Monday, September 14, 2020

The Church is Not a Building (A Book Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from The Doctor and the Apostle: Intersections Between Doctor Who and the Letters of Paul.


In his book Eager to Love, Richard Rohr explores the faith and life of Francis of Assisi, who among other things had a reputation for his connection to and appreciation of God’s creation. As Francis was a monk, the name for his room in the monastery was known as a “cell.” Not to be confused with the cell one may picture related to incarceration, this was simply a modest room where one would sleep, pray, read, and write away from community worship, meals, and chores.

Francis saw all of nature as sacred and as a setting in which to experience God’s presence. For him, one did not need to be in his cell or even in a church to find a connection to God. In fact, he thought it more likely to find that connection out in the world. Rohr quotes him as saying, “Wherever we are, wherever we go, we bring our cell with us. Our brother body is our cell and our soul is the hermit living in the cell. If our soul does not live in peace and solitude within this cell, of what avail is it to live in a man-made cell?”

Francis invited people to change their concept of encountering God, and one way he did that is by redefining some of the terms by which one considers such things. He changed the definition of a cell from that of a physical room to one’s body, in which one’s soul resides. Likewise, he changed the definition of a monastery from that of a single building to all of creation. We carry our cell with us at all times within the great cathedral of all that God has made, and thus we are constantly presented with the opportunity to receive what God is trying to share with us through it.

For some, it might be quite a radical notion to move from the traditional definitions of church. For many Christians, the word “church” may call to mind a few different things. First, one may use it to describe a Sunday morning worship gathering. When one says they are “going to church,” they typically mean an event held at a certain time of the week where one may sing, pray, and hear a sermon. This leads us to the second image of church that may come to mind for many, that being a particular building to which one travels to experience this event and others related to the life of a congregation that meets there.

Activities and buildings like these carry with them the possibility of impactful experiences and hold deep meaning for millions of people. But in addition to those, Francis invited people to think even bigger: church can be anywhere and happen at any time, because in a sense Christian believers are always carrying it with them.

The TARDIS is an integral part of The Doctor’s adventures. It makes traveling to different times and worlds possible, and not much would happen without it. But The Doctor and their companions rarely remain inside it. After all, what fun is it to go to all these interesting and exciting places if they never actually leave the ship to experience them?

And even once they leave the physical TARDIS, they still carry it with them. An ongoing connection to it allows them to understand the beings that they encounter, and sometimes allows them to breathe and be protected, among other abilities. In that sense, The Doctor and others never really leave it behind.

For Paul, the word “church” could have had a number of possible meanings. It could have referred to the house in which a particular converted family resided, but it also could have meant the extended network of groups and individuals that spanned an entire city. He used it to refer to communities of various sizes, and communities within communities. For Paul, churches ebbed and flowed, expanded and contracted, and moved about the populace whether together for worship and prayer or scattered in daily work or the tasks of service and evangelism.

Both Paul and The Doctor were travelers, going from place to place to check in on or help people as best they could. For either of them, to stay in one spot was to be less effective than they’d like.

Their visions were of a larger world or universe that needed what they could give, even beyond the preferences of those who wanted them to submit to more structure and regulation. The Doctor saw Time Lord technology as holding great potential to do good for others and had to defy his superiors to do it. Paul had a personal experience of God that directed him outside the specified bounds of the Jesus Movement to expand its reach, first to the Jerusalem leaders’ chagrin and then to their acceptance.

Many may be so used to thinking about the church as being an activity or a place. One may tend to think of it as having walls, either in the physical sense of a structure with a steeple and stained glass, or in the sense of having defined criteria for who gets to be part of it and who doesn’t. One may prefer these walls because they enjoy participating in keeping them raised against a world that they want to repel. Many others have experienced what it’s like to have a wall placed in their path as they are denied inclusion and acceptance.

The Doctor and Paul see the pitfalls of such walls and actively explore a calling to make them much more permeable. A TARDIS is for traveling, and for leaving in order to see to others’ needs. A church is for inviting more people in to find hope and healing, and for easing burdens rather than adding to them. They are both for active use for the benefit of others, rather than keeping to oneself.

As Francis suggests, our view of how God is present in the world and especially in the lives of hurting people changes when we consider that all the universe is God’s dwelling place. God calls us out of our boxes and buildings to experience the bigger, richer, deeper possibilities for a divine encounter all around. Such boxes and buildings may hold a sacred significance, but we carry that same sacredness at all times, wherever we go.

The Doctor and the Apostle: Intersections Between Doctor Who and the Letters of Paul is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Wipf and Stock.

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