For years I was told that church was a place of refuge. My pastor spoke of this mighty fortress of strength. My Sunday school teachers taught about this safe place of pasture. My parents talked about these people as if they were familiar relatives. And so I just assumed that church was a good place.
Like the warm Christmas fire I can remember in the red brick fireplace of my youth, I recall the warm soft church chairs on a Sunday morning. Nestled between my dad and mom, the glow of comforting hymns radiated through the small church. In my elementary eyes, my church was the living hearth of refuge, love and safety.
As I grew older, I must have taken that warmth for granted. I’m sure it was still there, but my memories of the warm embrace seemed to change. I started to notice a coldness in the people around me. I saw an icy pain in their eyes. I heard a sharp tone in their words. I even recognized a stony desire to separate myself from my church that was once warm.
Teenage years to college years to a young family of my own, I could barely remember the cozy home I called church. Somehow, I still longed to find the warmth of that family. But gathering close to another fireplace turned out to be much harder than I thought.
I gathered the nerve to enter church one Sunday. It was cold. Unfamiliar happy faces looked through me. They all walked in time to their mysterious Sunday ritual. I vanished in their shadows. They sang, I shivered. Handshakes and head nods, they were crusted over with a pleasant stale ash.
Maybe I had the wrong place. This was not what I thought church was supposed to be. Even though they confessed what I believed, taught what I remembered, there didn’t seem to be any spark. I sat in the cinders and the darkness, still cold and alone.
Years passed and I set foot again in my childhood church. The soft red chairs had been replaced with a multi-purpose metal. Polite, “how are you’s” painted their plaster stares. Role models of long ago seemed cracked and broken. Jagged people were just stacked together: messy, dirty, and not what I remembered. The mortar of my compassionate church family memory, crumbled before my adult eyes.
And so, for years I thought that church was a place of refuge. My pastor spoke of this mighty fortress of strength. My Sunday school teachers taught about this safe place of pasture. My parents talked about these people as if they were familiar relatives. But I looked for the warmth, and it seemed to be gone.
Every church is built out of people. Cold and rough. Stony and broken. Every brick is chipped and scratched. There are mean people, evil people, stupid people, apathetic people, and rule breakers. They are stacked together in unpredictable ways. They often look ready to topple over. The people at church are covered in a film of dirt and grime. They have been the most disappointing collection I have yet to find.
This last cold Christmas, we built a fire in the living room. I watched the logs stand still and cold in the middle of that ashy tomb. Gray stone hovered around the black drafty void in the fireplace. Lifeless cold bricks were assembled together to stare blankly at one another.
Until a small orange light flickered in the darkness. In the center of the bricks, yellow and red ribbons of fire reached out. A glow filled the living room. The hearth sparkled in the center of the room. The stones were radiantly beaming. The warmth returned.
I realized that frigid winter night, that I had been confused by the cold broken people I found at church. I had entered into that warm place, backwards. I was studying the fireplace; I detested the ash and the dirt and the grime. I felt the coldness and the cracks and the sin that each one of those people displayed. But I forgot to see the most important part of the fireplace – the bricks were hovered around the fire.
Had I turned around, I would have seen the light of Christ in the middle of the people. He lights up everything, even their cracks and chips. But the people at church don’t care, they know the warmth and life comes from the fire – it comes from Christ. The church gathers around to receive His gifts. The church feeds off His raging heat, so they too will be warm. The church sparkles and gleams because He is the center.
For years I wondered if the church was a place of refuge. My pastor spoke of this mighty fortress of strength. My Sunday school teachers taught about this safe place of pasture. My parents talked about these people as if they were familiar relatives. And the Light of Christ makes it a good place.