One Sunday a few months ago I slipped in late to the back of church. Home just one day from five weeks in the woods, I felt like a stranger in this life, this city, these clothes. I didn’t even have the strength to sing for most of the service; just enough to stand and let the healing waves of the body wash over me like rain. To hear their voices lift high words that have been sung by the people of God for centuries…
Laudate omnes gentes, Laudate Dominum
Sing praises all ye people, sing praises to the Lord
In those words they proclaimed for me what I could not yet feel, reeling in communal loss: that this too was the body, and I must enter back into it again. But those voices also called me to responsibility, to remember why we gather. It was exactly in the grief of that moment, regardless of who knew or understood it, that I needed to be there, and I needed to stand with them, and I needed to praise.
It has been a season of a freshly stirred longing for eternity. And when that happens, most often I think it is because we’ve glimpsed it. It began for me in the mountains, in that intentional, short season of specific community, where we had to love our neighbor “because he is there,” as Chesterton said. In the midst of that loving, and teaching, and leading, I knew myself again. I glimpsed the shalom, the wholeness, of eternity, in that time the Lord had given me to join Him in redeeming. But it was always going to end, and in the pain of that ending, early that Sunday morning, I fled for comfort to the church. I fled for comfort not because my church is a place of rich known-ness: in fact, relationship building has been painfully slow. But because somewhere deep within I knew that what I was grieving in that moment was eternity glimpsed, and I needed to put myself in the space of remembrance. Remembering that while we’re here, we are not meant to do this alone. So we gather, as if to kneel in a posture of humility under that truth.
It’s an astounding thing, really, if you stop and think of it, that Christ called us first to oneness, in order that the world may believe. He called us to preaching and service, yes, to grace and to love, but also to oneness. And there are all sorts of other gifts that come from fellowship with believers, but none of them must overshadow the alter that sanctifies them – the God that gives them and says that even if none of them are true, even if I don’t know you and I feel as alone as I ever have, I’m called to stand beside you because it’s not about either of us. It’s about proclaiming the truth of eternity whether we feel it today or not, and praising the God who is the same today as He will ever be. It’s an act of defiant pilgrimage, responding to our culture’s idolatry of fulfillment through individual arrival to say that we’ve glimpsed a different end, and its hope is all-compelling. I’ve been chewing on that one for months now.
This Sunday, I slipped into church aching for eternity. I felt battered and weary by the contrast of reality with the promised redemption of all things. I felt beat down by brokenness, by the way we are capable of treating each other, by the battles of unfulfilled desire, by my own utter weakness. But I also came in immense hope, pleading for the church to be the community that it is meant to be. I came in my brokenness and desperation, but also, in the Lord’s grace, in the midst of a weekend of reminders that it is primarily in my need of others that I most often catch those glimpses of eternity. I glimpsed it on Friday night, as I sat with a friend and we spoke of the longing of not wasting time in the realness of conversation. I glimpsed it on Saturday, as I sat at a conference that challenged us to speak into unspoken spaces, for we’re not supposed to battle in them alone. And I glimpsed it that morning, as my pastor reminded us that in light of anything this week holds, we gather in the hope of a kingdom which cannot be shaken.
And then we came to the table, to that ultimate act of community and of remembrance. Remembrance not only of that which is past, but present and future, an eternity-glimpsing remembrance, a oneness-proclaiming gathering. Just as the people of Israel did, huddled together in their homes in the darkest night they had known, we eat together in the bold faith of a coming redemption.
We eat together because we need to be humbled, by kneeling side by side, to remember that we come to this table as equals.
We eat together because we need to be strengthened by the faith of others in the days we do not glimpse the promise which our eating proclaims.
And we eat together because the last prayer Christ prayed for us before dying for us was that we might be one, and in the striving for that oneness, we glimpse the way things have always been meant to be.
As my pastor ended his sermon yesterday, after whatever may come, this much will remain true: next Sunday morning we’ll gather once again in that space and around the world and praise Christ as Lord. We’ll call each other to remember that there is a feast coming that gives meaning to our lives, and that in that moment’s fullness, we will lack nothing. We’ll call each other to remember that until then, our brokenness pushes us to isolate, but we need each other. I needed to remember that this week. I needed to stand in the front of church, and place the bread in my mouth as we sang…
Every vow we’ve broken and betrayed
You are the faithful One
Starting from the garden to the grave
Bind us together, bring shalom…
So I stood there, and I cried.
For someday we will feast in the house of Zion.
And in the brokenness and the waiting and the ache, being with you helps me remember.