Esmeralda Santiago recalls a childhood memory in “When I was Puerto Rican”:
Sunday morning before breakfast Abuela handed me my piqué dress, washed and ironed. “We’re going to Mass,” she said, pulling out a small white mantilla, which I was to wear during the service. “Can we have breakfast first, Abuela. I’m hungry.” “No. We have to fast before church. Don’t ask why. It’s too complicated to explain.” I dressed and combed my hair, and she helped me pin the mantilla to the top of my head. “All the way there and back,’ she said, “you should have nothing but good thoughts, because we’re going to the house of God.”
All the way there and back, the journey to and from the gathering at “the house of God.” Esmeralda and her Abuela (grandmother) were going to walk. Most who still go nowadays will not walk, at least not in the west. Car, bus, tram, train, bicycle, scooter will get us there. Or we’ll just stay where we are and click on the link.
All the way there and back is not just travel time or modes of transport. There’s an inner journey involved in going to any kind of gathering that has Jesus of Nazareth as a focus, be it a full-on pentecostal celebration or a solemn high-church liturgy. “Have nothing but good thoughts” is Abuela’s attempt to help Esmeralda consider what’s going on inside her as she makes the outward journey.
But the simple command to think good thoughts won’t get most of us very far. Esmeralda writes that, even as a little girl, on hearing the command, she now knew she would have nothing but bad thoughts on the journey. The inner journey to the gathering is a little more complex than mandated good thoughts.
Many of us now go to church with the same kind of posture we have when we go to the cinema. There is no transition when we head for the cinema or come from it. It is, after all, just a brief escape to another world. So we can be checking the phone or chatting to our companions in the cinema right up until the main feature begins; then “Voila” – we’re instantly in another world. If the film’s good we’ll remain in that world for two hours or so. But as soon as it’s over, maybe even while the credits are still rolling, we have left that world behind; we’re back in conversation, back on the phone, back in the world we had temporarily left. The film was a brief distraction, that’s all. Nothing has changed, either in me or in the world I inhabit.
It’s possible that an hour or two in church on Sunday might have a similar effect, interesting or enjoyable while we’re there but disconnected from Monday to Saturday realities.
Covid-recovery will generate a lot of pondering on the activities of the church “gathering.” What will it look like? Will it be blended, physical presence and electronic presence? What about the quality? Producers and viewers will scrutinise the quality of the teaching, worship, liturgy, hospitality, inspiration.
But “all the way there and back” also needs pondering. If there is no inner journey to and from the gathering then the chances of any ongoing influence from the gathering are small, no matter the quality of the event. It’s just a moment. Enjoyable memory it may be, but a disconnected one, disconnected from dirty nappies or flat-hunting or software glitches or doctor’s bills. The business of living in the real world takes precedence till Sunday rolls around again.
All the way there and back. I once heard Joe Schmidt, the former Irish rugby coach, say that when his squad of players gathered for the first time to prepare for upcoming internationals he would ask each of them these questions: “Where are you coming from? What are you bringing?” The questions helped the players leave behind whatever they had been doing with their clubs and get ready for what they would be doing together as a squad.
The central message of Jesus’ teaching is the “withness” of God. Immanuel, God with us. “The governing activity of God is right under your nose.” Matthew Creating a gathering in Jesus name that disconnects us from the real word will not be the desire of any serious Jesus follower. Yet somehow we seem to do that. Jesus, by contrast, consistently connects offering teaching about anger, fear, lust, anxiety, money, greed and oppression and doing things like giving people something to eat, healing people with a variety of sicknesses, providing extra wine for a wedding reception.
All of this emphasises the nearness and the currentness of God and his activity. Such was the tangible nature of what he does that people demand it. They aren’t trying to get out of their lives and into the kingdom, they are trying to get the kingdom into their lives.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility for any gathering, be it a solemn liturgy, a preaching masterclass or a feast of gospel music to create space at the beginning of the gathering for people to arrive and space at the end for people to depart. The quality of the connection between the gathering and the rest of the week is just as important as the quality of the gathering itself. As we rethink gathering let’s also rethink all the way there and all the way back.
The thoughts and views expressed in this are the author’s own.