Believe it or not, there are three English-language poems that are entitled The Hippopotamus. All are by famous poets. Two, by Hilaire Belloc (1896) and Ogden Nash (1920), are short and silly. The third, by T. S. Eliot (1919), is longer and makes some serious points about the institutional church through metaphor, irony and satire:

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The ‘potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the ‘potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And ‘quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kissed,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

I actually discovered this poem during my college days, while I was going through my transition from a traditional church background to a renewed discovery of faith in group Bible studies with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I found the poem to be quite liberating, as it helped me distinguish between the church as an earthly institution and the genuine spiritual experience believers share together in worship and fellowship. Fortunately, that genuine spiritual experience happens often in churches (of all denominations), but a lot of other things happen in them as well, things that have more to do with human pettiness and self-centeredness than with God’s Spirit.

On Homecoming Sunday at ABC, I’m very aware of this church’s shortcomings. I’ve been collecting examples for more than forty-five years. (In some of them, I’m the lead actor.) There’s a story of a little girl proudly reciting her memory verse: “Many are cold, and a few are frozen.” She was probably a better observer of people than memorizer of Scripture. Last year, when Jean Bouchebel put out his email New Year’s greeting, “God’s Spirit will revive his church in 2017,” the habitual cynic in me misread it as “God’s Spirit will survive his church in 2017.”

So, when I came up with this year’s Homecoming theme, The Miracle of Unity, it wasn’t just a clever slogan or an expression of naïve optimism. I am a personal witness to the miracle that God does week by week, year by year, generation by generation in holding this very diverse congregation of ornery, imperfect, in-the-rough human beings together in one fellowship. Sometimes we’re as coordinated and graceful as a hippopotamus, but we still hang together because of our shared experience of God’s love.

That’s worth celebrating.

— Pastor George Van Alstine