There’s a little Baptist church in midcoast Maine that makes me catch my breath when I walk through the doors. I’ve never been a member or even a regular attender but there is a powerful wind of memories that meets me as soon as the doors swing open.
When I was a little girl, I would come through those doors once a year wearing a pink, flowery dress and an Easter hat. I would sit close to my grandmother and she would hand me peppermints during the sermon and quarters to place in the offering. I still remember one of the sermons. The pastor enthusiastically told the story of Jesus using whips to drive the money changers out of the temple. Close to thirty years later I can still picture the pastor waving his arms and feel my shock at hearing that the same Jesus holding little lambs in my storybook Bible could use whips and turn over tables.
Yesterday, I didn’t hear much of the sermon when I visited the little church. I paced in the back with a fussy baby and noticed that some extra pamphlets from my grandmother’s funeral the day before still sat on a table. For so long there had been two strong grandmothers in that little town and for the second time in three years I had come home and to this church to gather with family in a goodbye. Beside the table where the pamphlets sat were double doors leading to the sanctuary. I remembered how my sisters covered the little windows with white paper on my wedding day so that my husband-to-be wouldn’t catch sight of me until the wedding march was played and the doors were swung open.
My baby was getting louder so I made my way to a side room where a lady I didn’t recognize was working in the nursery. After we spoke for a few minutes she asked me my maiden name and when I told her, her eyes lit up. “I went to school with your father… I used to be a substitute teacher in your kindergarten class and bring in my guitar and sing. Do you remember that? You were so shy! It’s nice to see you are talking now!” We laughed and I vaguely remembered the guitar and the songs and the shy little girl.
My three year old heard there was Play-do and snacks so we made our way to the Sunday school class in the basement. On the stairs I met a man holding the hand of his own little boy. There was a greeting and a brief memory of being seventeen and decisions that felt so heavy and confusing. Later, as I saw his sweet wife walk by with a new baby, I smiled and thought how God is kind and forceful and we don’t really choose but He moves and He purposes and He creates.
My little one finally fell asleep so I carefully eased into the back pew. My husband sat with my newly widowed grandfather and a row of our blonde headed children. I remembered sitting in the same spot one Sunday as a teenager and not being able to hold back tears. I didn’t even know why I cried. A sense of something too beautiful for me to own overwhelmed me and loneliness welled up as the hymns were sung. It was surreal to remember and see through time the pew, both full of my people and the girl that I used to be as she sat in the wave of loneliness.
After the service, my eight year old boy asked about the old, cast iron bell that sits in the entry. It used to hang in the old church that burned down. In that old church his great, great, great grandparents used to come and sing and pray. Tucked away at home, I have a poem my great, great grandmother wrote to their beloved pastor when he was ill. She used to pray and write and listen to the bell that my little boy stood longing to ring.
I love history and small towns and feeling like there are roots that twist from the blood in my veins into the buildings and soil and old bells.
Nearly every Sunday for the last twelve or thirteen years, my growing family has made our way to another New England church. This church is in a college town and most of us are from someplace else. When I look around at the congregation I don’t see extended family, old friends or teachers. There are no ghosts of me as a girl. There isn’t even a church building with a bell and steeple, just a high school auditorium rented for the day.
In the Old Testament, before Jesus walked as a man with fishermen and sinners, God’s people built a temple where they could worship. God’s Spirit dwelt in a special room deep in the temple called the Holy of Holies and a thick curtain hung to separate this dwelling from the people. God was too holy to approach. Only once a year the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle blood of atonement at the mercy seat.
The day Jesus died on the cross, when He said ‘It is finished’, the earth shook and this curtain of separation split down the middle. Jesus, being holy himself and the only completely sufficient sacrifice, was able to do what no amount of ritual had been able to accomplish. The Spirit drew near. Now the church heard the words, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” Instead of separate and impenetrable, the Holy of Holies became the Christian heart. Instead of looking to a physical temple or a church building, we look to the people God has chosen and we see him abiding in their midst.
Some Sunday mornings I don’t want to go to church. I’ve thought it would be nice to worship alone and I would feel more near to God in the woods and the stillness and beauty of the trees. But, God hasn’t made his Holy of Holies out of wood or boards or branches or blue sky. He’s made it out of people.
Part of me says that there’s no way this can be true. I’m a Christian and I know that I’m not holy of holy. I see other Christians and they aren’t holy of holy either. I still see God in the distance waiting for me to clean up my act. Out of the corners of my eyes I peek to see how other Christians are doing and judge us all according to the progress we’re making. The progress we’re making on the road that isn’t there.
God isn’t far away. He’s with his people.
And Jesus is passionate. The same zeal that made him fashion whips out of cords and throw tables to cleanse his Father’s house consumes him. It’s what nailed him to a cross where the blood flows and gives us something better than roots. He gives us grace and breaks the curtain.
He loves us. He’s passionate about us. When we get that, it changes us. Suddenly we are the holy of holies. His Spirit abides and overturns our old nature so that we love him and we can love each other.
His church is beautiful and it’s not because we’re perfect or because of the white steeple or because of history in the pews or because we like each other. It’s because we’re His, and He’s in us and we belong to one another. It’s because we’re all dressed in grace and where there is grace and His Spirit, love flows. We are tied by blood that isn’t in our veins but that washes our hearts and calls us to look to the cross. His church is beautiful because we are singing the same song and clinging to the same message.
“And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” 1 John 4:14-16