A group of friends sit around a table, telling riddles and laughing. They've been traveling for months, perhaps even years. The road stretches on before them, but for tonight, they rest in the company of friends. This might be one of the few chances they have to sleep before resuming their long journey, but instead they sit up all night together, for "they could not tell how to part."
This scene comes from Part II of The Pilgrim's Progress, a seventeenth-century allegory of the Christian life. Part I, which is far better known, tells the story of Christian, who labors to reach the Celestial City despite many obstacles and enemies along the road. Often he journeys alone; at the most he may have one companion with him. Part I dramatizes the Christian life as a solitary undertaking, and for many Christians throughout history, following Christ has meant abandoning all others for the sake of faith. In Part II, however, Bunyan envisions of the role of a church in the life of faith. Now the protagonist is Christiana, and while she must leave most of her friends and family, she soon finds others who are taking the same difficult road to paradise.
By the time Christiana and her friends reach the scene described above, they have faced all kinds of dangers and victories together. They have been attacked by wicked men, have conquered a giant, and have taken weaker pilgrims into their protection. Now they have reached the house of Gaius, a kind host who opens his table to them and instructs his cook to make the best dishes. The riddles they discuss are questions from the Bible, and soon "were they very merry, and sat at the Table a long time, talking of many things."
I don't agree with John Bunyan on every point of doctrine, but I love the picture he provides of the church on earth: it is a table where all weary pilgrims come to rest, to discuss the mysteries of Scripture, and, believe it or not, to be merry.
When I go to a church, I look for signs of this loving joy. Do people linger to talk after worship, or dash away to their separate lunches? Do members gather outside of official church hours, and when they do, do they tell holy riddles and laugh together? Have the people of the church walked down hard roads together? Do they use Sunday morning as a chance to give thanks for the miles traveled, and to gather strength for the miles still to go?
I don't simply want a community in which people don't mind spending time together; I want a place where Christians love one another so deeply that they cannot even tell how to part from one another. I have known such places, and I give thanks for them, but they take work, so much work, and prayer to sustain.
Have you ever known a church or Christian community like the one Bunyan describes? When Sunday mornings services are over, are you eager to leave, or do you linger, unable to say how to part from those you love?