Anybody who’s spent time in church knows that it’s not quite a pleasant place to be much of the time. Even the best fellowship can’t erase the fact that every congregation has certain people that are more than a bit unpleasant to be around. Over the years I’ve mostly resisted the temptation to write about this … after all, no one wants to listen to a pastor (much less a former pastor) kvetch about the parishioners.
But I just read one of the most wonderfully apt images of a congregation in the opening words of Lucifer’s Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven. (It occurs to me that the title, in this context, might be misleading; it’s an end-of-the-world sci-fi novel about a comet that hits the earth.)
“Before the sun burned, before the planets formed, there were comets and chaos.
“Chaos was a local thickening in the interstellar medium. Its mass was great enough to attract itself, to hold itself, and it thickened further. Eddies formed. Particles of dust and frozen gas drifted together, and touched, and clung. Flakes formed, and then loose snowballs of frozen gases. Over the ages a whirlpool pattern developed, a fifth of a light year across. The center contracted further. Local eddies, whirling frantically near the center of the storm, collapsed to form planets. …”
It’s, of course, a description of of the formation of solar systems, but with a certain mythic breathlessness that makes us stop and imagine it in our minds … imagine what it must have been like.
It is a prologue not unlike the prologue to Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; and the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
How is it that congregations are formed? For me the prologue to the novel is suggestive. One can speak in technical terms of evangelism, of the establishment of leadership through God-given channels, etc. One can speak in theological terms of the Holy Spirit and the Body of Christ and catholicity. But one can also speak with a certain mythic breathlessness of lone and lonely individuals who are called together, whose “mass was great enough to attract itself, to hold itself, and it (the congregation) thickened further.”
This imagery is marvelous because it helps us move past the very misleading stuff about calling, conversion, baptism, and holiness. When we think of a Christian congregation in an abstract manner, made up of abstract Christians, we think of a place where the virtues are in evidence and the light of Christ burns brightly. But such an abstract vision confuses the end with the beginning. Conversion and Baptism tell us nothing of the existential situation of the Christian in situ. Holiness, on the other hand, describes the goal, the end-point, the “blessed hope” of what Christ-in-us and we-in-Christ will accomplish after a lifetime of growth.
The congregations we experience on a week-to-week basis, on the other hand, are closer to the beginning than the goal. And in the beginning there were comets and chaos. In other words, there was that stuff out there with the potential to disrupt us and individuals with not much more than the Spirit who has enlivened them, and “a mass great enough to attrach itself.” This contrast of the vision of what can be compared to the reality of what is can easilty lead to cynicism.
But think of the chaos that must ensue before that amorphous mass can be fully organized into the bright blue marble shining in the emptiness of space that a fully formed and mature planet is? And even then, there are earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and thunderstorms, floods and dust storms. Even in its most glorious completion, chaos seems barely held at bay. (Oh, the psalmists and prophets spoke so eloquently of this almost-but-not-yet character of existence, even in the presence of God.)
A colleague at work belongs to a Bible Church and went to Bible College (just as I did, so I understood his question completely) asked, not long after we first met: Are you a born-again Christian? Given the context the proper answer was, “Yes.” (And more precisely, the most comfortable answer that would assure him of my standing would have been, “Yes, I have invited Jesus Christ into my heart.”)
But in so many ways that answer confuses endings with beginnings, the goal with the journey. The more proper answer would be, “I hope to one day be a Christian.” It’s the correct answer, not because I doubt my salvation, but rather because I recognize my place in the larger order of things. I am part of a chaotic “mass” that is “great enough to attract itself, to hold itself, and to thicken further.”
I am still, to a disappointingly large extent, an isolated individual who has not yet grown into the personhood of life together in the Body of Christ. Oh yes, I am a Christian, when viewed from the end, but when viewed from the here and now, I am still chaos, whithout form and void, but with the Spirit hovering over my darkness.
It would be all too easy to complain endlessly about a Christian congregation, my congregation, any congregation, but to do so is to be stuck in the prologue, to be so focused on the chaos, that one loses sight of the painfully beautiful blue marble reflecting the Sun out into the dark and formless emptiness of fallenness. Chaos and comets will eventually lead to the bright blue marble of authentic life together orbiting the brilliance of the Sun. But the scattered dust and snowballs of the interim are what we need to learn to deal with now.