Our family was fortunate enough to see an iceberg this summer near Twillingate, N.L. It was a surreal experience for me. Everything around me paused for a brief transcendent moment, frozen in time, with the ironic exception of the massive spire of ice in front of me. “I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You” by the 1980s band Modern English began playing in the back of my mind.
The iceberg seemed completely out of place in the sunlit blue water of such a small cove surrounded by green-covered rock cliffs. The smell of salt water and sunscreen filled the air. Sea gulls were squawking overhead, cheering on the fiery heat of the midday sun warming my skin. The floating white mountain appeared otherworldly in this summer seaside setting. It was from another place . . . far far away. It did not belong here. Certainly not on the dawn of August.
The colossal fortress of frozen water was from a different era as well, reportedly 10,000 years old. Now here it was melting, being reduced to nothing over the span of a few weeks by 15-degree Celsius water. A strange and tragic ending for something so ancient and strong, capable of destroying ocean liners and 60,000-tonne oil platforms. It brought to mind T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”
For some reason, this brought to my mind the church. Are we witnessing the melting of the mighty western church in the 21st century?
These thoughts were undoubtedly induced by the upcoming final worship service of Riverdale Mennonite Church in Millbank, Ont. Riverdale will be officially closed by the time you read this.
Riverdale was the first church to extend a pastoral call to me. That was 19 years ago. I didn’t know much about Mennonites at the time and I was extremely disillusioned with the church in general. To be honest, I accepted the call more out of curiosity than anything. It turned out to be providence. The Christ-like people and sense of genuine community I encountered at Riverdale brought tremendous healing to me. It renewed my relationship with God and restored my love for the church.
Like an iceberg, Riverdale was otherworldly to me, totally foreign to the world I inhabited in 1998. It was a pure and simple place where compassion, peace and humility were the norm. My time there was profoundly transformative. I’m not sure where I’d be today if I’d never met Pastor Glenn Zehr and the good people of Riverdale.
I discovered that churches, like icebergs, shouldn’t be judged by the little bit you can see on the surface. Approximately 88 percent of an iceberg’s essence is below the surface, and the same is true for churches. For years I judged churches based on what I could see on the surface, not realizing that what I saw was significantly jaded by my past experiences. During my three years at Riverdale I plunged beneath the surface to see the depth of a faith community that embodied the kingdom of God in a way I didn’t think possible. No church is perfect, but the people of Riverdale were some of the most honest, loving, peaceful, caring people of integrity I’ve ever met.
It feels wrong that Riverdale’s epic journey as a church community is coming to an end. Why would God allow this to happen? It seems not only unfair but abrupt. A member recently told me it was just 10 years ago that the church was running out of room and considering adding onto its building. That is how quickly these things can happen—like a massive iceberg melting in a few weeks.
How do we make sense of this? We can’t. Yet as I contemplate melting icebergs, I realize it isn’t an ending but a transformation. The essence of an iceberg is water. The water doesn’t die when an iceberg melts, it simply changes form. In one sense the iceberg water is liberated as it melts, released to flow in its most life-giving state.
So, too, the essence of every church is the Spirit of God moving in and through people. The movement of God’s Spirit through the people of Riverdale is not ending, it’s simply changing form.
Sometimes flowing with the life-giving water of the Spirit means melting. This is difficult and painful because it means giving up our current form, but when we refuse to melt with the Spirit, we become lifeless, waterless chunks of dry ice.
It is only with humble faithfulness and trust in God that we learn to pray “I’ll melt with you,” as Riverdale has done.
Troy Watson is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.