Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent, Day 17

I looked up and saw a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” Then the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him, and said to him, “Run, say to that young man: Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and animals in it. For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the LORD, and I will be the glory within it.” - Zechariah 2

There's a new ministry in my diocese which I admire very much, called Outside Church Walls. These folks are exploring what it means to get outside the expected environment of the church and to befriend the world around us. They're going out and having conversations that get beneath the surface, beyond the small talk. They operate under the principle that the church cannot be an island unto itself.

Is church to be found here somewhere?
Lately I've been doing something similar. As an assignment for class, we had to pick a neighborhood, meet random young adults, and interview them on what they think about life. We tried to learn the art of listening beneath the surface to get at people's deepest longings and motivations. Once we got over our initial fear of approaching people in coffee shops and malls, we found that many will open right up and talk for a long, long time. We met a young man who drives children in the "holiday train" through the mall, but who is also an apprentice to an electrician and really wants to be a professional musician. We met a young Roman Catholic woman and her atheist friend from Montana, who love each other deeply while respecting each other's religious differences. We met a young mom who has her BA but is stuck in a dead-end job and relies on her parents to help her make ends meet.

The prophet Zechariah tells us that "Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls." In ancient days, the big cities had walls in order to protect them from invaders. I'm afraid that many of our churches have wound up like that, too. We put up walls to protect ourselves from the experience of the Other -- the one whose experience of life seems to contradict our own, or at least to make us very uncomfortable. Just yesterday a friend of mine was talking about the hard time her church gives her because of her divorce: she's even having a hard time getting her son into a religious school for that reason. What is this school so afraid of?

But if we in the churches tore down our walls, maybe we would find many people coming to us not only to be changed by us, but also to change us. Maybe our churches could become fuller expressions of people's deepest longings. And maybe the Holy Spirit would be in that work, delighting in it, transforming people's lives. Maybe by allowing our walls to be torn down, we'll find that the Holy Spirit was at work all along, but the work was happening in coffee shops and malls, rather than in the pews. Maybe we'd find that the baby isn't born in the society-approved inn, but in the stable out back.

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