Reflections to start the week
Monday, November 3, 2014
For a few years, I served at a church in midtown Manhattan. It probably had as much pedestrian traffic as any church on the globe. Only a tiny percentage of the people who passed by the church ever came through our doors, let alone became part of the worshipping community. I’d occasionally meet people who said they walked by the church daily for decades and never ventured in. I often stood at the top of the steps and watch New York go by, people in a grand hurry to wherever. Purposeful New Yorkers, never making eye contact. We wondered how to break through.
One especially warm summer, my colleagues and I decided to hand out glasses of lemonade on the sidewalk, wearing our clerical collars. Many people walked right by. Some were certain there was a catch. Nothing was free. If they took the lemonade, they’d have to give us money, or worse, attend a service. But occasionally, we would engage in conversation. One young woman appreciated the cool drink. She stopped to talk, asking what we were doing, and told me a bit of her story. As she was winding up the conversation, she looked up the steps at the imposing portal and asked: Am I allowed to go in there? I asked what she meant, because I sensed she was not asking if the doors were locked, or what the hours were. She shared that she had not led a particularly puritanical life, that she had not been in a church for a long time, and that the church in her past had not welcomed her. She expected more judgment than mercy. I felt a deep sadness when I really heard her question, a bit of shame as a church professional as I wondered how many other folks were asking the same thing.
Last Monday, I asked people to tell me what in their experience had gotten in the way of spiritual growth. I am grateful for the responses I received (and it’s not too late to offer your own.) Folks talked about the distractions of day-to-day living, the trivia of life that crowds out things of significance. Many looked in the mirror and saw the obstacle, described repeatedly in triune form: Me, myself, and I. The ancient truth of scripture that we try to put ourselves in the place of God emerged once again as a barrier, that old ego, which some tell me is an acronym: Edging God Out.
Too many folks mentioned the church as a barrier. People wrote about the messiness of organized religion, the hypocrisy which caused one person to leave the church for decades, admittedly “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” People described petty competitiveness, jealousies, hierarchical hoops, theological meanderings in the church. Another person noted the church as an institution driven by human nature with its resistance to change: “I struggle to get past the church as the end, to arrive at the church as a means.”
When people tell me that they have bailed on the church because it’s full of hypocrites, I can only say “guilty as charged”. And as a church professional, I often pray this haunting verse from the Psalms: “Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me.” I have experienced woundedness and disappointment from the church. I’ve also caused injury and disillusionment, and for that I ask forgiveness (with fear and trembling).
But in it all, I remain convinced that God wishes to work through the church, that it is indeed a means for God’s presence to be experienced in the world, and in fact that God will do a new thing in the church in days ahead. Later this week, we will observe the Feast of William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II. (Talk about a tough assignment!) He is famously noted for describing the church as the only organization on earth that exists for the sake of those who are not its members. In other words, the church is meant for service to the world. We can all identify ways that it fails to do that, ways in which the church insists rather on being served, a collective expression of ego. The church with its failings is an easy mark.
The more difficult pathway is to be in it and help it to live into its divine intention: to be the body of Christ, or more specifically, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. How will you live into that vision this week? How will you grow as part of the body of Christ? Pray for the church, in word and action. Ask God to show you how you can be part of the healing of the church, so that the church can be part of the healing of the world.
– Jay Sidebotham
Gracious God, we pray for thy holy Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provided for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
-A prayer for the Church, from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 816
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
I think the church is a barrier to our resting in a comfortable, insulated, solo spirituality. It ensures we enter into the messiness of communal living, with all its sin, hypocrisy, disappointment, joy, love, hope, etc. That is where we are disciplined into being true followers of Christ. As for my principal obstacle to spiritual growth: fear of what others think of me.