Love Has No Walls

I serve a downtown church in a small city.  The building is brick and situated on a busy main street.  We are surrounded by a variety of small business’ and residences.  Cars and people pass the church at a steady clip.

For most the church is a familiar fixture.  That which is familiar can also be invisible.  How many of us walking down a familiar street take the time to really look?  My guess is that First Baptist Church in Beverly is such a familiar fixture on Cabot Street, that most simply walk past.  https://www.fbcbeverly.org/

The invisibility of the familiar is a fitting metaphor for the plight of religious institutions in today’s culture.

New England as a whole is rapidly becoming more secular.  This is particularly true for those under 30 where fully 1/3 have no religious affiliation.  This trend is projected to continue. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

Yet the same studies show that the majority of those who say that they are ‘not religious’ also self identify as  ‘spiritual’.  By spiritual people refer to a sense of openness to that which is greater than oneself.  A desire to connect to that great Mystery some call God/Creator/Spirit and a desire to find meaning in community.

Recently our church started an initiative ‘Can we chalk?’  The idea is to bring the messages of love and encouragement (rooted in our faith) to the wider community. A box of large chalk is at the entrance to the church inviting people to write on the side-walk words of love and encouragement.

What wasn’t expected is that people began to write words of love  on the brick façade of the church building….At first the messages were in small script

 

Gradually the words became bigger, bolder.   One person wrote: ‘Love Has No Walls’.  Surely this is a message for our time.

I think of President Trump’s promise to build a wall between Mexico and the USA….Israel’s wall between themselves and the Palestinians…The wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin during the Cold War.   Such walls are ugly and built on fear.  Yet, a passerby took up the invitation of the church and offered a message of hope.

 

Then the messages got even bigger.  A homeless neighbor took it upon himself to create a large mural offering words of love and support.

Such expressions haven’t been appreciated by everyone.  For some  drawing upon the church building is unseemly.  A distraction from the simple beauty of the building. Nothing more than graffiti.

I understand their point.

I think there is an element of discomfort with losing control of our message.  We invited church members and neighbors to take us up on an  offer to spread messages of love on the sidewalk and they did.  But then the messages morphed onto our walls.  We didn’t expect that.

Our space has become unpredictable.

We are no longer invisible.  Each day people stop to read the messages.  Some take photos.   We’ve initiated conversation in the wider community.

‘Can We Chalk?’ as a public art project was not intended to be permanent.  Soon  the side-walk art will be washed away by rain and eventually the walls will be cleaned too.

But I hope we as a church take away an important lesson.  A lesson taught by the early Church in the Book of Acts in the first century.  That the church of Jesus Christ is not intended to be contained or constrained by bricks and mortar.

The church is to be a living, breathing community that goes out into the community to offer healing, hope and love.  To  listen and learn.  To build bridges not put up walls.

Loving in such a way is unpredictable.  Love takes us from the comfort of what is familiar and brings us to a new level of intimacy and engagement with our community.

In doing so we find that we are no longer invisible.  This is Good News.

 

Hope for a Post-Christian Era

We in the USA, live in a ‘post-Christian’ era. This refers to a movement over the last 40 years away from organized Christianity. There are many reasons including a growing distrust of institutions in general and religion in particular.  Some of the distrust is deserved i.e. systemic cover up of decades of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; conservative churches being co-opted by right-wing politics; liberal churches who’ve lost their spiritual mooring.

The results are seen across the nation and readily evident here in New England.  According to the Massachusetts Council of Churches on any given Sunday only 25% of our neighbors are attending a house of worship of any type.

Churches for the most part are growing grayer and in time becoming smaller. For millennials approx. 30% nationwide  say they identify with ‘no religious tradition’. This %  is increasing at a rapid rate.

Some say ‘good riddance’.  Not surprisingly, I don’t agree.  For all the imperfections of the church, I still love it.  I love that it is one of the few places where diverse ages and backgrounds gather.  I love that the wisdom of Jesus continues to cut to the heart of what is good, lasting and true.

I see many churches looking in the rear view mirror.  They aren’t looking back to Jesus but rather to a fading memory of the way church life was practiced 20 -40 years ago.

Such churches focus on comfort, familiarity and being in control.  They become hospices, lovingly overseeing the comfort of the beloved until the doors eventually close.

Last week I attended a reunion of the seminary that nurtured my call to ministry 30 plus years ago, Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS).   ANTS recently sold its campus and is affiliating with another seminary. Bottom line the number of students has shrunk as the churches they serve have grown smaller and grayer.

Looking at the religious landscape, one might think that all is lost.

Thankfully, there is a timeless quality to the Christian story.  Easter is all about life over death, hope over despair, love over hate, courage over fear.

Let me offer one such story:  In Sahuarita, Arizona, 40 miles from the border with Mexico is Church of the Good Shepherd.  My friend Randy Mayer serves as the pastor http://www.thegoodshepherducc.org Good Shepherd is a multi-cultural, growing congregation deeply rooted in the story of Jesus.

Good Shepherd on a daily basis sends a small fleet of trucks into the Arizona desert.  The trucks drop off water for migrants fleeing poverty and often oppression. On average 300 bodies are found in the southern Arizona desert each year.  Their bodies have no identification and are buried nameless.

photo-of-water-in-desert

The people of Good Shepherd know that these travelers have names.  They know them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Such a bond transcends government policy and the threat  to build even higher walls.  Their compassion is rooted in a story Jesus told in Luke 10: 25-37.  A seemingly simple story with profound cultural and political implications.

photo-good-samaritan

Jesus was never about building an institution. He was all about a movement.  A movement of the heart that builds bridges of understanding.  A movement that restores us to health and harmony with God.

