Thursday, March 20, 2008

The strangers and aliens among us

"Do not mistreat or oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9)

It's Good Friday, and any good devotional writer would have his face, and his pen, turned toward Golgotha, and the cross. But somehow, my heart is pulling me in another direction...

Good Friday. Easter Vigil. Easter Sunday. "The Three Days." Along with Christmas, this is one of the two most sacred and revered Christian feast days on the calendar. Crucifixion, death, silence, resurrection and celebration. The very pinnacle of the Christian story. In virtually every Christian pulpit, the focus will be on the cross and everything it stands for.

But in my mind's eye, I'm standing in my home congregation in Kansas on Easter Sunday morning. In the huge, glass-walled space outside the sanctuary, I'm standing by the glass wall of the sanctuary near the top of the entry stairs, and I'm looking down the stairs at the faces coming in. There are the church members and their families - confident, well-dressed, and assured that no matter what special effects or special music or liturgical dance or procession or whatever, they will know the basic shape of the service they are about to experience. They've grown up with it all their lives, or at least for a long, long time. This is familiar, joyous territory for them.

But then, there are the others. They come in the door somewhat tentatively, looking about. Not quite sure where to go, they follow the crush of members up the stairs into the lobby (which everyone keeps calling a "narthex," for some reason). There are incredible images of color, powerful sounds of celebration - all of which seem completely unfamiliar to them. Not sure where to go or what to do, they go into the sanctuary, and take a seat near the back, so they won't be noticed if they do something wrong or say something out of place.

They are the outsiders. The non-Christian or non-practicing Christian visitors who swell the ranks of almost every Christian church on Easter weekend. And on this Good Friday I'd like us as a community of faith to start praying for them.

Some of them are there because they have to be; their parents or siblings or spouses or partners have dragged them to the "just this once, please" service. Some of them are there because they believe Christian folk are supposed to have a corner on what's right in the world, and there isn't much going right in their world right now. And some of them have heard just enough of the story of this Jesus person to want to be there - to see what all the big deal is about.

All this talk about "the Lamb of God" and "the King of Kings" and the organ music and the fanfares and shouting "He is risen, indeed!" makes them feel like they have landed in a different land, like the children landing in Narnia for the first time. They haven't been there throughout Lent, so they haven't understood the times of preparation and transformation that many congregations go through. The liturgical colors, the significance of the white linen, the lyrics of the hymns, none of it makes sense to them. And all this strangeness will leave them feeling tense, ill at ease, and adrift in a place with a slightly different language and an entirely different landscape.

How do I know this? Because I was "one of them," once upon a time. And that's how I felt.

And that's why, today, I'm going to ask you to do four powerful things.

First, pray for your church's visitors, all weekend long. Whatever draws them to your place of worship, literally pray them off the streets and in the doors.

Second, look for them, and be aware of them, in each of your services. Their first urge (as mine was) will be to not get noticed, to not draw attention. But look for the strangers among you with your heart, and they will not be hard to find.

Third, realize that your visitors very well may have no clue what's going on around them, this weekend. If you see someone fumbling with a hymnal or wondering whether to stand up or sit down, give 'em a hand. They will be grateful.

Lastly - welcome and encourage your guests whenever you see them. A friend of mine says that when dealing with visitors or guests, "Our primary purpose is to show them that we don't bite; that they are safe here among us." Perhaps that is near the heart of what a welcoming community does - they smooth the road, light the pathway and make things a little more comfortable for those that don't know the way.

Our sanctuaries and fellowships halls will fill this weekend. Not everyone will come in as friends, and many will feel as strangers. With our help, and our prayers, and our loving actions, perhaps they will leave feeling that they might just be able to come back and find a place among us. That they might find a home. That they might know we are Christians - by our love, and by our welcome.

I know I did.

He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"
(Revelation 21:5, NIV)

(Shameless plug: the images used on this post, from Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park, KS, have been lifted from the archives of my brother and friend, Timothy Bredow of Kansas City. He is a talented photographer, father, and all-around great guy. Go check his stuff out at his KCinFocus flikr site. Tim, I love you, but I get a very un-Christian case of envy looking at your stuff, bro. Your photography captures what one songwriter called "the rhythm and rhyme of the poem of your life." Thank you for allowing your images to bless these meager words.)


Poor Mad Peter said...

Amen, preach it, brother.

Keith Brenton said...

I will pray. Thank you for reminding me of what should have come to my heart - and by way of your blog, did!

tiger bass said...

I have been reading your posts for over a year now and love your writings and thoughts. I was recently struck by your 3/18/08 posting. I am a member of such a church. Our church burned on 12/29/01. It turned out to be such a blessing to our church in many ways. Our faith became stronger and this had a huge effect on how we treated each other and others in our lives and in our community. It affected the way we look at worship. It may sound odd to some, but the fire was just what our church needed. It was a big kick in the pants to get us moving for Christ and Christ shares a deeper relationship with each of us, deeper then we could have on our own. If you would like to come to a church like that and see then go to Maumee United Methodist Church. I know you are going to meet some people who knew you back at Fallen Timbers Chapter and would love to see you again.