There is a low hanging fog along the trail that hides the horizon. Judging by the parking lot, I’m the only one here today. I make my way don’t the grassy path a ways, past the tree line and around the corner to the massive oak with the table underneath. I cannot see humanity, and humanity cannot see me. Outside of the occasional train in the distance, it is free from the noise of society.
I feel the presence of God here. I speak to Him loudly in this spot, pouring out my joys and sorrows and then shutting up and listening. Lately, though, more of the listening. More of the silence and settledness of spirit I long for. This spot at Hisle Farm Park is sacred to me. It’s a holy space. God is present here, in the silence and solitude.
But it’s not my Church.
Why do I say that? Because it’s becoming increasingly common to find places where we experience transcendence and peace and talk about that being our “church.” Last year a popular song by country artist Maren Morris spoke of this experience in her song “My Church.” The lyrics state:
I’ve cussed on a Sunday I’ve cheated and I’ve lied I’ve fallen down from grace A few too many times But I find holy redemption When I put this car in drive Roll the windows down and turn up the dial
Can I get a hallelujah Can I get an amen Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya When I play the highway FM I find my soul revival Singing every single verse Yeah I guess that’s my church
And listen – I get it. I get the same feeling listening to Ryan Adams or Leon Bridges heading down the road at night. I’ve felt the utter exuberance of singing “Hey Jude” with Paul McCartney at a live concert with thousands of other people. I’ve felt it eating the best sushi and curry at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. You feel the divine!
But again, that’s not Church.
Because Church – at least by the Bible’s definition, is people. People who are like you and unlike you. People who have a lot of that divine spark in them… yet a lot of the mess of the fall as well. You have to forgive people if you’re around them long enough, and hopefully be forgiven yourself. There’s enough verses in the New Testament about learning to love, forgive, bear with, care for, cry with, and walk with people to let you know how easy it is. (Hint: It’s not.) Other people aren’t you. They don’t think, look, act, or sometimes vote like you. And if all you are looking for transcendence, why bother? Just go after what gives you a thrill and surround yourself with people, well, like you.
Of course, the Church in it’s institutional expression is partly to blame. When the experience of God’s presence is primarily talked about and emphasized in an hour a week in a building with a controlled environment, learning to know the presence of God in the ordinary can be difficult. In spite of Jesus’ teaching, we create Old Testament temples that serve as “God’s house,” the primary defining space where heaven meets earth. God is at “church.” And Church is a place we come and go from.
YOU FOUND GOD OUT THERE
So when that sushi or that concert or that movie give us a sense of transcendence we’d found exclusively in a worship service, we begin to doubt the gathered church’s value. And once you figured out the finely-curated parts of your life that affirm your sense of the divine in the world, that little trip to church every week seems a little silly. You didn’t need that to find God. And guess what? You were right.
At least, in part. The God of the Bible doesn’t live in a temple made by human hands. The New Testament rejects the idea that our spiritual lives are centered around an hour a week in a building. The presence of God is not a containable, manageable, marketable resource to handle trivially. That in no way reflects the radical nature of the kingdom of God.
Instead, the presence of God now dwells in… people. Yep, those ordinary, often-frustrating-yet-painstakingly-beautiful people. The community of the not-yous. His holy presence isn’t in that song on the car in the highway. It’s not in the sushi downtown. It’s not in the concert or the remote beauty of a mountaintop. It’s in you.
And that transcendence you feel? That is your heart rightfully and wonderfully rising up in worship of the One who made the very beauty you experience. The Spirit of God in you is calling you to worship. It is reminding you that this world was made to reflect the glory of God, and that one daily it will do so again in all of it’s restored majesty.
What you feel is real. It’s powerful. It’s palpable.
And it’s made to be shared.
Which is why the you in the New Testament is plural. You are the temple to the degree that you and building and being built into the lives of the not-yous. God is hiding in ordinary people. He is hiding in single mom who’s kid acts up more than you like. He’s in that quiet old man who you’re not sure even likes you. He’s in the guy who barely speaks English that sits on the back row. He’s in the couple who are a little too aggressive about their political views. He’s in you. Your quirks, your doubts, your hang-ups. And mine too.
And astoundingly enough, this is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is Church. Church is people – ordinary, broken people. And so the more I want to know and experience the presence of God, the more I need the holy community of not-me’s. If Church is simply an hour on Sunday, then sure – go find God in the forest. In a shopping mall. In a football stadium. Listen to a sermon or a TEDTalk and your favorite worship song in your pajamas.
But Church is… people. And Christianity is centered around my love for God and people. And not just the people whose mindset and worldview bears the closest resemblance to my own. I’m talking about the not-me’s. The not-you’s. Dorothy Day says “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” And yep, these days, a lot of those people are inside the Church, not outside.
CHRIST IN US, IN SPITE OF US
When I gather every Sunday, I don’t always feel that transcendence I’ve come to expect from the world. Often I do, but not every time. But when the disheveled lady that came off the street asking for prayer walks up, I know there is a truth beyond what I feel: here comes the bearer of the presence of God. Here comes the temple. Here comes His Body.
This isn’t an either/or equation. I celebrate the seemingly expanding experiences of the presence of God outside the walls of the Church building. Eat the sushi, sing along at the top of your lungs, and cry during the movie! God’s creation is and will always call our hearts to transcendent worship. I find this at Hisle Farm Park, and it makes me feel alive. Like Jesus withdrawing to a lonely place to pray, I can’t wait to escape to these moments of holiness.
But this is not my Church, and it wasn’t Jesus’ either. His was a group of bumbling, ordinary, doubting, over-zealous men and women called as his disciples. Jesus didn’t need other people to experience the Father, and yet he modeled that the fully spiritual life is one deeply embedded in spiritual community. Church is a life called together with image-bearers, irreducibly beautiful in the presence they bear, in spite of their hang-ups – and in spite of your’s too. I am learning that there is more of God in loving my neighbor than in my favorite worship song, my favorite scenery, or the highest experience of ecstasy. He’s been right here all along, in the community of not-you’s and not-me’s. And he’s longing to be found.
Colossians 1 calls it “the glorious riches of this mystery.” What you ask? Christ in you. Christ in me. It’s the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). There will never be anything more mysterious, more transcendent, more spiritually-mind-blowing than the fact that God makes his home and guides his mission through ordinary people like you and me.
The challenge is you risk a life committed to a community of not-you’s and not-me’s, where through days and months and years together we pull apart and experience the transcendent mysterious of the presence of God in what we call the Church.
You’ll see here warts and bad habits and hang-ups.
You’ll have moments where giving up seems like the easiest path forward.
But stick around. Love and raise your voice.
When she loses sight, call her forward, because she is you.
The Church is people, and you are the Church.
This is our mystery, God in ordinary people like us.