Monday, July 20, 2009

Kittens and Children of God

As of a few weeks ago, we have a kitten in our house – Maisy. Of course, she’s the cutest thing in the world (at least when she isn’t attacking my ears in the middle of the night).

This morning, I’ve been watching Maisy hunting a fly in our dining room. She understands that her chances are better if she can attack from atop the dining room table (which I’m not wild about, but I realize trying to keep her off the table is a battle I won’t win). So she backs up away from the table to get up a good head of steam, charges, and launches herself at the tabletop. Sadly, her size and her judgment don’t yet allow her to perform such feats. Instead, she rams herself into the tabletop and crashes to the floor.

Part of me feels awful watching this. I want to show her how she can use the chair next to the table as a step up; I want to save her from crashing and tumbling to the floor. But then, as she picks herself up and tries again, I see that she has to crash and fall in order to learn just how tall the table really is. Failure is a learning opportunity – and an essential one, too.

As God’s children, we’re in the same situation. We have to fail in order to learn. We have to crash and fall to the floor in order to figure out how to succeed in the environment around us. We have to learn for ourselves how high we can jump.

This is no great insight. But it might be helpful to keep in mind the next time something happens to us – as individuals, as a church, as a nation, etc. – and we find ourselves asking, “God, why did you let this happen to me?” Although I’m sure it pains God as much as it pains any of us to watch our own children fail, the Heavenly Parent has to let us crash and fall so we can build our strengths and learn our limitations. I don’t much enjoy it when I’m the one tumbling to the ground. But I also give thanks that God loves me enough to let me figure it out for myself.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Being a Visitor

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, and I still have one more week of vacation to go (praise God). But I had an experience today that I wanted to share while it’s still fresh.

This morning, I put myself in a position I never get to experience: being an anonymous, first-time visitor at a church where I don’t feel comfortable. Part of it was simply professional curiosity – wanting to see how other folks do church. But mostly, I wanted to see what it was like to be one of those people to whom we’re supposed to be especially attentive on Sunday mornings: the people God brings through our doors for the first time.

I chose to go to a local megachurch, one of the congregations with a reputation for excellence both in worship and in ministry to newcomers. I arrived about 10 minutes before the service, and I was greeted with a “hello” and a handshake from the greeter stationed at the door. I came into the lobby (what we would call a narthex in my tradition) and marveled at the coffee bar, the large gift shop, the welcome counters staffed by volunteers, and the impressive children’s ministry desk (which had a helpful sign directing visiting families where they should go to get their kids off to children’s programming for the first time). The space was huge and open – although, to a person who works in a very traditional liturgical setting, it seemed much more like a convention center or an airport than a church.

I went into the worship space and received an order of service from an usher. I found a place to sit and looked over the day’s announcements. In this congregation’s tradition, the time to greet people sitting near you comes at the beginning of worship, and I shared a handshake with everyone immediately around me.

But – those five “good mornings” and the handshake from the greeter at the door were the only times anyone spoke to me. I even hung around the lobby for about 10 minutes after worship had ended, browsing the gift shop, checking out the literature on a rack, walking through the conversation spaces. Not a soul introduced him- or herself to me.

I say this not as a criticism of this church. It has thousands of members; it’s obviously doing many, many things very well. Instead, my point is that even in a church that prides itself on ministry to newcomers, it’s easy for a given individual on a given Sunday to feel completely alone in the crowd.

For those of us in congregations that are trying to play catch-up with churches like this one (at least in terms of welcome and incorporation of newcomers), this is a cautionary tale. If an evangelistically focused megachurch can fail to reach out to a stranger, how much more often do we fail to make a Sunday-morning visitor feel at home?

A church may offer an impressive building, incredibly tight worship, professional-quality music, huge video screens, and a solid sermon. But it also has to offer real, live voices and hands to the stranger who takes the huge risk to come in. May every single parishioner remember this next Sunday, when we’re tempted to think we’ve done enough simply by getting ourselves to church. Getting ourselves to church is indeed a good thing – but our own needs are only the beginning of why God has gotten us out of bed that morning.