Monday, December 8, 2014

Making Room

During Advent, we await Christ by preparing our busy hearts to accommodate the incalculable abundance of God’s love for the world and all of us, God’s beloved.

The image that keeps occurring to me is a tiny, cluttered apartment suddenly having to accommodate a building-sized, heart-shaped pillow. The pillow’s so big that its unyielding, irresistible cuddliness flattens the furniture against the walls and then, like rising Tollhouse cookie dough, oozes through every door, window, and crevice.

There’s so much pillow that there’s no room for anything else.

Such is the gift of Christmas, if fully accepted – ours heart so full of joy, forgiveness, and a yearning to love God and others that there’s no room for the familiar old furniture.

We will always resist being rearranged to that extent. And why shouldn’t we? What’s at risk of being moved out of the way usually isn’t anything so bad as the opposite of the godly virtues, which is to say despair, vengefulness, and all consuming regard for ourselves. We’re entitled to like our furniture. We inherited some of it. As for the claw and ball table leg where we keep stubbing our toe in the dark -- well, we do manage to avoid it most of the time. Moving things around just creates new ways to risk getting hurt.

Bishop Bruce with food bankers
We might be so content with the status quo that we’ll figure out how to confine the giant heart pillow to the spare bedroom. Instead of letting Christ consume us, we’ll coexist. We’ll spare our Lord a ventricle and a few subsidiary veins and arteries, just occasionally letting him flow into the whole expanse, such when we’re holding a baby, listening to Handel, or seeing a sunset -- or on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings, when we’re in church.

If our hearts are prone to constrain Christ’s abundance, so are the churches we build in his name. We set them up just the way we like them, fill them with nice people such as ourselves, and then do things the same way over and over again.

Make no mistake: If you’re like me, church’s congeniality and predictability help make the experience holy. Just to expose the limits of my metaphor, I don’t propose moving any of our beautiful furniture. But how could we throw our doors open wider and let more of the giant pillow out? Could we do even more to turn our community’s face to the world?

Bishop Bruce and Roger Bradshaw
Bishop Diane Jardine Bruce posed this question to your parish leaders during her visit in October, when she invited us on a neighborhood walkabout followed by a conversation about what we had observed. Our group included Mother Martha, People’s Warden Gregg Stempson, Bishop’s Committee members Phil Bowman, DJ Gomer, Dave Nichols, Paula Neal Reza, and Erin Schwarz, and me.

We explored neighborhoods within walking distance of our church and talked about how their residents would love St. John’s if they gave it a try. But standing on the sidewalk looking across at our beautiful campus, we wondered how we appeared to them. It’s the church with the expensive private school, someone said. “What does ‘Episcopal’ even mean?” someone else said jokingly. “Is it hard to get in? What are the requirements?”

Bishop Bruce was delighted to see St. John’s outreach in action. She consecrated our School’s new “Seeds of Hope” garden, where we’ll grow produce for those in need, and dropped by the Rancho Santa Margarita food bank, where Roger Bradshaw and his St. John’s crew comprise the core volunteer group every third Thursday.

These new outreach and community ministries (others are Happy Hour, St. John’s Moms Club, and Caregiving Mosaics) naturally suggest others. Demographic data that Bishop Bruce provided revealed that 15% of our city’s population is Hispanic. Our walkabout group wondered how welcome those neighbors feel at St. John’s. What if we provided a translation of our services into American Sign Language? An obvious reply is that no one in our congregation is a member of the Deaf community. But that might change if we provided the service.

Your parish leaders were amply inspired by Bishop Bruce’s visit. Still, we all have more than enough to-do lists this time of year. Advent is less about doing than being – being ready, open, and vulnerable. Advent people and churches will inevitably be changed by Christ’s love. I can’t wait to find out what St. John’s becomes in the new year. I can’t wait to see who we really are.

This post was originally published in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.