Then we departed from the river Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem; the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way.
I’ve been taking my time to process the event of Monday and its aftermath. I feel like the 2-year-old processing a death in the family. You see the emotions and the feelings around you. You sense something is wrong, but you don’t necessarily understand it. As a newcomer to Vancouver, the depth of this tragedy couldn’t possibly hit me in the same way that it hits all our beloved families of the region, in all of the Vancouver Churches.
I’m thinking about two aspects: thoughts on how we process this internally, versus what to make of those who seem to have intentionally done this.
Not everyone realises that the Old Testament (OT) assembly really means OT Church. They were church. For a long time, the Church walked around without a building. They built altars where they stayed. They pitched tents. The Ark of the Covenant was in a tent. This is what it means that the Lord “tabernacled” with us. He tented with us. He literally camped out with us. This is what the Evangelist means when he wrote that the “Word became flesh and tented with us”. He’s saying that even in the NT, God became flesh and camped with us.
So, what made the church the church was the assembled people. What made the church the church of God, as we spoke so much about during Pentecost, is the assembly being with and for God. God was with His people, and that’s what made it the Assembly (Church) of God.
So, if a person started this fire intentionally, and if there was joy at seeing us lose our home or our church, I would internally respond that this person is misguided. We neither lost our home nor our church. They are both where we are. If we are in the streets, God is in and with us in the streets. If we are renting a basement, He’s there, too. We do not stop being the people of God, nor do we lose His in-dwelling. We are His and marked as His body from our birth in the Assembly: our baptism. No fire can destroy that, and nobody can take that dignity away from us no matter how hard they try.
But it’s that same point, I think, that should be a comfort to us in dealing with our internal response to the tragic event of this burning. Are we sad that we lost something precious? Is our loss material or more?
To this, let’s look at the same OT Church. At some point when the OT Church settled, they wanted to build a structural church, a great Cathedral: the Temple. God told David (who initiated the project), I’m not interested in your building. I appreciate it and all, but I’ve been fine camping with you all even in your cheap tents. David insists that out of reverence and honour that he must build. He feels that if he himself (David) lives in a grand palace, so ought God to have one as well. God sees his good intentions and blesses the project that He never requested or wanted. God didn’t ask for the building, the people did. God gratified the assembly by dwelling in it – but not ceasing to dwell out of it.
Over time, the meaning of the building was lost to the OT Church. It became the place to do Church rather than a building to assemble in to be Church and do some Churchly functions. Religion and life became separated. Sound familiar? This is the differentiation we hear today of ‘spiritual life’ and ‘normal life’. It’s why we ask questions like ‘How do I balance spiritual life with the rest of my life?’, as though they are separate.
The OT Church got so attached to the building, that they believed it was invincible. They started to get the sense that if someone desecrates the building in any way, the wrath of God would come upon such a person and consume them. Imagine their surprise, when they were led off into captivity and the temple was not only destroyed, but desecrated! Pigs were slaughtered there (unclean to the Jews). Statues of the pagan gods were put there. The people were horrified. Yet, it appeared, God did nothing.
The people had forgotten that what made them His was not the building. God went with them into their exile. He was in Babylon with them. He delivered Daniel. He delivered the Three Youth. He delivered the entire people of God, the entire assembly, the Church, from their exile. But He was also *WITH THEM* in that exile. Our God is living, not static.
I am not saying this to say that we need not buildings. I’m saying this to say that we’re still the Church even without the building. I’m saying it to say, the building was *A* location of Church, not *THE* Church. I’m saying it to say this event may help us reflect on whether we have a dichotomy in our lives between the so-called spiritual and normal.
But I’d add that at the right time, in the right circumstances, the Lord led them out of exile against all odds. He led them out not with a war or shrewdness. He led them back so simply. And when He led them back, the first thing they did, was begin to rebuild the structural Church. The Lord is not against the building, but the Lord is not the building. He is Lord of the people and Lord of the building, the Lord Who dwells in the people and in the building.
If we understand this, then our sadness at this event will be the sadness of an injured community who lost a location in which they had stored so many memories and events. We are sad because our rallying place to be church was taken from us, and to those things we have attachment. We are sad because we walked those walls and were raised among other places, between those walls.
But our identity is not the building. Our identity is Christ, and against Christ the gates of Hades themselves will not prevail. If we lose a building, we lose a building. We can lose as many as people want us to lose. But we are not going to lose our identity. We do not cease to be Church. We do not cease to have Him with us. We need to learn to worship with that spirit and be resilient to external pressures – spiritual or material – that would like to break that down.
To the beloved offspring of Saint George – I say offspring because the Church birthed you, and because all three Churches of Vancouver are the offspring of Saint George’s – you yourselves are the legacy, more than the building. You are the product *not* of those walls that burnt, but what happened between those walls. You are the product of so much work that went not only into simply getting a building, but the pastoral care, the hymns, the lessons, the service, and the outreach. You’re a product of the Bible Studies and the Prayer meetings. You’re a product of the thousands of liturgies while also yourselves being the liturgy. You’re a product of decisions like icons and mosaics that affected the ethos there. You’re a product of the mothers and the fathers, the ‘tetas’ and the ‘giddos’. You’re a product of the little kids running and screaming and the after-Feast photos. You’re the offspring of two priests, two fathers, who have nurtured and loved you and cared terribly much for your growth and salvation. Again, it is you who will make all this alive. It’s you who can turn the physical death of this building – a tragic event – into an event of spiritual resurrection.
This is the time to rise up and build, to unite, to be of one mind. The devil will try and use this time to divide rather than unite, and that’s all the more reason for us to focus on unity. Let’s see how we can help, how we can be united under our God, and our modern-day Ezras and Nehemiahs, to rise and build. In the story of the OT Church, when they returned from exile, they *first* set up altars and prayed together on those wherever they could find. They regrouped praying in this way until they could build the temple. We are going to do that as well.
But there’s another part to the story of the OT Church. People weren’t happy when the Church started rebuilding. There were nay-sayers from within and from without. There were people who wanted a new version of Church that had little to do with God. There were outsiders who were angry that the OT Church was building again. There was campaigning against the rebuilding. At one point the building was even halted.
All of that can and may happen. So again, we must be united in our purpose: being the people of God. We’re not called to worry about what others think or say about us. We’re not called to determine who did anything to us (that’s not the Church’s role). We’re called to keep being God’s people, His family, His body.
The response of the Church then was to keep doing Church. Let’s unite. Let’s be Church. Where the people are gathered, there is God:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)