As lockdowns wind down and our city slowly reopens, there is a hustle to get back to normal. We miss the ways of interacting we once knew! We miss our friends, our communities, and importantly, our worship. Its a good thing that our community leaders are taking precautions to ensure we do so safely.
The other day I was at our church and noticed the caution tape on the pews. It was not the first time I noticed them, but this time I noticed them anew. The tape is there to help us social distance and its for our safety. We can gather in a group of up to 40 (interesting number!), but we cant sing (the risk of projectiles) and we are recommended to wear masks… and sanitize our hands… and not touch our faces… or touch others… or have fellowship after… or have more than one person in the washroom at one time… the list goes on. It’s an important list meant to keep us safe. We poured much energy and effort to do what we need to as the church gathering is important.
This time, inadvertently, it dawned on me that the caution tape may be more than a symbol of our physical safety to gather again. We usually sit in the same pews, expect the same outcomes, and predict the same conversations each week. But, is the wild and adventurous Kingdom of God about this? I wondered if the tape may be warning to us from God about what it means to be the church. What if this tape is cautioning us about complacency and familiarity? What if God is saying “slow-down before you reenter here. Think twice before you embrace your old ways, and open your eyes to what I am doing outside the safety of your pew.” This is what I want to explore.
You see, the closure of our church during Covid-19 forcefully challenged us to reconsider how to be the church. It was quite disorienting as no one has been through this before and stabilizing the congregation pastorally was a priority. How would we meet? How would we check in on the vulnerable? What about our ministries where people depend on us? All of this was of great concern. This was a crisis! How could a virus take away my experience of God! And we felt the initial shock. But alas, God in his ever-faithful ways tends to show up in spades when we are in turmoil.
In our community, there are multiple stories of how God started showing up outside of our building. Its as if he was telling us that sacred spaces are in other places. Not long after the lockdown, an expansive food operation formed in our church basement to support breakfast and lunches for two local shelters. You can read about it here. We met new neighbours who became co-conspirators with us in serving the poor in crisis. We met one neighbour that shared a dream about what the community could look like if we could teach kids to learn to live with less. In my house, our family has met each night for a prayer liturgy and scripture reading… and trust me, God has shown up! Others among us started dreaming and having visions in the pattern of Joel 2:28. We began exploring community partnerships and a community garden for our neighbours in the spirit of the common good. The lockdown made very clear the issues of food scarcity, poverty, homelessness, and isolation like never before. It’s not easy to overlook these days. None of this would have happened if our church was open.
I have been wondering if now might be the time that God is inviting us to take it even further. Maybe its time to move from honourable charity to transformational community “with” our neighbours, rather than doing things “for” our neighbours. After all, although Jesus did things “for” people, we cannot understand those things outside of his primary vocation of being “with” humanity. This is the relentless pursuit of God with us! God is signalling to us from the margins of our community in many ways and may even be inviting us into a new way of being the church!
What makes me think this? Recently, I have been nudged into reading about the systemic issues of our community. I’ve learned how in many ways we as churches put an onus on charity to win people to Jesus, but rely on governments or politics to enact systemic change. I’ve come to learn that this is a false reliance. The government’s purpose is not the common good, but the good of a few. This is clear in the the erosion of support systems for families, income inequality, and the emphasis on economic gain (stock market) as the primary indicator of societal health. Within this system, churches have operated in the private sphere of values and personal salvation. Important this is, but, it has made it extremely difficult for the church to create an environment of human flourishing in a way that can transform the public, or secular world. These thoughts are still forming in me, but have made me wonder if God is luring us out of our familiar places and into our communities in a new way.
The idea of a weekly community meal (when safe to do so) has sat with me lately. I’m drawn to it. Jesus practiced radical table fellowship in unclean spaces with unclean people. Jesus made the table a sacred space. He didn’t just hand out food. And I don’t just want to give someone food, I want to eat with them too. I want to be “with” them and learn from them. I want to meet Christ in my neighbours as I know he is already out there before me. I also know Christ is still working to change me and I’m convinced that God will do so as much or more through the stranger, as through a sermon. The table… a way of being the church. This has a nice ring to it and is a space where transformation can happen.
Back to the caution tape. It’s important… it will keep us safe as we re enter our pews. But I want you to think about this. What if the pew didn’t define our experience of God as much as a shared table with strangers did? What if a shared table is holy ground that will take us beyond charity and into deeper community? This reminds me of what renowned theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about the responsibility of the church:
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Maybe the future of the church can be imagined through the table in a way that could transform the systemic issues that perpetuate suffering in our community. Just maybe.