Over a block away, and already I was annoyed.
This morning’s walk was in neighborhoods on the east side of Bishop, California. No shortage of church buildings here—Presbyterian, Methodist, Southern Baptist, Anglican (not Episcopalian!), Seventh Day Adventist, Latter Day Saints, Church of Christ, and a funky old motor inn with a weather vane that fooled me for a bit.
And now, I approached yet another —but a shrub blocked its sign. This is one of my pet peeves. Not that I have a “Field of Dreams” delusion about church buildings. Frankly, if you build it (a sanctuary, a gym, a great big sign) it’s entirely possible that no one will notice, let alone come. But we shouldn’t make it harder on the ones who do show up. We don’t remember how difficult it is to check worship times and get directions (on the website, of course); bundle up the kids, follow those directions, and then walk into an unfamiliar facility, where any given door might lead to a kitchen or a choir or a closet; where everybody else knows everybody else. You’ve heard this before: “Going to a new church for the first time is like going to someone else’s family reunion.”
So we shouldn’t make it harder—when signs are multiple and clear; when people are attentive and helpful, we more readily return the effort a guest has already made just to get to us. When we don’t, well it’s a pet peeve with me—and I’m sure you’ll pardon my peevishness (or Stevishness, as the case may be.)
This particular sign gradually revealed itself, and it’s congregation, as I moved forward, and to the left: “Our Lady…” “Our Lady of Perpetual…” (Here, I couldn’t help but think of Garrison Keillor’s mythical town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where the Catholic Church is “Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility”…) Finally, I saw an “H”—“Our Lady of Perpetual Hope?” Nope—“Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” Eventually.
I’ll write again what I wrote before: the church is not the building, it’s the people. Too many congregations get caught up in the Edifice Complex, where we serve the many needs of the facility, but lose track of vision whereby the facility is an instrument for God’s mission. A building can inspire, it can shelter, it can serve; it can help launch Christians into God’s world. But it is a place for worship, not an object of worship.
So I must also share this: in 1968 (the cornerstone date), Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Bishop, California, did a very good job of setting and constructing its building for the purpose of inspiration in that location. The sanctuary entry faces east, so the morning sun can light up a yellow and red, green and blue stained glass of Jesus, Mary, St. Frances, and others. But even better: peering through the doors, I could see that the front of the sanctuary was nothing but broad, clear panes opening out onto the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas—the “Range of Light” as Ansel Adams called it. The morning sun lit these up even more gloriously than it did the stained glass window. How could God not be praised?
So I bless this building, and the congregation that serves from there (none of whom I met, alas, on a Monday morning.) Their sanctuary illustrates the church at its best—receiving and refracting the light of God, and allowing that light to frame and hold forth the world into which God sends us.
First Christian Church of Sacramento has a sign over its sanctuary exit, put there by my predecessor, Fred Jobs: “The worship has ended—let the service begin.” So may it be always.