Tadpoles and Sacraments {why the church.3}

The church is a sacrament of the world’s possibility. {Luke Timothy Johnson}

The church is not ideal. {Eugene Peterson}

Queenlight shines through things, through everything. {David James Duncan, The River Why}

Last Saturday, the Collier men hit a bike trail that, for most of its winding path, runs alongside the Rivanna River. The loop tracks a couple miles with meandering curves and a couple narrow passes, cutting back and forth between dense forest cover and green open spaces. One of the boys’ favorite spots is where the trail dips under Free Bridge, creating a short, eerie stretch Seth has dubbed, “The Tunnel of Doom.”

I enjoy these experiences. I appreciate the quiet and the wind in my face. I enjoy Seth and Wyatt, very much. Still, for me, it’s fundamentally a bike ride. I mount my brown Specialized Hardrock, and I ride, there and back.

Wyatt and Seth understand these Saturday jaunts differently. Usually, we’ve only been on the trail a few minutes before our leader (Wyatt, most often) pulls over and, quicker than I can catch up, has his bike down, his helmet off, backpack undone. Time to snack. After a few rounds of Cheez-its and Fruit Roll-ups (indeed, dad supplies nutritious fare), we are back on the trail. But not for long. We need to stop under the overpass because the boys want to touch the water and jump in the mud and throw dirt. Later, they detour to pick up rocks for their collection. Rocks. And by rocks, I mean gravel.

The ultimate detour, however, is when we stop at Tadpole Pond. Pond is a bit generous. It’s an 8 inch deep, 4 foot wide hollow in the bankside granite. More of a large dimple really. But this spot is magic because a couple weeks ago we discovered hundreds of tadpoles swimming there; and we spent a good chunk of time catching those fast, slick little boogers. Tadpole Pond is now the main attraction. So we stopped; and the boys renewed the chase. A couple they caught (all catch-and-release, of course) had sprouted micro-legs. A few were teeny-tiny frogs. Most were still just tad-poling around. For at least 45 minutes, the boys rollicked with their slimy friends. They even named a few (Charlie, Bob, Tim and Charlie.2).
Instead of chomping for them to hurry up, I made a choice (this once) to let the quest to get on with the ride recede for a bit. I laid back on a cool rock under the refreshing shade. I listened to my boys laugh. I watched the tree branches sway. I was present, and at least for the moment, I understood that getting there and getting back really wasn’t the point. The ride and the river and those poor little tadpoles offered a generous invitation to experience the joys of being a father and the pleasure of having sons. My boys’ detours are not a hurdle to my completing our ride. Our rides are an opportunity for me to be on detour with my boys.

What I’ve tried to say is that the church isn’t only about “the ride,” about getting God’s stuff done. The church is God’s invitation to experience, receive and participate in the messy, detourish ways that God is forming a new kind of community in his world. And this new community is not theoretical or abstract. It is physical, embodied. What does God want to do here, now, with us? Scripture tells us that God desires to form a people, a community, who enjoy and embody his very presence in the world (and we must remember, God is Trinity: perfect, divine community). God does not have a metaphysical philosophy for us to spread or an individualistic moral agenda for us to carry out. God wants us. God wants us as his people in his world.

And terms like these – us and people – are inherently, inevitably, always plural, communal, trinitarian. When we look for what God is up to, we find God alive, active and present among his creation. God amid God’s community. To say we can enjoy God’s hope for us without being bothered by God’s community is like saying I can experience the joys of being Wyatt and Seth’s dad without being bothered by tadpoles.

And this touches on what we mean when we say the church is a sacrament. A sacrament provides a place where heaven and earth meet, a physical moment of grace. A sacrament, by it’s mere presence, mysteriously offers an encounter with the Trinity. A sacrament doesn’t have to do anything, anything other than carve out a physical space where hope and life and God come to us. In the Lord’s Table, we taste mercy. In baptism, we are drowned by God’s love. In marriage and friendship and on crisp mornings above the timberline, God arrives amid words and kisses and sunrises. Physical. Present. Mystery. Sacrament.

So, in the church, amid laughter and repentance and relationship, amid works of mercy and justice, (all messy but all necessary) God touches us. God loves us. God is present. What the Eucharist offers each of us with bread and wine, the church offers to the world with presence and tears. And joy, lots of joy.

A note to my pastor-friends: If we sell the church on utilitarian terms (“God and church will make your life work” or “Our main purpose is to get busy doing God’s work”), we shouldn’t protest when people leave the church for utilitarian reasons (“it isn’t working for me” or “I’m burned out”). We’ve spotted the consumerism rampant in the way people use the church, but have we owned up to the consumerism riddled throughout the ways we motivate and lead?

A note to my leave-church-behind friends: God’s community doesn’t always “work.” I’m sorry if someone told you it did. And working isn’t exactly the point. There’s something there, for sure. But there’s something else first. God is first, what God is doing in you – and in you with others. Sometimes, you really need a few detours. You need an afternoon of tadpoles.


I have more to say, but I’m curious where this is taking you. Any push back or questions or brimming hopefulness? I’d love to interact and see where we might head next. Peace.

