Monday, March 17, 2014

Storefront church

This was a storefront church in an older part of the city that is undergoing some revitalization. The homes look old, for the most part, although some are being rehabbed and you can find some new construction next to the dilapidated homes which look like they should be condemned if they haven't been already. The church is in a small strip mall on the main street. There is an ice cream store next door and a restaurant at the end of the mall with a real estate office around the corner. The building is new and attractive. Church members (loosely speaking because there are no members) arrive at 9 am to set up the rented space. They put the coffee on and arrange the baked goods on a table. People start straggling in about 10 and continue to straggle all the way through the morning service. We are greeted warmly by many of the people. I know the pastor because I met her at a clergy luncheon just this week. I told her I would like to come and see what was going on. There were several brochures and sign up sheets on another table alerting people to ministries and services awaiting volunteers in the community. It is a community with no end of needs, it seemed. The announcement time reflected more community needs and the sharing and prayer time allowed people to talk about personal needs of which there were many, as well. It could seem like a needy place but there was much laughter and talk of hope and prayer, too. The people, 50 or so, knew each other well and were comfortable with each other so some good natured teasing flowed easily. Two women got up and played guitar and led a couple worship songs. A man in a wheelchair worked the computer projecting the words on a screen. Someone read the scripture for the day, from Genesis 12, and the pastor preached on covenant. What does covenant mean to you, she asked. Promises, a couple of people responded. I wondered at that. Here were people who mostly knew a promise as something not kept. Covenants were made to be broken. The boarded up and broken buildings around us were mirrored by the broken lives in the church. Mostly, we felt the pain of broken promises in that room. People living after promises failed in families, marriages, jobs and even churches. Lots of people here have had negative experiences in churches we were told after the service. In this place, on this day, we were learning what covenant meant as the pastor preached about God's call to Abram and Sarai. It was no small thing, the pastor reminded us, to leave everything and follow God's promise. It took a lot of trust. The pastor, looking at it from Sarai's point of view, said Sarai had to trust her husband (who wasn't always the most trustworthy man if you read the rest of his story) who said he had heard from God and this is what I heard: We are leaving! So get packed up! Promises need trusting responses even when there is little evidence of fulfillment (20 some odd years til their promised child was born). So hang in there. Don't give up on God. Mostly, what we felt was that this group of believers was still believing. Strongly. They had not given up. We sensed hope there, and grace, much grace. Like the scripture in Genesis 12 said, God speaks a promise to us, that is grace, and we respond because what else are we going to do.