Monday, August 14, 2017
On vacation a few years ago, my wife and I stayed in a hotel overlooking the water. Each room had a balcony, with enough privacy so you didn’t see neighbors, but not so much that it cut off views, enough to see that each balcony had the identical birdfeeder hanging over the rail. As I looked right and left, I noticed that some feeders were apparently quite popular, birds on every perch. Others could have hung a big old vacancy sign over them. The difference? The birdfeeders that got attention were the ones with birdseed in them. The empty ones? No birds. The birds went where they were fed.
Because as a preacher, I’m like a shark, always feeding, always looking for material (Be warned!), I immediately compared this line of birdfeeders to churches. I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but it got me thinking about why some churches are filled with folks and others not?
I’m not entirely sure. There are many reasons which many people are studying. It’s easy for this mainline clergyman to get dismissive, even jealous of more popular churches. One may be tempted to think: They just offer spiritual junk food or just tell people what they want to hear or just provide entertainment. After all, we live in a consumerist society, where church can easily become a matter of how enjoyable it is. We may go to a place as long as it is pleasing to us. We gravitate to communities of agreement the way we choose cable news channels. We placate aesthetic or political sensibilities, salvation by good taste.
Whether it’s Bach or Bono or banjo, all can be offered for the glory of God. But there’s probably some part of all churchgoers that do go for entertainment. Preachers, liturgists and musicians all need to watch that the offering is not about us. (After all, ego is an acronym for edging God out.)
I have noted in conversations that something deeper may be going on. It may be about finding a place where people are being fed in the spiritual life, where hunger is met. Being fed is different than being entertained.
I think it’s why Jesus spent so much time at meals with both followers and detractors, as if to note parabolically that he would fill the empty place in each one of us, address the hunger. I think it’s why we find that participating in the eucharist is transformative for folks as they launch on an intentional spiritual journey. It’s about being fed. We live in a world filled with people who are spiritually hungry, on a deep level. How is that God-shaped space inside of us going to be filled?
Where are you being fed in your spiritual life? Early in my ministry, I asked that of a parishioner. She got all teary, which caught me off-guard. She wanted to be fed. It wasn’t happening. When I speak with folks about finding a place to worship (church shopping to be crass about it), I encourage them to go where they are fed, noting that we can be fed by many things: beauty, silence, prayer, music, teaching, hospitality, architecture, outreach, tradition, scripture, preaching, challenge, solace, and of course, bread and wine.
Again, where are you being fed in your spiritual life? What have been sources of spiritual nourishment in the past? Are those still working for you? A feast may be right in front of you, in your community. It may be you have to look further afield. But events in our broken world make it all the more important for us to be fed, sustained, equipped with strength and courage.
We now have a couple birdfeeders at our house. At first, we weren’t getting much business. It turns out the seed I bought would clog the openings. Nobody, not even inventive squirrels, were being fed. Perches were vacant. A few weeks ago, I found seed that apparently works better. I’m proud to report extraordinary popularity. Standing room only. I may get more feeders. I guess the birds now being fed are telling friends that our house is the place to go to be fed.
I’ve seen that happen in churches, too.
As evening approached, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
– Matthew 14
He gives food to every living thing. His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of heaven. His faithful love endures forever.
– Psalm 136
Jesus said: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
– Matthew 6
Clean and unclean birds, the dove and the raven, are yet in the ark.
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