Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
He holds out a cream-colored bifold in one thick hand, uses the other to hold the stack of remaining bulletins to his chest, and looks above and to the right of my head. When he speaks his voice is slow and deep, as though it’s coming up through cracks in the earth. “Have you heard the one about…” he begins.
As his joke unspools between us, I tilt the bulletin and press its corner into my palm. The pages have been folded so tightly the vertices are sharp like pins, and the pain keeps me attentive to the usher’s broad face as he looks past me and loses the thread.
I glance down. You can put a spatial or temporal gloss on the matte sheaf in my hand. Under the first one, it’s a map of the terrain this church is going to cover today. Here are the known features: two choruses, a prayer, a missionary testimony, the sermon, and a closing song. The lines in this legend denote hills and water towers, already familiar regardless of whether you’ve seen the particulars before. Visitors can navigate the service by these pages. Some scrawl notes on them.
Under the second gloss, the bulletin is a sort of almanac, compiling signs of the earth’s rotating us at a changing distance from our star. Seasons come and go; rain and wind blow open the doors, and people stand and sit in their sweaters or cargo shorts while holding open bulletins printed with cornucopias, wreaths, popsicles, and fireworks. Marking time in another way, baby names appear, as do the names of people recently deceased, deployed, married, retired, or going away.
I hold my bulletin loosely by a corner and thousands of multicolored inserts fall out. They advertise yard sales, Christmas tea, Hell House, food drives, VBS, Wednesday night dinners, local Christian businesses, AWANA — a whole life flutters to the floor. The Body lands across the carpet in stilted cross-section, as though the secretary who compiled the bulletin were also an anatomist. An amateur anatomist.
“…I guess I’ll have to tell you the rest later,” the elder tells me, still looking over my shoulder. He shakes my hand and smiles at the ceiling, trying to remember his joke. I pick multicolored inserts off the floor by his feet and go inside.
If a bulletin reveals something, it has to conceal something else. That’s coded into the nature of appearances, as Martin Heidegger would say, albeit using other words than “coded,” “nature,” or “appearances.” In catching what we can of the community’s ongoing life, we are denied a view of something else.
Maybe another gloss can bring it out: a bulletin is like ticker tape from the mind of the church. These inserts are our mental popcorn. Hopes, desires, plans, feelings, all shuffled into a stack of many colors.
One of the mind’s functions, of course, is to manage the world, to make its contents discreet and actionable. Without this ongoing prioritization — and a concomitant shielding from remainder and excess, whatever exceeds the categories being applied — the mind would be constantly overwhelmed. Imagine experiencing each thing in sight as an unceasing, insistent, atonal sound.
A delicate thread connects these bright pieces of paper, then. The life of the body is unimaginably tenuous. The life of the Body, too, can seem unimaginably tenuous.
The local church is part of that Body, but the people inside its brick walls can only see through stained glass darkly, and do not know the people outside as they themselves are known. Maybe someday Christ will lend his Body a day’s worth of local omniscience, just enough to blow a few minds vis-a-vis the neighbor situation, but till then, this community’s life is hard enough to manage as it is, thank you very much. We’ve got potlucks; we’ve got bake sales; we’ve got missions trips. We make our plans; who are you to scoff at them?
The paper dries out the skin of my hands, and looking at my palms I feel the dryness of my mouth as well. I have tented my bulletin over the fabric of the pew next to me.
We make our plans, yes, and often we determine the steps, too. We build communities and pews and gyms, and make forays into apartment buildings to knock and ask to be let in to share the Good News, and are annoyed when we are told that it isn’t a good time. We have walls and locks and security glass and insurance policies. We hold our cards close. We carry crockpots to our potlucks and do the Lord’s work by sitting next to people we don’t know very well. We like the idea of having rights. We like to keep our hearts intact. We like to manage our transactions with the world. You can never be too careful, of course.
Because wow, is the world ever adept at annihilating a person if she lets her guard down. Perhaps this is something the bulletin obscures in order to make clear a week’s worth of events. Children’s church needs a new teacher; email our secretary if you are interested. Here is a moment of clarity in the chaos. But out in the roiling tumult a journalist bleeds into a patch of sand under a sky that’s still God’s, if memory serves. What’s outside this ongoing act of community can be downright horrifying, although that isn’t to say that what’s within the community can’t be. Moses can’t look at God full on in the face because if he did he’d die. We can’t look at the world without interposing a filter either, and perhaps for similar reasons. Would your mind stay whole if you were privy to the suffering of the whole race?
We stand and sing a hymn out of our bulletins. The praise team botches a key change. The A/C hums.
I get up to leave after the service ends and walk past the elder, who sits without any bulletins in a pew near the back. He is looking up into the apex of the sanctuary, where thin steel cables hang a lacquered wooden cross high above the stage.
Outside I use my bulletin to shield my eyes from the sun. There are birds in the air above the parking lot, but it is almost too bright for me to see them.
A friend recently wrote that God watches sparrows fall to the ground. I do not. I have watched sparrows in flight from a distance, shielding my eyes with a paper tent, but I have never watched one die.