In a recent session of premarital counseling, a bride-to-be told me that she had tried reading the Bible numerous times but always got stuck in the early parts of the Old Testament. The genealogies in Genesis presented the first challenge, but not an insurmountable one, interspersed as they were with the grand stories of Noah and Abraham. Nor did the complex laws from Sinai do her in. Laws about oxen goring people to death are actually interesting to read.
What she found impenetrable were the long descriptions of how Moses was to construct the Ark of Covenant and build and furnish the tabernacle. Beginning in Exodus 25, the reader encounters chapter after chapter of acacia wood and crimson linen, all measured in handbreadths, cubits, and spans. Four rings of gold go here, fifty clasps of bronze go there. Twenty wooden frames will stand on forty frames of silver on the south side of the tabernacle, and likewise on the north side. The Golden Calf makes for a few chapters of lively interlude, as the Israelites swallow their own idolatry (literally) and Moses pleads with God to spare them, but then it's back to the building project. Instructions about the tabernacle resume in chapter 35 and continue until the end of the book.
My parishioner is not the only one to stumble over these lengthy descriptions of building projects. I have been tempted to highlight them in my own Bible, along with the genealogies, so that I might be more efficient in my devotional life and skip them. Couldn't I cover more important ground by spending less time on cubits and begats? Indeed, are not such descriptions the very sort of thing that makes the Bible seem out of date, obsessed with details that matter little to modern readers?
For a while now I have wondered what the Holy Spirit had in mind when he inspired the biblical writers to include these descriptions, but I have been sitting in church council meetings as a pastor for a few years now and it has begun making sense. What are the most boring parts of the Bible for many readers? Building projects and genealogies. What do I hear more than anything at council meetings? Building projects and genealogies.
Some recent council agendas illustrate the point. I serve three rural congregations, and at one congregation's most recent council meeting, the only items under old business were as follows: "Roofing Job... Drain Tile... Other." At another of my congregations, the most recent minutes indicate that the only items of old business were lights over the altar, new oil candles, and cleaning the janitor's room. The first items under new business were a sump pump and the lawn mowing budget.
Genealogies do not feature as prominently in our meetings, but at the end of every year, each of the three church councils spends time updating its membership lists, removing the names of people we have not seen for a while. Probably few church councils are as regular and efficient with updating the roster as mine. Each congregation contributes to the parish fund—which pays, among other things, my salary—according to its percentage of the overall parish membership, so there is motivation for keeping the rolls as slim as possible.
Recent centennial celebrations at one of my congregations demonstrated the same thing. Much time went into writing and revising the centennial booklet, the largest part of which told the congregation's history. The history reads like a catalogue of building projects: "In 1973, the church was rewired and the interior redecorated.... The church ladies were excited in 1976 when Bob Snow drilled a well and piped water into the kitchen.... In the early 1980s, the interior and exterior were painted and storm windows installed." At the end of the book, the editors fill several pages with the names of every confirmand listed by year. Building projects and genealogies. On one hand, such observations show that we are at least as boring as the parts of the Bible that bore us. No surprise, since we are at least as sinful as the motley band of fratricides, prostitutes, and idolaters who fill the Bible. On the other hand, those of us who find such things boring should question our own distaste for the earthy details of life. Building projects and genealogies bore me, and perhaps that is only because I prefer the telling of a good story to the recitation of a list. But it seems there is something of the proud, old sinful self in my boredom: Aren't matters like the sump pump and janitorial closet beneath me? Don't lists of confirmands distract me from the more transcendent aspects of my job?
It is, however, the dead skin falling off the bodies of the worshiping assembly, turning into dust that necessitates a janitorial closet. It is the generations before us, multiplying through the sweaty processes of procreation and praying around ordinary dinner tables, who have passed on the faith to the present day—you can find their names on the list of confirmands. The serpent convinced the first man and woman that they could transcend their status as creatures and be like God. After the fruit, perhaps his next suggestion would have been to discard building projects and genealogies.
As earthly creatures, we need buildings to shield our heads from the rain and keep us warm when we hear God's word. Lists of generations give praise to the Lord who used these people to carry the gospel to us. Jesus himself descended from such a list.
At the same time, there is something of the old sinner even in our obsession with buildings and generations. While such things bore us in the Bible, they consume our attention in our own congregations and provide occasions for stumbling. I called a woman whose family had stopped coming to church. She had had a falling out with another church member, and so she could not come to worship, but she did not want to join another church either. Our church was her home. Her family had been members there for generations. She could not imagine going to another church. Maybe someday she would be back.
A Samaritan woman once mentioned to Jesus an old disagreement between Jews and Samaritans: could worship happen on Mount Gerizim, or must it happen in Jerusalem? Jesus responded that his Father was seeking people who would worship in Spirit and truth. The location was inconsequential. On another occasion, he promised his presence where two or three are gathered in his name. We have no excuse for neglecting God's word when one building or group of people fails us.
The building projects and genealogies will not let us go, though, and the Lord seems to be at work here. We are earthly creatures. Our buildings and genealogies are important, and our connections to them manifest our love for God's word and our fellowship with one another. A funeral drove this point home for me. One of my oldest members died, and I was informed that his funeral would happen at the funeral home. Many of my parishioners were surprised at this, and one of them called the funeral home to complain. The deceased had been a lifelong member of the church. His widow had taught Sunday school there for many years. Why was the funeral not at our church? Why would the church women not be preparing lunch?
The funeral director explained to me that the widow was too distraught to help with the arrangements, and so the children had done all the planning. The children had moved away long ago, and so the building had ceased mattering to them. If the Lutheran Reformers were right, then the church exists wherever the gospel is preached and the sacraments rightly administered. For that reason, I can say that it was a church funeral; forgiveness and resurrection through Christ were preached that day. My parishioners were hurt, though, and I do think they had good reason. They are accustomed to consoling the bereaved by showing their hospitality. They comfort with casseroles. Buildings neither create nor sustain faith, but in this case a severing from Christian fellowship took concrete form.
But an interesting thing happened as I was leaving the cemetery following the interment. The funeral had been at the funeral home, but the man was buried in the cemetery next to the church. I was about to get into my car when one of the grandsons asked if the church was locked. No, I said, we don't lock it. Could he go inside? Sure,I replied, do you need to use the bathroom? No, there were some pictures in there he wanted to look at. I assume he was referring to the pictures of the confirmands. They hang from the wall, year by year, starting in black and white and eventually turning to color. As I was driving off, the grandson and several of his cousins were walking toward the church. Their parents had been severed from the fellowship there so much that their father's funeral was held elsewhere, but the building had not lost its claim on those grandchildren. Nor had the genealogies. God's word, preached in that building and carried into hearts by the Holy Spirit, continued to echo there for them.
Paul Koch is pastor of the Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.