“There’s a counterintuitive humility that comes when we are treated with such regard at the table. Rather than being inflated into arrogance or becoming bloated with self-importance, we actually find ourselves shrinking to our proper proportions. We feel simultaneously small AND grateful. And that’s really the beauty of radical hospitality, the way it right-sizes us, the way it strips away our ego and simply ascribes value to us and allows us to find comfort in that knowledge. When we are fully welcomed we are able to rest in the presence of others, not needing to earn or achieve or do or make anything. When we no longer feel compelled to prove our worth, we can simply fall into our belovedness – and we exhale.” – John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, (p. 68)
I find the above words more and more where I am as a person of faith and as a pastoral leader with fewer years ahead of me than behind me. Somehow in the years of serving and having the sacred and humbling gift of walking with folks from four different congregations through all kinds of celebrations and heartbreaks and struggles and aspirations, my appreciation grows in the moments when we come together in the midst of world-defined differences to recognize that we are all, each one, equally beloved of God. The urgency of finding more expansive ways of communicating that is quite intense in these days of living and loving in the church. And I flat out claim my perfectly imperfectness in doing that in the daily living of the tasks that mount more and less in the work of our faith life together.
In the home groups we are gathering for each week to consider and re-consider our challenges as well as our dreams for Grace, I find such sacredness in the moments when we are most authentic with one another. Deciding to value that above our comfort levels is a difficult thing sometimes, as we mostly believe good church people are always supposed to get along and only share disagreements and frustrations and disappointments in the parking lot – at least I thought that for the longest time. I’ve come to understand in a lifetime of living with Jesus in the scriptures, the way of discipleship was not spent in avoidance of the hard stuff, but inviting with compassionate respect, a moving toward that hard stuff in the hopes of growing relationships patient and flexible enough in community that everyone gets stronger together through the mutual struggle to love in the midst of complexity. That’s not particularly a tag-line for rampant quantitative growth I’ve found snort, but I’m not certain God’s interest is only or maybe even primarily in numerical expansion. Those are considered words spoken with forked tongue to a number of church guru’s but . . . I’ve never quite been nor served churches that quite fit the prescribed formula for big-box success. By God’s grace alone, and maybe that’s the recognition that should always be, I have been gifted to serve churches these many years in this oddly-wired understanding.
Pavlovitz goes on to say, “The Church tends to do a whole lot of speaking and a whole lot less listening these days. Things began changing for me as a pastor and person of faith when I began to see ministry more as sitting with people and listening to their stories, rather than standing at a distance and trying to dazzle them with brilliant words. That simple act of sharing space with people is a sacred offering, and in a world where most of us are content to shout our opinions at relative strangers from a safe space, the radical hospitality of Christ pulls people closer and demands that we see and hear them. And once we view a person in the illuminating light of actual relationship, we can’t help but see the God in them; we feel the presence of the Divine; we welcome Jesus into our midst as we meet with them. And when we do taste the redemptive fruit of truly knowing a person, we will never settle for less than that again.” (Pavlovitz, p. 64).
One of the questions I asked our graduating high school seniors on their graduation Sunday this year was whose voice stands out to them, from their past 12 years, that they still hear today and will carry with them into their next chapter. What teacher, what coach, what mentor, what supporter, what guide, what accepting and believing-in-you presence is that which is foundational to your steps into a future that only God and you will write? I think that’s not only a question for graduating seniors from high school. Whose voice do you most often hear speaking in your heart and soul in the midst of times of decision, moments of heartbreak, challenges to risk moving into a new phase that you realize others might question? Who has believed in you when you haven’t so much believed in yourself? Who has walked along side you spiritually if not directly and literally offering space and grace for utter failure and high mountain success? Those voices speak through your own to others. Those hearts offer expansive generosity to others along paths for whom you are that voice. Those souls are part of our witness of God’s promise of life eternal that I believe begins here because they live, so also do we.
One more quote from the same chapter, “Radical hospitality will continually make room for those who are not yet represented and not yet welcomed, and it will force those of us already comfortably ensconced to discard some of our biases and fears and securities to do so. When we receive someone in a way that incarnates Jesus, our desire to see and hear and know them becomes greater than our desire to be comfortable. In this way we grow in Christlikeness to the degree that we are willing to be inconvenienced by the needs of others. This selflessness is a marker of our personal proximity to Jesus – and it’s as elusive as it is sacred . . . it manufactures activists and allies, because it recognizes that we are all interdependent and that until all are welcomed with the same vigor, the Church is less in the image of God than it could and should be. This is the place where the table of Jesus is set, and it is where we find Christ in the eyes of another,” (Pavlovitz, p. 74).
“It is where we find Christ in the eyes of another.” Perhaps there has never been a better sentence written for people of faith. Might we go in to each interaction, conversation, relationship, seeking first to see Christ in the eyes of another? It is a tall order at some times more than others, but a vision for which we each might reach to both receive and offer blessing on our daily walk of faith. The days of the institutional Church are not promising to get easier any time soon. For some, leaving will be their healthiest choice. For others, joining will be their healthiest choice. I hope for many of us, remaining through the ups and downs, the hard conversations and those filled with laughter and fun, and the sacred moments of singing and praying and witnessing and living will be that which will grow us stronger in relationship and give us courage together for the living of these days.
At our meeting as Grace on Sunday evening around the complexities that continue in our denomination and where we are as a community of faith, our choir sang the following song as we ended our time together. It moved so many of us I wanted to share it for the courage and encouragement of all of us. Tara LeBar is the soloist, Pam Williamson, accompanist, and Rick Fisher our Director with the Celebration Choir of Grace. The Anthem is entitled, “Let Your Faith Be Stronger Than Your Fear,” words and music by Tom Trenney and published by Beckenhorst Press, Inc.