that he may forgive his father. We pray to the Lord.” “Lord, hear our prayer,” we responded, chastened.

A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter. Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right – believe it or not – to be people. Who can believe it?

During communion, the priest handed me a wafer which proved to be stuck to five other wafers. I waited while he tore the clump into rags of wafer, resisting the impulse to help. Directly to my left, and all through communion, a woman was banging out the theme from The Sound of Music on a piano.

This is a church I can live with. I can live with this church because there is room in this church for me with all my messy confusion. There is room in this church for the chaos of life. I need a church where things don't always run smoothly and where that is ok. I need a church that operates on the foundational Gospel principles of welcome and forgiveness.

I need welcome just to get in the door. I need forgiveness to say there.

When Jesus wanted his disciples to catch a vision of what the community of his followers should look like, he said, "change and become like children" and "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:3,5) This is a welcome that knows no boundaries; it has no conditions and no expectations.

When asked how much forgiveness was required among his followers, Jesus answered, "Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times." (Matthew 18:20)This is a forgiveness that never stops; it never gives up; it never goes away. "Seventy-seven times" forgiveness is forgiveness you can count on even when you don't deserve it.

Recently, as readers of this blog may know, our granddaughter celebrated her first birthday. As part of her party, Sophianna was allowed the unusual treat of a plateful of sweet gooey chocolate cake. Some of the cake went into her mouth but much of it ended up all over her. No one got upset that Sophianna was making a mess. No one chastised her for not being more tidy. After she had satiated herself with sticky sweetness, her mother just washed her off and Sophianna went on opening presents.

We all make messes. Some of us make a lot of messes, big messes, terrible messes. Jesus only wants to wash us off and set us about the buisness of opening presents again. A successful church is a place where we are reminded every time we enter that "It is all right – believe it or not – to be people" even when we are messy and difficult. Our task is to open the gifts of welcome and forgiveness and share them with one another. This is what a succesful church will look like.

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