Monthly Practice: The Grace of Sunday Morning

I grew up in a pentecostal church in Palmerston North. This was both similar and dissimilar to what people might imagine when they hear the word pentecostal. Services were packed with life, loud music, earnest and faithful believers, and “Holy Spirit moments”. I remember receiving prophetic words and hearing from itinerant speakers, as well as going to the somewhat traumatic Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames productions. I loved my church. Meeting on Sunday mornings was a significant place of learning, worship, spiritual formation, and growth. I encountered the deep love of God and learnt postures that I continue to use in my own quiet times with the Lord. I knew church to be a good place.

As I grew older and left my hometown, I realised this life-giving experience was not the case for all believers. Every Christian I’ve met has a different account of the role the Church has played in his or her life, and, for all too many, the Church has been a source of pain. Many of my friends have experienced burnout, or hypocrisy within leadership, or broken relationships, or misguided religious belief. I’ve also encountered my own challenges with the Church, or, perhaps better, challenges with myself within the Church. And yet I keep going back. Each Sunday morning. I’ve often wondered why?

From the ages of 18-22, I studied towards a Bachelor of Journalism at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. I was there on a Track and Cross Country scholarship, earning a degree while competing in the Division 1 NCAA athletics competition. I was exposed to a new culture, high-level sport, and a wonderful journalism school. I loved it. But, like many things in life, this opportunity came at a cost. Because of Sunday morning training and my lack of a vehicle on an island of motorways, for most of my four years in America I had no church community.

At first this wasn’t much of a problem; I had a couple of Christian friends on the team and we’d meet for regular Bible studies. But as these friends left and the challenges of young adult life started to sink in, I began to feel increasingly spiritually isolated. I was in a foreign country, without a strong Christian network, and with no Christian friends (New York is a far cry from the Bible-Belt-South).

During these college years and through this experience of intense spiritual loneliness, I realised my deep need for other believers–not solely for the goodness of like-minded friendships, but more because I needed the faith of others in the midst of my own doubts and disillusionment with Christianity. In a deeply secular context, I needed the Church to remind me and help me believe that obedience to God and loving him with my whole life was actually feasible, life-giving, and worthwhile.

I realised that the Christian faith is both deeply personal and deeply communal. We need others to spur us on, to encourage us, and to identify the spiritual gifts that exist in our lives for the edifying of one another. This need hasn’t ceased for two millennia, and it hasn’t ceased in my own life either. I returned to New Zealand desperate to embed myself with other, more mature Christians who could remind me that this faith is, indeed, worth giving your life and affections for.

Those of us who attend liturgical churches will have noticed we’ve entered the season of Ordinary Time, tempus per annum, which translates literally to “time through the year”. Moving beyond the feasts and festivals, Ordinary Time is the Church’s embrace of regular time together. It is a season that contains the opportunity for spiritual depth, growth, and deeper revelation of Christ’s love for his people.

Dr David Fagerberg, Theology Professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote a small book called The Church’s Year: Unfolding the Mysteries of Christ. I’ve mentioned Fagerberg’s work before; I turn to it often because he offers an accessible and compelling insight into the beauty and rhythm of liturgy. In this book, Fagerberg describes the Sundays of Ordinary Time thus:

“Shine light through a prism and it is broken apart into a rainbow of reds and oranges and blues, but all those colours are in the white light. Shine the mystery of Christ through feasts and it is broken apart in Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, but all the aspects of Christ’s mystery are in the Sundays of Ordinary Time. The resurrection life is celebrated on every Sunday, which led Aidan Kavanagh to say that ‘Sunday is not a small Easter, rather Easter is a big Sunday.’ What we do every Sunday, we do in a big way at Easter. But we live from the fragrance of Christ’s resurrected flesh all year long.”

We live from this fragrance of Christ’s resurrected flesh through the partaking of Holy Communion or Eucharist, being reminded of the love that has been poured out on us in the reconciliatory work of the cross and resurrection. We live in this fragrance in the teaching and edifying of one another, spurring each other on to good works and faithful service before the Lord. Many of us will recognise the beautiful fragrance in a worship offering, when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder (no longer two-metres apart) and with one voice praise and glorify God, our King.

Many of us have had painful, unholy, spirit-breaking, and frustrating experiences in the Church. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough to say, “Christ loved the Church and therefore we must as well.” But I can say with confidence that, in the midst of hurt, injustice, pain, and broken relationships, we all need fresh reminders of Christ’s love for us. The love that arrived incarnate in the person of Jesus, the love that lived and breathed among us, the love that experienced injustice and abandonment and suffering, the love that died for us, the love that rose to new life, breathing hope and resurrection into our weary bones, the love that gives us an example and strength to love one another in turn, and the love that is now embodied within the lives of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I need reminding of this love. And, for better or worse, the gathered church on a Sunday morning is a grace through which Christ reminds us of this love. I’m going to keep showing up.

(Image by Zui Hoang, CC Zero)