Last week was a tough week in our local church. I’m not talking about the usual crises and conflicts that are part and parcel of daily life among any community. I’m not talking about the spiritual vandals who, rather than contributing to the well being of others, seem to delight in using Facebook and other social media as a battleground to tear others down with criticism and personal attacks on their families. I’m not even talking about the fact that our church offices were broken into and absolutely trashed with thousands of euros worth of damage. No, this was much more serious than that.
A family in our church experienced a devastating and sudden tragedy. Their son, Philip, a popular local musician, dead on the other side of Atlantic. The raw pain of unexpected heartbreak. The grim logistics of bringing his remains home and planning his funeral service. Last week we needed to see and feel the grace of God in a special way.
And, thank God, we did experience the grace of God in a special way. One church member organised an online crowd funding initiative – ‘Bringing Philip Home’ – to cover the costs of repatriation and the funeral. Within four days over €20,000 was raised, revealing just how loved Philip was by so many people in Drogheda. Church and family members rallied round in an outpouring of love and practical concern. At the funeral Philip’s family, including his parents, Sean and Mary, impressed everyone with their courage and faith as they spoke about their love for Philip and their confidence in Jesus Christ. Philip was honoured and remembered with great affection and the Gospel was shared. For hundreds of mourners, it was their first ever experience of an Evangelical church. There was powerful praise and worship, and Philip’s many musician friends expressed themselves in song also, with a great sense of mutual respect and united grief.
But sometimes it is the little things that make for lasting memories. The church member who volunteered to be a carpark usher in pouring rain, getting soaked to such an extent that he had to go to a nearby store and buy fresh clothes before he could get into his own car afterwards. Or the two church members who asked me for a lift from the church to the cemetery, and then stayed behind in the same pouring rain to change my punctured tyre when I was involved in a minor accident en route.
Last week I caught a brief glimpse of the church at its best – and I have discovered that such moments carry a revelation that can sustain us through all kinds of disappointment and discouragement.
23 years ago, when our family also suffered the indescribable pain of the death of a child, I caught a similar glimpse of what the church can be. Fellow Christians helped in practical ways, bagging up clothes and toys at a time when we were totally unable to cope with such tasks. Over the intervening years that vision of what the church of Jesus Christ looks like when she gets her act together has been a continual inspiration for my life’s work.
It’s increasingly common to hear Christians, and even Christian leaders, speak disparagingly of the church. It can be so easy to become cynical, or to focus on the many times when the human side of church obscures the divine. And, make no mistake, those of us in leadership don’t live in a fool’s paradise. We see the church’s weaknesses and mistakes as much, and probably more so, than anyone else.
But every time I am tempted to join the chorus of negativity, I remember the beauty and majesty of what the church has the potential to be. Yes, I must be honest in facing and acknowledging our frequent foolishness and misguided efforts, but I can never stop loving and serving this Bride of Christ which, according to the New Testament, is God’s workmanship – the ultimate crowning glory of creation (Ephesians 2:10). One day we will see clearly what we currently only catch in passing glimpses, but those glimpses are precious indeed!
So last week was a tough week for our local church. But, for a moment in time, we became what we are becoming, and that will affect us positively for a long time to come.