Twenty-one years ago, when I was in seminary, I would gather with my colleagues in the lounge area aptly called, Koinonia, which means fellowship or communion. We sat on couches that lacked structure, drinking coffee that lacked flavor, discussing the future which seemed to lack nothing if we were willing to work hard and wrestle justice into being. We were both tired and inspired, talking about our plans to go out and change the world, as soon as we mastered Greek and Hebrew.
Often, our conversation turned to the limitations of having church inside buildings. We lamented the country-club mentality that too often became part of a congregation, making them see the building as a place the broken should come so that the righteous inside could care for them. We talked about how we might break down walls between the insiders and the outsiders. We imagined churches without walls. We idealized taking the Gospel to the street.
Ten years later, I fell in love with a live recording of Amos Lee singing Street Corner Preacher. By then I had 7 years as a pastor behind me and was now serving in a church celebrating its 125th anniversary.
In that first small farming community, we had begun in an elementary school and built a small church by the time I moved on. It seemed like a worthwhile accomplishment. But by the time I left, the outsiders who had started to come drifted away quickly when the insiders couldn’t find it in their collective hearts to do the work to keep them coming. Those who fully understood that the outsiders leaving was a symptom of a greater problem soon joined other congregations that were more mission-minded.
And now, in my 17th year as a pastor, here I am. Typing this from my bedroom while the world is under quarantine from a terrorist named Covid-19. Our church building has been empty for two full weeks. At first I thought I’d go ahead and work there since I wouldn’t be exposed to anyone. But after going to my lonely office twice and walking into the empty sanctuary, my heart decided it would weather this storm better at home, where walls still separate me from the world.
It’s hard. The community we call the Body of Christ does an awful lot of good in the world. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has welcomed more than 500,000 refugees for the last 80 years. The World Council of Churches has been confronting unjust systems and promoting unity for decades. Faithful people of every religion have done the heavy lifting of visiting people in prison, praying with people in hospitals, sitting with families in hospice centers.
But often we do this in between gatherings inside the walls of churches, and temples and synagogues. In these gatherings, we cry out to God about our fears. We hand tissues to one another for tears. We entrust our deepest pain believing that God hears.
In the Christian tradition, we celebrate Holy Communion, a sacrament that unites us in an intimate and mystical way to the suffering and hope of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Today, we do not gather. We do not commune. The walls of technology both separate and gather us in. Today, we lean into the arms of ancestors who have marked the road we walk with their prayers and their pain. Those who have cared for the least of these and left this world, and their work, to those they leave behind.
And yes, we are finding a way through this madness, with moments in which we sense that we are being held by a God whose presence we can neither touch or deny. Yes, the world is getting a spring cleaning from the lack of pollution being pumped into the air. Yes, we are repenting of the things we came to take for granted…teachers, touch, lunch around a table in a packed diner with friends. Yes, we are living in a church without walls, and finding new ways to be the church in a world ravaged by a virus we can not yet cure or contain.
Now, I have no choice but to be a street-corner preacher, offering my biggest smile and brightest Good Morning, to anyone I am blessed to see while walking Nala. I spend hours composing words of reality seasoned with hope from a bedroom-turned-office. In the background, I listen to the voices of Corva Coleman and Terry Gross, more for the comfort of their cadence than the content of their conversation.
More and more, I pray in sighs too deep for words, living into my own grief that includes deeply missing the church with walls. These structures I now know are both flawed and wholly blessed. They provide sanctuary for sinners and saints alike, and temporary shelter from life’s storms. They act as the rest area, where weary travelers meet to share Holy Bread and hear again the story of God taking on flesh to live among us, that we might recognize that same God in our midst today. The church at its best is a place where the music makes us cry, our fears begin to die, and hope restores our lives.
During this time of sheltering-in, I invite you to join us for church at Be Ye Lifted. New videos drop on Wednesdays at 6:30 and Sundays at 9:30, but you can watch them anytime. If you subscribe, you’ll receive notifications of when we are virtually gathering next.
This church without walls that has risen up during this time of uncertainty and fear will continue even after we are able to worship together inside sanctuaries across this land, where love is alive, death gives way to life, and walls do not hold us in, but surely hold us up.