When I was a little girl, I remember learning about barriers, most clearly by walking into them. I remember going to McCrory’s downtown when I was tiny and causing a stir when I tried to drink from a particular water fountain. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a drink of water. But what baffled me as a toddler apparently made perfect sense to my mother and to the kind old African American custodian who stopped me from committing such a terrible error.
We like to classify things. My grandmother “Bangy,” who was born in 1901, had a book on her shelf that was ancient even by her standards. It was entitled The Classification of Things and attempted to sort out all manner of things, from leaves and twigs to bugs and butterflies and even some man-made things. It was strange and funny, so off the mark it clearly was when held to the light of current science and plain old common sense.
We like to classify people. And, once we do, we like to sort them out, to segregate them according to our understanding. After the categories have been established for a while, they become barriers, even walls, that appear unmovable. We become so accustomed to their presence that we are unable to imagine a different world.
We are called as a church to bring a prayerful, discerning eye to our practices and ways of doing business. Tradition is a beautiful thing and yet we must always be willing to critique ourselves as an institution. I think of my brilliant, loving God-filled liturgical theology professor Gordon Lathrop who encouraged us to constantly ask of our work as a community: Is it drawing us closer to God? Is there room for the living spirit of God to be present and do its work among us or are we running the show? Is what we are doing hospitable? Who is not here? Whose voices are missing?
Maybe we spend too much energy trying to entice new people to come inside our sanctuaries. Perhaps we feel obligated to focus first on increasing our “average Sunday attendance” because we have so much invested in real estate and property.
We need churches. Physical space can be a wonderful, vital tool for all kinds of gatherings. But we also need to break out of that space and our addiction to it. We need to learn to be in relationship with one another if we are to have any chance of being in relationship with the living God. In this age of crowding cities and a plethora of social media tools that enable us to communicate with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of friends with a few clicks, we are in some ways even more isolated than ever.
Down here in the “South,” people are fond of saying that we need to have a personal relationship with Jesus. I have no beef with that. But if we want to know Jesus and if we want to share him with others, then we need to do what he did.
We need to visit each other in our homes, or better yet on our porches. We need to hang out at the well and be open to whoever shows up. All are welcome. We need to spend time with and pay particular attention to those who have different life experiences and different worldviews. They have something important to teach us. We need to do a lot more walking, talking and simply being with the other and a lot less “surfing,” tweeting and, dare I say, blogging.
As I seek to practice what I am preaching here, I am sure there will be times I will be shut down by fear of venturing into new territory or will experience the doubt that can come with inevitable setbacks. I will share both successes and failures in this space, as well as with my friends – new and old – at the well, on the street, under the bridge, on the porch and “in the rooms” — and even at church.