We are a church in the middle.
I have jokingly referred to the church I serve as “the cemetery with a church in the middle”. If you were to walk around our church grounds, it wouldn’t be hard to see why. Look across the road from our main entrance, and what would you see? Tombstones. Drive down to our fellowship building for Wednesday night supper, and what would you pass? More tombstones. I can’t even begin to count the number of people who come into the office asking for help finding historical records of an ancestor who is buried somewhere in our three cemeteries. We are, it seems, a church in the middle of a graveyard.
You can call me crazy, but looking out at tombstones every time I go to or from church has an effect on me. It stirs something within me, moving with my own heartbeat, a reminder that I’m a living thing surrounded by those who no longer live. I don’t know any of the people buried beneath those tombstones, but I know their names as I walk by them. They were real people with lives and families and faith. They promised things and hoped for things and prayed for things. In a strange way, all those tombstones – those reminders of death – affirm something about life. It is constant and it is fleeting. It is smaller than I can believe and larger than I can imagine. It is also much broader that what my life holds today, in this moment. Today, I care about whether or not the trash pickup will be a day late. Today, I’m wondering whether the books I ordered will get here on time. Today, I feel sad because the Tar Heels keep losing. Today, I care far too much about myself, and not enough about others. Sometimes it takes a good look at a graveyard to remind me of the brevity of life, the lack of permanence, and the prevalence of change. I’m reminded that I’m not the center. The church is not the center. Death isn’t even the center. God is.
And that’s the affirmation that I must carry with me at all times, and I must carry it with me into a world that desperately needs to hear it. Miles and miles away from the church lies a nation that has been shaken to rubble. Far, far away from here there are survivors and relief workers, looters and peacekeepers, people with dying hopes and people who are just dying. Beyond our pews and our tombstones there is an entire world that longs to be reminded of that simple truth: God is.
Will they hear it from me? Will we speak that truth to them? We believe that Christ’s radical love for all people moves our attention from inward, on ourselves, to outward, on others. And if we are serious about following wherever Christ himself goes, then we must understand that we are called to be a church in the middle. Cemeteries, sickbeds, shelters, debris fields, and destroyed cities – these are the things with which we are to surround ourselves. These are the things into which we carry our truth. Jesus was himself a living bridge between disparate worlds: the divine and the human, the holy and the ordinary, the sick and the well, the pure and the impure, the rich and the poor, the living and the dead. Everywhere he went, he was in the middle. How fervently should his church resolve to do the same?
Soon, Haiti will become yesterday’s news. As the days and weeks pass by other things will demand our attention. Other cares and concerns will drive us back inward, and we’ll be consumed with the small things of life. We will be pulled back toward the first world, and farther away from the third. It will take something like a walk past a graveyard or a glimpse of some other tragedy in the news to awaken us once more to the realization that we care far too much about the trivial and far too little about the eternal. We’ll be reminded that the bones of the dead – whom we don’t even know – cry out to us. But, until then, do what you can in the present world. Send money. Donate food, clothing, and whatever else is needed. Shake a hand. Give a hug. Say a prayer. And hopefully, as the days go by, we will be turning our attention slowly outward. We’ll be living less according to our desires and more according to the needs of others. We will be learning to live in the middle. And yes, we will be proclaiming to a broken and desperate world a very powerful truth: God is.
What better thing can a church in the middle of a graveyard say?
Gracious God, we pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti. We ask that you would bring strength to both the victims and the relief workers. Though we are far away, show us way in which we can love those who hurt. Though our world is full of tragedy, we pray that you would bring new life to the devastated places. Make us willing… to pray, to give, and to go, if you call us. Amen.