I’ve been cleaning out my desk at home this week. Found an old notebook in a drawer. I know just when I last wrote in it. I figure its been waiting for me; or I’ve been waiting for it. It was 2009. I was taking a poetry writing class on poetic forms. Curiously, the teacher wasn’t interested in lecturing us on sonnets or sestinas or ghazals or haikus or what have you. He, himself, thought our job as poets wasn’t to sit down and write a sonnet because we thought it would be fun to write a sonnet that day. No. He said out job was to decide what we wanted to say and then to find the best form in which to say it. He said poetic forms, received or invented, were merely ways to advocate for what we wanted to say. Form is necessary; yet, it is not sufficient. You have to have something you want to say. No sense having a lovely vessel with nothing inside.
The church, like a poem, has a form, be it received or invented, which is the vessel which holds what we want to say as a Christian community. And by form, I don’t mean just the building, although the building is obvious, but also everything else about how we are church together: our decision making, our sharing in one another’s joys and sorrows, our work in serving the need of the world around us. But the form a church takes on isn’t why we are here. We can have a lovely vessel in our building and in our relationships with one another; yet, if we don’t have something to say, we are missing the essential point of our calling.
I value form, both in poetry and in the church, and see form not as an end but as a tool, a means, even, as a poet once said, a useful distraction. As a useful distraction to a poet, the form of a poem occupies the poet’s rational mind so his or her imagination can be set free. I think it would be helpful for us to see the form the church takes on, our church, as a useful distraction, as something to occupy our rational minds so our imaginations can be set free.
If we did, we might hold on to the form of the church a little less tightly and see it for what it is, a provisional invention we create to convey the gospel through a particular community of Christians in a particular place at a particular time. And, too, we might attend to the form our church takes on, both building and people, with an eye for what our gospel infused imaginations might yet do and leave off our incessant anxiety over fixing the church. We can only make versions of it, versions suited to the particularity of who we are together in the place we are in the time we are. So, too, our expectations might become more flexible, and we might be surprised by what God has still to do through us.