Since yesterday's events Matthew's story of the slaughter of the innocents has not left me. We are still in Advent and it is a "Luke" year, so this text will not appear in worship -- but it is where many of us are dwelling today.
graduated from college, you know the
drill. Every so often a magazine arrives in your mailbox, full of glossy photos
of happy, successful people. Some of them might be the professors who taught
you oh so many years ago. Some of them might be silver-haired philanthropists who
are leaving a legacy for their beloved alma mater. And some of them are younger
than you . . . uncomfortably younger than you. Maybe you read an article or two.
Maybe you just scan it for familiar faces. Maybe you turn to the back and look
for names of people whom you haven’t heard from in years, not even on Facebook.
I went to
two institutions of higher learning that were large enough to have glossy full
color magazines (and another that was not that big). My husband went to two
other institutions whose magazines are so glossy you practically need
sunglasses. All four publications have an uncanny knack for arriving just at
those moments in my life when I am feeling most unaccomplished, most detached
from my dreams of earlier years, most stuck in the midlife
rock-and-a-hard-place rut between family and career.
sure I’m not the only person who experiences Alumni Magazine Syndrome. I mean,
we can’t all be tenured faculty at the places where we studied, start our own
non-profits by the age of twenty-eight, or give a few millions dollars
who now serves on the board of one of these institutions, I understand the
editorial purposes that lead to alumni magazine syndrome. Your friendly
development officers are not very interested in the middle. They are focused on
alumni who can give enough money to support programs and buildings, and on
parents who might consider sending their children to an institution that will
launch them on a career more brilliant than mine. No one wants to read about
people who dropped onto the ‘mommy track’
because they had a special needs child, or who doing “just fine”
economically while they support their aging parents.
bothers me most about the flavor of many of these stories is the impression that
most worthy work is either publishable or highly profitable, when a lion’s
share of what holds the world together is neither. Some of the most brilliant people in the world
are working on Apple patents that they simply can’t talk about, or formulating
poems that will not make the Times bestseller list. Some of our most gifted diplomats, counselors
and chaplains are professionally bound to not
talk -- not even to their dearest
friends -- about the most interesting parts of their work. And legions of
managers throughout the world are taking care of their employees and their
institutions instead of spending a lot of time blogging about it or accepting
of self-promotion makes it all too easy to believe other people’s press and to
compare our own very private work with what others choose to make public. Rob
Bell became famous because he started a church, a very successful church – but
in the end he found leading that church less interesting than the life of
publishing, speaking, and being the kind of public figure who gets written up
in the New Yorker. Pastors don’t get
that kind of press, usually, and if they do, it’s ofteyh n because they have
begun to believe their own press a bit too much.
Mid-life ruts are not the magazine’s fault, however. Another part of grown-up life
is knowing when to put down the glossy magazine get to work in the 3D messy
world of caring for the people around you, doing the tasks no one will thank
you for, and keeping one’s own counsel about whatever ways you might feel just
a bit overlooked. For me, it helps sometimes to particularly “count my
blessings” in the places where I am bound to be quiet about what I do. I look back at my calendar at all the meaningful
conversations that others have initiated because I do what I do. I tally up all
the ways our small-time philanthropy has added up to some pretty sizeable
numbers, when kept up consistently for fourteen years of marriage. And I pay
more attention to how I love the people closest to me, the ones whose trust and
respect I most need. That stuff doesn’t make for a great glossy
article, or even a “noteworthy” update in the back of the magazine. But it is
what grown-up life has taught me – the best education I’ve ever had.
I spend most of my time in congregations encouraging them to
look out – to see worship not as their living room but as a public event where
strangers are not only welcome but part of the reason we gather at all. For
fifteen years I’ve been reiterating the 3-minute Rule – which is that we should
spend the first three minutes after worship greeting those we don’t already
know, since the people we do already know are likely to stick around longer
than that, but a visitor never will if they are not greeted.
So it pains me every time a visitor lets us know that they
came to worship but were not explicitly welcomed by someone (other than the
pastor -- I know I don't really count in this calculus). Most of the time, this is not the experience of people who visit my
congregation, but occasionally it still
happens. Someone comes, hopes to be greeted, and ends up feeling like,
as one person put it recently, they’ve “stumbled into a private service.”
For the most part, I want to take full responsibility. This
is not the welcome Jesus would want someone to receive, and a failure to
welcome is a failure to fully express the Gospel. As an introvert myself, I’m
doubly sensitive to the ways in which our chatty, casual congregation can be
unwittingly exclusive to those who need intentional pathways to getting to know
And yet. There are times when visitors give us “one shot,”
and then walk away. They come because they think our relatively small size will
be welcoming of them and then leave disappointed that we are not the
well-oiled welcoming machine that a
larger congregation might be. So here’s what I want to say – in all love and
without any blame – to those who give up quickly on a congregation.
A real community is not a well-oiled machine.
We try to use the gifts of those who are best at
welcoming and rely on those folks to
“catch” visitors, show them around and answer their questions. But sometimes
those particular folks are sick that day.
We try to be conscious that a first-time visitor won’t know
about what is happening with a building program, or who died this week, or how
we commune. But a real community grieves when it grieves, and this turns people
inward, and you may feel on the “outside” of that dynamic. Over time, you may
become one of those people who needs space even in our public event for your
We try to provide inroads for new people to get to know
others in a formal way – new member classes, follow up phone calls, picture
directories. But in a real community people get to know one another in a myriad
of ways, some of which our formal structures do not and should not control. And
informal structures are as fallible as the people who make them.
A real community learns together, strives together, and
makes lots of mistakes – together. If the object of our mistake was your
welcome – we are sorry. But we hope that you might be willing to join us in
learning and growing, imperfectly as we all do.