Friday, October 30, 2009

bolted doors and barred off lives

St. Gregory's Abbey. Though it has been years since I sat in its worn pews, I often think of and long for the warmth of that enormous stone sanctuary where I often went to meet with God in silence. At the time, I was a college student at a Southern Baptist University, a denomination not known for its contemplative practices or use of silence. Southern Baptists are, well....loud. And so I would often slip away to the nearby campus of St. Gregory's University--also a functioning Benedictine monastery--and enter into the deep silence of its beautiful stone abbey. As is the standard among Benedictine places of worship, the doors were always open. Whatever time of day or night I needed to sit with God, I could enter in. My years since leaving OBU have made me painfully aware of what a privilege it is to live just miles away from such a monastery. I am often at a loss when I feel the hunger for hours alone in a silent sanctuary.

The tragedy, of course, is not that a lack of monastery means a lack of churches. They are all over. In fact, it doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't any grand stone sanctuaries there to wrap me in their cavernous regard for the holy. The tragedy is this: most of those grand sanctuaries are locked. It seems that monastic communities are one of the only places where the doors remain always open to the seeker, the penitent, the lover of God.

Earlier this week, I needed to sit in silence with God. Bitter winter winds made a journey into the wilderness near my house unappealing at best, so I drove off in hopes of spending a few hours in the tiny mountain church where I attend lenten taize services. The sanctuary is simple and snug, holding 100 people at the very most. I smiled at the thought of feeling its warmth.My smile faded, however, when I walked to the door and found it locked. Somewhat disheartened, I got back in the car and drove toward the beautiful Episcopal church I had passed on the way. Huddled against the wind, I made my way toward the great, red doors feeling hopeful. I pulled at the small latch, and the smile that had faded at the first church now disappeared entirely. It was locked. Locked like so many other churches I have tried over the years. I felt lost and somehow rejected. I muttered frustration, turned toward the chilly wind, and walked back to my car.

Thankfully, I recalled one large chapel, situated on a local college campus. Nestled in the company of people who are awake at all hours, it locks its doors only when its flock has all gone to sleep: never. Day or night, the great stone walls welcome those who seek sanctuary, whether from the bitter winds or the harshness of life. In that chapel, out of the cold, I sat in the balcony and breathed. My restless heart had found a place to rest.

How sad it is that that beautiful chapel was a 'lucky find.' To me, this closing and locking of the doors is one of the most grevious losses in our current church setting. The brokenness of our culture and the depravity of our human condition has won out. We have conceded defeat in some small (big?) way. In order not to have our sanctuaries damaged, our space abused, or our churches robbed, we lock the doors. Penitents may come when someone is on guard, and with that they will have to be content. The trouble is, the doors are open only for services, classes, potlucks....they are open for activity. For the moment alone, for the welcoming embrace of silence, the doors are locked.

My encounters with locked doors earlier had made me a little angry. I was frustrated to be shut out of the sanctuaries where I had hoped to find solace. As I went through the day, however, my eyes were opened to another tragic element within the church. Shut more tightly than any church or chapel door are the intimate spaces of our stories. So very few of us live hospitable lives: not hospitality in the sense of welcoming others into our home, but of welcoming them into the deeper parts of our own lives. The church--the body of believers that transcends any structure or building--is even more the place where people should be able to find acceptance and sanctuary. How often, however, do they come in out of the cold, feeling hopeful, and find the doors locked tightly. I ask this of myself. Have I, along with the keepers of so many church buildings, allowed the brokenness and depravity of my world to win out? "Don't come in. I do not know if you are safe and I don't want my heart to be vandalized." Is this what my life says? Or do I live a life that is more like that precious Benedictine Abbey or that great college chapel, one that says, "Come and be welcomed, not matter your state, no matter the hour. The one who indwells me is able to care for me, and he calls me to welcome you in."? Of course, there are times for boundaries. There is no way around that. Yet it may be that strict boundaries, locked doors, were made to be more of the exception than the rule. Perhaps the rule is one of hospitality, of welcoming in.

May the both church of stone and the church of flesh both begin to stand in trust again, to refuse to concede defeat. May we remove our locks and re-open our doors to those who, huddled against the harshness of weather and life, come seeking sanctuary. Let us pray they would find it waiting there.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

small town Sunday: coming home

I sat near the back, as I always have. My favorite stained glass windows filtered in the sunlight at my left, while in front of me the old woman who once shaved her head for cancer funds made an announcement that her recent prayers had been answered. After a year away, I was home again, home under the great wooden beams that keep vigil over my tiny church in Green Mountain Falls.

The welcome I received should have not surprised me, yet I none the less found myself caught off guard by the hugs and questions and excited hellos. The announcements began, and I settled into the quirkiness of the place. The pastor announced that the church had been called upon to contribute 80 boxes of jello for a local Thanksgiving food drive. Of course, in the land of small town Sundays, the jello will not be stored in bags or boxes; there in Green Mountain Falls, a jello tower will be erected. Perfect. Other announcements included an abundant pumpkin harvest, one of which had been brought as a donation to the church. A choir member stood and announced that he had been married to his wife for 40 wonderful years. A high school student asked prayers for her upcoming audition with the city orchestra. I listened to it all smiling, feeling as if I was in a congregation that had its priorities straight.

Midway through the announcement, I watched the pastor's wife walk in holding their son, nearly 2 and looking like a miniature of his father. I remembered the day when our pastor held his cell phone up to the microphone and announced that they were going to have a baby. Another is now on the way. Beautiful.

One of the things that kept me in Green Mountain Falls in the first place was the pastor's unwillingness to candy coat the difficult side of the gospel. Sunday's sermon did not disappoint. He told the story of a drug lord in Brazil, a man named Fernando who, even after "converting" to Christianity, continued to provide drugs and contribute to poverty and needless death. He spoke of his initial reaction to this man--scorn, the same scorn that we all felt as we listened to the story from our pews. Yet as he related it to the passage for the day--the story of blind Bartimeus, who would have been understood to be a sinner by virtue of his disability--he called us back to the reality of the example set for us by Jesus. The gospel, he reminded us, is not only for the poor, but for Fernando. It is a gospel that calls us realize that if a man like Fernando were to step onto the road and cry out, "Son of David, have mercy on me," Jesus would accept him as he accepted the blind man. "Are we willing to help the violent, the despicable, and not just the poor? That is the gospel, and I don't know what to do with that. Peace be with you." And thus the sermon ended.

As he prepared to speak the benediction, the pastor reminded us that we seldom listen to the postlude, though the women who play put effort into it every week. "Perhaps this week," he said, "we should stay and listen." It was one of the most beautiful piano pieces I have heard in a long time, and I would have missed it. I wonder what other small beauties I fail to take time for.

I ended my return to Green Mountain Falls with a potluck, several people gathering around me simply to ask questions about my year away and hear what was ahead for me. I felt it as the embrace of authentic love among the body. It was precious to me, this homecoming. The gift of God in the form of a small town Sunday.