This reflection first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of St. John’s Cathedral Quarterly, published by St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Jacksonville, FL.
For several months, I worked as an on-call chaplain at an urban Level 1 trauma center. A typical shift included one to two dozen calls to the emergency department. Patients were rolled into trauma bays as residents, surgeons, nurses and technicians rushed to greet them. The trauma team was intensely focused and understandably gruff.
My job was to push my way in, offering support to the patient, family and staff. I felt like a fifth wheel. Knowing I am Episcopalian, my supervisor suggested this: “Imagine you are carrying a big, gold cross. Imagine lifting it high, then just march right in.” It worked every time. There is power in the cross.
In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich writes of a vision of Christ on the cross. She finds herself drawn into the wound in his side. She discovers that the woundedness of Christ is the way into the very heart of God. Julian’s vision expands our understanding of the cross from a transactional payment of debt to an act of eternal generosity through which Christ relinquishes all, gives all, so that we can experience unfathomable compassion and love. In his humanity, Christ assumes our burdens. He shares in our suffering.
As we begin to experience and lean into this truth, to really get it, the only possible response is one of compassion and mercy. The only response is one of generosity. We are drawn to be present with those who suffer in our midst. This pull toward “the other” can happen quite slowly and subtly. Perhaps we sense a restlessness as we pray the post communion prayer, asking God to strengthen us to do the work he has given us to do.
For me the urge to reach out to “the other” developed gradually, as God called me out of my comfort zone again and again. It grew out of a longing to connect, to find Jesus revealed. As urban missioner, I want to support those in the pews with a similar longing to find connection with God, with themselves and with others. God is doing a new thing with the Church as we move from being building-centric to being Holy Spirit-centric, responding to a world in need.
In an attempt to put flesh on this “mysterious” call, I visited various ministries in other cities. Each is unique. Each has risen from its particular context. But each is grounded in a commitment to a ministry of presence, of building community with our brothers and sisters in crisis or otherwise living on the margins. The gift in practicing ministry with “the other,” rather than only ministry for or to, is that our awareness and boundaries are stretched. We find our most authentic selves in “the other.” We find wisdom in each other. We encounter the compassionate and generous living Christ.
This ministry is developing out of collaborative conversation and discernment not just with “the least of these.” It is also rising out of conversation with our brothers and sisters in the pews – those who sense a hunger to live out their faith beyond the walls of their parish and the boundaries of daily routines. Together we discern where God is calling us. We watch for spaces where God is longing to break in to the world, often but not exclusively amidst the invisible, the forgotten or the despised. The question is not “What would Jesus do (if he were here now)?” but rather “What is Jesus (the living Christ) doing (here, now)?” We are invited to live into the reality that we are Christ’s body, broken and given to the world.
“Building a church without walls” does not mean that we seek to do away with physical walls, or with our physical worship space. It suggests instead parish walls that act more like a permeable membrane, with activity happening wherever God seeks to touch lives. This is limited only by where you and I are willing to go.
Jesus tells us that if we want to follow him, we must take up our cross. We are invited to surrender our fear, our doubt and all those things that give us a false sense of safety. The Church is not shrinking – it is expanding! The heart of God is broad and roomy, and the compassionate generosity of the cross is the way in.
For updates on urban mission, go to https://www.facebook.com/ChurchWithoutWalls.Jacksonville.FL.