I continued my reading of Nora Gallagher’s Practicing Resurrection and only got about five pages in when I a quote that brought the rest of the day rushing back to me.
A spiritual director told me once that God is found on the edge of things, in the margins. About a drunk who sleeps on Trinity’s porch he said, “You can ask him not to drink on the porch but you can’t ask him to leave. He lives in the part that makes the church uncomfortable and that’s where Jesus lives.”We had a workshop on stewardship this morning at church. Eighteen of us gathered around the tables in the Fellowship Hall to listen to Jena Roy, a friend from Massachusetts, as she challenged us to look at how we see ourselves, who we wish we could become, what we worry about when it comes to our church, and what we would change. The group was engaged and engaging, working hard to listen to one another and to share honestly, and the morning was full of good things that left us with even more questions. And that’s a good thing.
We are a relatively small church (about a hundred and fifty active members), and we are a theologically liberal church that works hard to put hands and feet to our faith: we would be one of those “social justice” churches that frightens Glen Beck. As we listed the things that we saw as strengths of our congregation and then moved on to “stumbling blocks” and “opportunities,” we didn’t come up with three distinct lists. What were strengths to some were the stuff stumbling blocks were made of, and most everything provided the opportunity to make ourselves uncomfortable, which is where Gallagher’s words took me even though she was talking about something completely different.
The limits of our language come into play when we talk about our relationship to church because we use the same word for the physical building and geographical location that we use for the spiritual community we call the Body of Christ. We don’t have another way to describe what we do on Sunday morning other than to say, “I’m going to church,” but the separation in that sentence makes it problematic, at some level, when we want to say (0r sing), “We are the church.” When we talk about going to church, we think of it as a place of comfort and warmth, which is right and good, but when we talk about being the church we have to be willing to be uncomfortable.
As the conversation moved around the table, one person commented that we didn’t do our members a favor by suggesting they give two percent of their income to the church. “We’re letting ourselves off easy,” she said. Another, who is currently looking for work, said she has realized in the midst of her job search that, for the first time, she is taking into account the effect the job will have on the time on her life in church. “I’ve never thought of things this way before,” she said. The two comments came together for me in that being the church means we are willing to change the way we live to be a part: the way we spend money, the way we use our time, and even what we do for a job.
Part of the life of any institution is a push for self-perpetuation. The church is not exempt from falling into the pattern of using most of our energy to “keeping the doors open.” The call of the gospel is not to self-perpetuation, however, but to spend ourselves in the present, to not hold back. (Consider the lilies.) Our assembling ourselves together is, almost by definition, at cross-purposes with itself, pun intended. (Lose your life to find it.) And we haven’t even gotten to the relational energy it takes to be with one another. Most all of the epistles that make up the last half of the New Testament were written to deal with problems in the early church, with the questions and quagmires that grew out of trying to live together in Jesus’ name. The issues we raised around the table this morning were ours, but they were by no means original. This is the part of the church where drunks sleep and Jesus lives, where getting together matters more that getting my way, listening is a crucial incarnation of love, giving our offering is an act of discipleship and not a charitable donation, and committing ourselves to one another is more important that getting our way. After all, we are not a civic organization or a book club; we are the church.
Tomorrow night marks the last night of this particular menu at the Durham restaurant. Those who come to dinner on Tuesday will get a whole new menu of offerings. For those of us in the kitchen, it means coming into the same room to prep and cook, but to do so with new ingredients and new recipes, to set up the line differently, and to learn new patterns of cooperation with each other. The change is good, important, and uncomfortable work, and it’s the way the restaurant stays fresh. The church, like the restaurant, has its seasons, whether we’re talking about the liturgical calendar or the ebb and flow of life, and might do well to appropriate the metaphor. We might not have to ditch the whole menu, but we need a steady diet of change and choices that challenge us to see with fresh eyes and learn new patterns of faithfulness and compassion.
Our workshop this weekend was a new item on our church menu. I’m grateful for the work that went into making it happen, for those who gave their time to be together, and for the freedom we gave each other to made uncomfortable that we might see with fresh eyes where Jesus lives among us.