The antidote to irrelevance for the Christian church is in remembering the story of the One who brought us into being.  It was true then.  It’s true now.

 

From Scarcity to Abundance: Refugee Crisis, Part 2

In the previous blog we explored how our world is governed by the Economy of Scarcity. A scarcity mindset constricts the mind, imagination and heart. Scarcity teaches that there is only so much to go around and we must protect what is yours.

Desperate refugees fleeing civil war and grinding poverty in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and northern Africa are fleeing in record numbers to the gates of Europe. The response of the Hungarian government is a grim example of the scarcity mindset at work. That government has set up razor wire barriers and passed a law criminalizing any refugee who seeks to pass through.

Refugees-Hungarian-border-2015

Is there an alternative to scarcity thinking? Yes. The answer is found in an ancient story. Whether you take the story literally or metaphorically there are lessons to be had.

2000 years ago a healer and prophet named Jesus brought about a miracle. A crowd of 5000 had gathered to hear him. Late in the day his disciples urged Jesus to disperse the crowd so they could forage for food. Instead, Jesus had the crowd break into companies of 50 and 100. Then Jesus took his disciples scarce provisions, 5 loaves and two fish and offered everything he had to the crowd.

At first glance this seems like a hopeless and reckless gesture. How do you feed so many with so little?

Parker Palmer the theologian suggests that this intentional act of vulnerability led to the miracle. Moved by the generosity and selflessness of Jesus and his disciples, the crowd which had hidden away food of their own, began to share with others.

The miracle was that those who had nothing now had enough. Those who had much and a little had enough. And, points out Palmer, by breaking the vast crowd into companies of 50 and 100 it was no longer as easy to ignore or refuse to help. Now the person in need had a name, a story.

This is called the Gospel of Abundance. Translated to today’s refugee crisis, nations of the world have the capacity to solve this crisis. We have the resources to feed and place those who are fleeing war and poverty. We have the resources and capacity to solve the conditions that have led to the wars and poverty.

The Gospel of Abundance tells us that there is an alternative to fear which fuels scarcity thinking. When we act abundantly we make a series of choices: We choose to not give in to fear. We choose to take a risk and share what we have. We choose to open our hearts, minds and imagination to new ways of thinking, new ways of partnering to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Do we see examples of abundance at work? Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Jordan, Turkey have been on the front lines for many months and in some cases for years in housing and rescuing refugees. Germany has committed to receiving and housing up to 800,000 refugees in 2015 at a cost of 6.6 billion dollars.

Welcoming refugees

Such examples of abundance offers an example to the United States. My country has stood largely on the side lines and only recently agreed to receive 10,000 Syrians at an undetermined rate. We are capable of doing so much more.

As a pastor I see local communities of faith being capable of getting involved and making a difference. A committee in the church I serve is researching ways to lobby our elected officials to make our nation more generous. One step is to lobby for ‘The Protecting Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act’, now before Congress. We’re also looking into ways to partner and help house refugee families.

Imagine what happens when every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, tribe, city and nation is led by the Gospel of Abundance. 2000 years ago a prophet and healer named Jesus made a choice not to be governed by fear or scarcity. The result was a miracle. That same capacity for the miraculous is found within you and me and the communities we belong to. Don’t you think its time for another miracle?

Martin of the Poor

The last major speech Dr. King delivered, four days before his assassination, was on poverty at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. Dr. King´s sermon was entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” containing the quote below:

“There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia; I see this poverty in the United States.”

Poverty is a reality in Massachusetts where I live: According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless http://www.mahomeless.org/advocacy/basic-facts 728,514 people live below the poverty line; in 2013 19,209 people experienced homelessness; in the 2012-2013 academic year 15,812 students were homeless; on Nov. 25, 2014 4800 families with children were living in shelters. The level of poverty in this state is double what it was in 1990.

In the face of these daunting statistics, on this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday what would Martin have us do?

photo Dr King marching

I think he’d encourage us to get involved in local initiatives like Family Promise. In my community Christians and Jews partner to house three homeless families at a time in our places of worship.

He’d encourage interfaith worship gatherings that reminds us to work together. In the town I live we will conclude our interfaith worship with a candlelight procession to a corner of our main street (Cabot Street). We will stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are homeless. For a few moments we will feel the bitter weather that accompanies those who camp in doorways and alleys.

Dr. King would remind us that beyond offering kindness to our neighbors we are to understand and confront the political, economic and social factors that push so many into homelessness and poverty.

He’d invite us to wrestle with these words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Dr. King’s dream of a world governed by equality and compassion remains compelling and elusive. His words are rooted in the wisdom of Jesus who said, ‘whatever you do (or don’t do) to the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do (or don’t do) unto me.’

The dream continues to capture our heart and imagination. The opportunities to serve are on our very doorstep. Let’s get to work.

Note: If you live in Beverly, MA join us for interfaith worship January 19 2015 7 p.m. St Peter’s Episcopal Church 4 Ocean Street; First Parish and First Baptist Beverly partner to house 3 families with Family Promise January 25 – Feb 1 contact either church if you’d like to help. Beyond Beverly, find partners in your local community, religious and secular to make a difference.