[further why the church? posts:part one,  twofourfive]

11 Replies to “Tadpoles and Sacraments {why the church.3}”

  1. Thanks Winn! So well said! I know I lose sight of this so often and get whipped in the fiasco of expecting more of the church than of the One who created the church. I want the church to fix what often ails me rather than looking to the perfect community that is God. I search for community in so many places rather than an infinite and glorious person! Thanks so much for the refocus and reminder of not just what community is but WHO is community!

  2. Winn, I greatly appreciate your words and thoughts here…greatly.

    Here's what you stirred in me – the cool thing these days is to say 'the church is people, not a place'…I've found that phrase infuriating, one of those reactionary phrases that sounds so spiritual but upon reflection rings so hollow; it's almost a gnostic statement, something untethered from this world. Your grace-filled ride with Wyatt and Seth was full of places, spots specific to where God has you incarnating yourself and your family these days. It seems the church is a people AND a place…that's what I heard in your story…and both were vital to the joy that was experienced along the way…does that make any sense? I realize that may be a rabbit trail, but I betcha the boys love rabbits as much as tadpoles…

    Keep writing!

  3. Well, John, what's stirring in you is also stirring in me. Just conversing over coffee a bit ago about the ways we downgrade physicality and incarnation with statements like that. I think I understand what some of the reaction is against (bujillion dollar mega churches, uh, I mean office spaces, all the rage). However, we like to throw dynamite instead of using discernment.

    Isn't it odd that at the time when more of us seem to be saying the arts matter, painting matters, music matters, words matter – just because they are beautiful, just because they are, we would at the same time say that buildings and physical spaces mean (virtually) nothing.

    Peterson (in Practice Resurrection says, "If is not uncommon to hear people dismiss a church building as 'nothing but bricks and mortar.' In a world that gets its meaning from 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,' that is a very unspiritual thing to say…When we consider church, we must not be more spiritual than God. Church is a place and building, church is people and relationships, church is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

    But oh, how we do love our gnostic dualism.

    –And– the boys do love some rabbits.

    Philip and Kim, thanks for dropping in – and thanks for sharing the hope that somehow this all leads back to more of Jesus presence, in us and with us.

  4. Great word again Winn. And this line: "What the Eucharist offers each of us with bread and wine, the church offers to the world with presence and tears. And joy, lots of joy." now that will preach!
    John- I really appreciate you bringing the tension back into owning the places of the faith. Along my theological journey I thought at one point that I would get an architectural degree so I could go on and design churches that allowed the Church to live into its full potential. Like so many dreams that one didnt quite work out, but I still feel my skin crawl every time people disown the importance of space.

  5. The problem that I see and I could be wrong…I often am is that Church has taken the place of God. I know that church isn't perfect because it's full of people. But what ever happened to churches where the community outside of church actually know your church is "Christian"

    I think what it all boils down to is that Christians ought to be known, known for the Love they show others outside of their social comfort zone. In the first centuries of Christianity the poor were fed, clothed, and sheltered at a personal sacrifice and the Pagans said about the Christians: "See how they love each other.

    I think we as Christians have got way to carried away by the emotional and entertainment value of the church, and less carried away by Christ.

    By the way…most excellent post…hope a bunch of folk see it.

  6. Hey, Don, thanks for chiming in. I'm betting yes – but have you read Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity? Stark is a sociologist and tells a compelling story of how the Church's presence with and among the poor and forgotten during a succession of plagues and famines during the first century or two compelled their witness as a community. It is indeed all about love, present love. I think I know what you mean about the church replacing God – but such a strange thing to suggest, isn't it? Like saying kids replace family. They are all wrapped up together.

  7. Loving this series, Winn! The discussion on the value of actual "buildings" and "spaces" is also timely for us – Our Church is very much on the journey of figuring out what it means to really be a community together – quite apart from buildings or any official "organisation" – however we are also blessed with a wonderful building that has been and continues to be a resource not only for us, but for the local community – & what makes it sacred space, is that it is being used to serve others (not denigrating beautiful architecture one bit!)

    I am also loving the idea & the implications (as much as I am beginning to understand it) of "Church as Sacrament" – & Where this takes me – is to thinking about how much bigger this might be, than our buildings (useful and beautiful as they can be), our organisations, and even, perhaps, some of the other boundaries we put around the people/activities we recognise as "Christian". Not going all new-agey here, but doesn't it seem to you that moments of grace and God's presence between people can often be far outside all our preconceptions??

  8. Indeed, Kerry. God shows up in ways that surprise us and bless us and nip us here and there with mercy and goodness. I think God surprises us in stained glass and in a backyard bbq.

  9. Great blog series Winn – appreciate the questions you are asking and wrestling with and your willingness to share it publicly. Our family and community has been asking the same questions the past 5-6 years, about the churches "being" rather than simply focusing on "doing". There is always a time to do, but not at the expense of the other. THanks!

  10. Hi Winn,
    I am writing all the way from Kenya. I have been disillusioned with the church of late. I have been wondering whether I should just pack my bags and hit the road. Then I found your posts. The doubts are still there. The desire to leave lingers in the background. But here I am thinking, may be, I just need to peer in through a different lens. Your words provided that lens. God bless you.

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