Heather and I have been away for twenty-four days. We have been traveling in an exotic foreign country basking in unusually early summer weather.
Everywhere we have traveled we have received the most gracious hospitality; we have been wined and dined and taken to view amazing sights. We have been surrounded by people whose primary agenda seems to have been to make our trip go well and to ensure that our visit was as wonderful as possible. We have shared with people who seemed predisposed by the distance we had traveled to be with them, and by our foreign accents, to think we were wonderful and who appeared to appreciate our offerings with exceptional gratitude.
The day before our flight home, we sat outside on the deck in front of the house where we had been staying, enjoying the sun warming our faces and looking out over the sea sparkling below us… at 7:00 in the evening. For three and a half weeks we had experienced New Zealand as a warm gentle place bathed in light. It felt as if we were traveling in a land of grace, freedom, and expansiveness.
On Wednesday we left this blessed land and after eighteen hours of travel walked out of the Victoria International airport into a blast of winter air and the treacherous reality of snow and ice under foot. When we arrived at our house in the early evening, it was completely dark outside.
Thursday morning we awoke to the realization of responsibilities. Our heads were filled with tasks to be completed and the clutter of details to be worked through. We were aware of awkward decisions waiting to be made, human relationships that are not always easy, and the uncomfortable reality of a world that is not entirely organized to make our lives run smoothly.
I find it hard whenever I return from being away for some time not to feel overwhelmed by the routine realities of my life. It is tempting to believe that my life would be better if I could stay away.
But then Sunday morning comes around. I make my way to the church in the dark early hours. As soon as I unlock the door and walk inside, I feel my spirit begin to soften. In the quiet of the church I hear in my mind the voices that will soon fill this building. I sense the presence of people I know and love. For the next five hours, the miracle of church works its magic.
I know it is not perfect. I know there will still be frustrations, aggravations, difficult complexities to work through. There will be times when I feel let down, irritated and puzzled by the people around me. I know there are many awkward messy moments ahead. Things will not always go the way I had hoped; there will be times when I find life in this community painful and hard to bear.
But, on Sunday mornings as we meet and worship together, I am caught up again in the luminous reality of this community, these people, this place. I know that, when I am here, almost without fail, my heart opens to the gentle presence of God.
Everything here works together to create space in my being: the smiles, the vulnerability behind so many eyes, the friendly handshake, the warm embrace, the kind word of welcome. I am moved by our music, by heads devoutly bowed in prayer, by the delight of children and their joy in being in this place. I am touched by each person who approaches the altar with hands extended to receive bread and to share in the common cup.
I realize that I care about these people. They are my spiritual family. We have shared so much of our journey together. These are the people who are always here when I return. They know my weaknesses and the quirky characteristics of my personality and yet they remain. They hang in there with this sometimes messy gathering of complicated people. In their faithful steadiness and goodness towards one another, they bear testimony to the true nature of God.
New Zealand may be bright and entertaining. Time away from the routines of life may be refreshing and exciting. But here among these faithful saints is where my real life takes place. This is where I discover the true nature of God and where my ability to remain open to God’s presence is most deeply renewed.