I pulled into the parking lot at the community center at a little after 5 a.m. last Monday morning for the beginning of a new session of my weight training/conditioning class. It struck me that there were fewer spots available than usual but I didn't think much about it until I climbed the stairs and walked into the open room where I've been working hard with others twice a week since January. As I entered the brightly lit room, I looked around to notice that the small, by now familiar group of 7 or 8 bleary eyed women had suddenly become 15 or 16. And someone else's mat was where mine usually was.
I was surprised at how that jarred me. Even so, I quietly moved and found an open spot near the center of the room where I rolled out my mat and laid my weights down. The view was different from there. I didn't know the people to my right or my left. Still, I tried to convince myself, I was there for the exercise and the rest didn't much matter and so I put my head down determined to focus on that. The music started and we circled the room to warm up. We returned to our places and began the same sort of routine that had become familiar to me over the last nine months. This should have righted things for me, but then I discovered there was also this: since there were twice as many people there our very encouraging instructor simply couldn't pay attention to all of us in the same way she had only the week before. To be sure, it was only right for her to be showering her encouragement on those newest to this early morning torture session. Indeed, I'm not sure I heard the words "good job" with my name attached even once that morning.
Wow. As I drove home and then into church later that morning I wondered if this is how people in congregations I've served have felt whenever we experienced growth. It's true, we joke about someone 'sitting in someone else's pew' and many of us have horror stories about when guests have been rudely told just that. But I'm quite certain I have never experienced what that feels like from the other side of the pulpit. My place up front is always reserved, after all. I tend to arrive early enough on Sunday morning so that regardless of how many come later, a parking space is easy to come by. And as for the necessary diversion of the leader's attention? Well, when the roles were reversed, I have to say that bothered me more than I would have expected. Indeed, intellectually, I know that for every new person a congregation welcomes, key leaders do find their energy being redirected, no doubt at the expense of others who had grown accustomed to receiving their share of just that. I just hadn't experienced what that felt like on the other side before.
To be sure, this seems like a good thing to have experienced in the days before we dig into the Gospel story which speaks of the disciples' squabble over who came first and Jesus' reminder that our call is to be last and least, like a little child. It's good for me to know first hand what that feels like. I mean, it's easy for me to preach that from where I stand every week. It's not always so easy to embrace it from the midst of the congregation where it has real consequences.
And so I find I wonder now how it is that we as communities find ourselves able to heed Jesus' invitation today to 'welcome.' I wonder where we get the clarity, the strength, the courage, the confidence, to be and do what is right in this way. It must be more than simply knowing that new people are necessary in order to keep any institution, whether it be an exercise class or a congregation, going strong. In fact, if that's our only motivator, it never really works. At least not in churches. Rather, it must, somehow, come from a deeper love for the last and the least and the lost that we would be willing to give up our space and welcome, focusing always on what matters most of all.
It's not easy, to be sure, and I do wonder if this is why many congregations are less than welcoming, why so many of us are not growing. And while I have a deeper empathy today for why that is so, I'm still hanging on to the hope that even my seemingly normal self-centered nature can be overcome. It matters too much for it not to be possible, after all.
Perhaps this is how it can happen. Maybe it has something to do with my remembering the open armed welcome I received when I was first new. I expect it has something to do with looking at the stranger who took my place and being glad for her that she's being brought to something which has become so important to me. I'm wondering if it has something to do with growing deeper in my own certainty that this (whether it's my experience in an exercise class or in this church) is not first or only about meeting my needs, but that God has something wonderful in store for the whole wide world. And if someone has taken my place? Well, maybe that means we're that much closer to experience God's amazing intent for us all!
- Have you ever experienced the consequences of welcoming others in a not so positive way? What was that like for you?
- Given the seemingly built in barriers to growth, how do you think we ever get past it?
- Can you think of a time when you were new, when you were welcomed and made to feel at home? Does standing still in that memory help to deepen your own motivation to welcome others?