The church being itself 

WHEN YOU GO TO A MEETING of the General Assembly of our communion, as I do every other year as part of my job, you experience an array of emotions. There’s the joy of encountering dear friends from across your life — those you expect to see and those you do not expect to see. There’s the anxiety of watching commissioners, most of whom are there for the first time, navigating and exegeting the issues as they strive to make faithful decisions (hundreds of them in a week’s time). There’s the inspiration of worship, the cementing of new friendships, the exhaustion of committee work that often goes deep into the night. The longer you are there, the more you are led to assume that this is the church at its … (fill in the blank) “best?”, “worst?”

Then you depart and go home as the press — secular and religious — digests and commends, or fulminates, or yawns until the news cycle is over.

That’s what I did, too. After the General Assembly and a few weeks of vacation, I came home.

Back in the midst of the congregation to which we belong, I got the sense that, while many eyes were following the progress of this latest assembly, none of the issues got in the way of the church being itself.

An artist in our number marshaled the energy of dozens of volunteers to pull an all-nighter, an intergenerational lock-in at the church, in order to work on a six-foot-tall mosaic depicting Jesus feeding the five thousand. When this ambitious project is finished, that mosaic will join five other similarly-sized works of art in adorning one end of the church’s Great Hall. The tableau will portray Jesus feeding the thousands from the shores of the Colorado River with the skyline of Austin in the background. In each of these mosaics, he will be the one wearing orange sneakers — the favorite footwear of a homeless man close to the life of our church. It will be a stunning contribution made possible by the labor of dozens of members who have taken their turn at cementing tiny chips of porcelain into a project bigger than themselves.

Martha, a dear and elegant long-time member, died, and two Sundays ago the church went into high-gear pulling off another project: comforting her family and welcoming a sanctuary-full of worshippers who joined in giving Witness to the Resurrection.

The junior high youth are still buzzing about a trip they took this summer to the heifer ranch in Arkansas, where apparently hearts were transformed and the word “mission” got profoundly hands-on and personal.

And we’re still talking about the former associate pastor who came back from his parish in Wisconsin to keynote our annual spring retreat at Mo-Ranch. It was a spell-binding weekend on the topic of (believe it or not) predestination. Many in our number had never encountered that doctrine’s profundity.

In the wake of this General Assembly, is the church going to Hell in a handbasket? Well, no. In our community, just as in yours, congregations go on being themselves — teaching, praying, discipling, worshipping, comforting, testifying, helping, evangelizing, extending hands and hearts and, in a thousand different ways, making an ongoing witness to the Resurrection. It reminds me that, whatever pleases or disappoints at this or that national meeting, the church is never more visible than it is in my neighborhood — and in yours. We’re all working on a project bigger than ourselves: a collection of people being and doing what it does … best.

Ted WardlawTHEODORE J. WARDLAW is president and professor of homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin.