Over the past decade, my experience of church as a family of faith located in one community, one building, and one denomination, has shattered. My close association with a small urban United Methodist congregation for almost 25 years gave me a clear sense of identity and belonging. The rituals were familiar. The congregation was my gravitational center, the sun to my orbiting earth.
Contemplative prayer and my strong desire for silence have drawn me out of orbit, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not, and I’ve been grieving the loss. On a personal level church feels broken, and I’m painfully aware of the larger Church’s rapid decline. What’s happening to this institution I love?
Oddly enough, the loss has brought to mind the Jewish creation myth: At the beginning of time God’s presence filled the universe. Then God decided to make the world, but there was not enough room, so God drew in a breath—God contracted—and said, “Let there be light.” Ten holy vessels came forth filled with light. But then they broke, scattering holy sparks everywhere. God created humans to gather up the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. Many Jewish people have been sent into exile, the editors of Tikkun magazine write, so “the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.”
When enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored and tikkum olam, the repair of the world, will be complete.
My own, relatively comfortable exile from church has given me a very Christian glimpse of that scattered, fractured light. I’ve attended worship at a wide range of congregations and been amazed by how, despite my initial trepidation at crossing a strange threshold into an unfamiliar service, I inevitably find familiar bits of light: in heartfelt prayers, in the people I’m surprised to recognize, in the smell of coffee, in the worn and well-loved hymnals… I’ve leapt into prayer circles and contemplative retreats I know little about and found earnest welcome and admirable devotion. I’ve gathered neighbors and friends around the piano to sing Christmas carols and been surprised, and humbled, to have experienced church in my living room. Every morning for a short spell I enter a stark and daunting silence, and find hidden in the corners a nourishing light.
The church I lost isn’t lost at all; it’s everywhere. I use the word “church” because for me church is associated with care and connection and divinity, but perhaps “holy community” is a better term so long as we understand holiness in all its inclusivity and mystery. All these sparks are part of a much brighter and broader light, and we can gather it up from anywhere, everywhere, for the healing of the world.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Wishing you light and new life this holiday season!