If you're not familiar with the church at Smyrna, another one of the churches to which John writes, you could probably be forgiven for that. If you didn't know there even was such a place as Smyrna, let alone that they had a church there, you could probably be forgiven for that, too. John says that what seems most true about the church in this place is their "poverty and affliction."
But what he loves about them is their richness.
Let that sink in for a moment. This little church has struggled with so much affliction, has wrestled through so much poverty that when you think about this little church, that's the first thing you think of. Yet, when John writes to them, he praises their richness. And this is something that those of us who love today's church must never forget.
There are a lot of churches in our world that seem small and inconsequential. Especially in an age of light shows and sound systems and giant projector screens that blast the words of the latest rock praise for all to see, the church that pulls its hymnals out of the pews and turns to page 43 or that hushes its children so as to hear the pastor, who isn't even mic'ed seems all but out of place. The world looks at these little churches, with just a few dollars in the offering plate, and wonders how they're even making it. And then one member leaves - just one, either by decision or by death - and it seems even more unfathomable that this little church could go on.
And let's be honest - this is the story for a lot of churches, even those that have modernized to some degree and maybe have some of those screens and microphones. A lot of churches are struggling right now to make their ends meet. They're publishing their budgets and crying out to their congregations, but money is tight everywhere and some needs are going unfunded. Many pastors are now working outside the church office, selling cell phone plans or stocking shelves at the local grocery mart just to give as much of the church's money as possible back to the church. To keep the lights on.
It's easy to look at these churches and see how broke they are. Not broken, but broke. Impoverished. It's easy to look at the numbers and think there's no way that this little church is going to make it and there's probably no way that they're actually making it now. Despite the fact that they don't have all the lights and lasers, it's easy to think that what's going on in these churches is a smoke and mirrors show.
Yet, if you really look at them, you discover it's nothing of the sort. If you really look at these little churches whose poverty is so easy to see, what you often find is something quite remarkable: tremendous wealth.
These are the churches where you find the widows with two mites, the little old ladies who drop the last of their resources into the plate as it's passed. These are the churches where you find this deepest love, where the members show up to do the little things that big churches have the luxury to pay someone to do. The pastor in these churches is scrubbing the toilets; his wife is chasing the mice out of the children's area in the basement; Mr. Jones down the street is mowing the church yard; Mrs. Jones is checking on the shut-ins.
It's in these churches that you find the Bibles with the worn-out pages, turned so often out of so much need. It's where you find the Bibles with all the markings in them, all the notes taken over the years of a lifetime of faith. It's where you find little kids in dress pants with their nice shirts just a little untucked from running around before service. There's nothing dripped down the fronts of their clothes because in this little place, there is no coffee or cafe, but there is the joy of little footprints on the hardwood floors.
These churches, these so-called little churches, with all their struggles and challenges and problems, these are the communities that are usually living out of the greatest richness, even though you won't find it on their ledger pages. They're living out of a real and vital faith that is worth more than even the widow's two mites. It may look like they're dying, but they're living and leaving a legacy that just can't be replaced by all of the lights and sounds and screens in the world.
So here's to the little churches, mired away in poverty and affliction. For yours is a faith of tremendous wealth, and we all learn a little something from your richness.