Sticks and Stones

New Building“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2)

We Americans are definitely into BIG. Big meals, big TVs, big houses, and most definitely big churches. Within the last year two congregations have both built huge, brand spanking new facilities atop the prominent grassy knoll above our house. The first one to go up was a nifty big box auditorium on a minimally landscaped lot. It was obvious they were taking it a step at a time (or offering at a time) with plans to add on and on and on as God blessed them with growth and Mammon. Shortly after this congregation moved in, the ground was prepared right across the street for another church. I watched in fascination as the project unfolded. Huge swaths of ground were leveled and soon a giant brick edifice began to grow. This time we were talking big big time. The church building rose like a modern cathedral.  All around it, five to ten acres of garden enhanced parking was installed, complete with green sod, bushes, and trees. When it was finished, it made the original church on the knoll look like an auto repair shop. Those Mormons sure know how to make a statement.

I’ve also noticed that the pastors who get the most press are the honchos of churches with the biggest numbers. Guys like Rick Warren, Joel Osteen and Bill Hybels all sport congregations in the thousands. It’s the big dudes like them that get asked to speak at all the conferences. Whether they know anything about whatever they’re supposed to talk about is a moot point. If you look at their bio blurbs in the brochures all they tell you is that the guy heads up “one of the largest churches in the country” or something like that. Don’t be looking for Reverend Dweeb of Small Church USA. He obviously doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. We want the big guns to take the stage.

So back in pre 9-11 2001, I’m with a couple of other guys in Kenya. We’re on our way to visit a church in the boonies of the Rift Valley where I’m scheduled to speak. Our decrepit van bounces over a potholed crack in the ground that only generously could be called a road. We wind out way through fields, cows, zebras, and mud huts. Eventually we enter a field of tall maize and wind our way through. Suddenly, in the middle of the field, we come across a large hut literally made of sticks and stones with a thatched roof. We stop. It’s the church. We enter and discover a dirt floor, rough-hewn plank “pews,” and a rickety podium. We are ushered to the front where the guests of honor sit. There are only a few folks there, mostly women who have come in from the surrounding fields. The host pastor stands up and welcomes us and them. An older woman picks up a cowhide drum (with hair still on it) and begins to beat it with a stick. The rhythm is contagious and soon another woman grabs an old flywheel from a some broken down machine and starts tapping it with a nail in perfect counterpoint to the drum. Then the rest of the congregation begin to dance across the dirt floor, their eyes bright and their faces dripping with perspiration. They sing, they laugh, they hoochie coochie in the way only African women can. I am mesmerized.

Then I hear this voice in my head. “What do you see, Freddie boy?” I answer, “What do you mean?” Again, “What do you see?” I answer, “Some people dancing to the beat of a dead cow and tractor? As clear as a bell I hear, “This, my boy, is what the kingdom of God looks like. Take a good look. You don’t see that much where you come from.” I would have bowed my head in shame if I hadn’t been so captivated by the poor black folk shuffling their way across the dirt floor of that pile of rubble church building.

What I preached on I have no idea. I’m pretty sure it was a piece of religious tripe. But they were kind and thanked us for coming anyway. Then they headed back into the sun-seared fields while we climbed back into our van for the bumpy ride home. A few days later I was back in America where our churches have carpets, air conditioning, padded theater seats, large overhead monitors, gargantuan sound systems, spot lights, manicured parking lots, and Starbucks in the church lobby. I’ve got no problem with that.

But some days I sure do miss the kingdom of God.

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