Monday, September 03, 2012

Unexpected Barriers

Passing the peace is a ritual at our church. Immediately following the confession, many of us relish in the opportunity to stand and greet one another. Some people know they will receive their weekly allotment of hugs during this time. Other people use it as a time to find a fellow small group member. As a pastor, I utilize these moments to seek out first-time guests to our church, making sure they feel welcome in our midst.

I love passing the peace. It is a time that often encourages me and fills me with joy. But passing the peace yesterday knocked me completely off-center.

I was greeting a woman who I recognized as a first-time guest from the week before, letting her know how happy I was to see her again when she asked me a simple question, "Do you have gluten free wafers or bread for communion?" It is a question I should have thought about earlier but no one has asked me the question before. I ashamedly said, "I'm sorry. We don't." and returned to my seat as my mind raced to come up with an alternative solution.

We created a barrier to her experiencing Christ yesterday. It was far from intentional and more a result of our not being expectant enough about who God might send to our midst. While we gladly and proudly opened the table to all who would come, there was one who was not able to come yesterday - one who could not receive the bread and the cup.

We will have gluten free wafers on the table from now on. But what other barriers have our churches created - aware and unaware? What are the signals and messages sent to others through our buildings, our signs and our actions as people who are part of the church?

We used to have horrible, physical barriers in front of our doors, gates that remained closed six days of the week. I promised myself that similar gates would never go back up once these gates came down. But I know we still have barriers. There are some people who are above the age of 70 and remember what our church once stood for as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. It does not matter how ethnically diverse we have become today, some African Americans who have lived in the city a long time see the historic name of our former denomination etched in a stone building and are reminded of the pain of past separation and sin instead of being able to see where God has led us today.

We are journeying with James in the month of September, and I shared yesterday how our lives can be barriers to people coming inside the church. If people see us professing one thing with our lips and then doing different things with our actions, then the church is not receiving very much positive public relations. If we profess to be followers of Christ who was always with people in the margins - the poor, the sick and the forgotten - but continue as though we can forget about people with real needs, then those on the outside take notice. Hypocritical Christians, myself included, can provide countless reasons for people to continue to use Sunday mornings for sleeping in, errand running and stops at the farmers market. What we do matters.

People of faith have provided countless barriers to keep gay, lesbian, transgendered or bisexual people away from God's all-encompassing love.

Historic architects have done all they can to preserve beauty at the sake of enabling any with a physical disability to come inside or serve in church leadership on the chancel area.

Good-intentioned church-folk who look with disgust when a baby is crying or someone walks in who is not dressed the ways others are dressed for church can send countless people away with one reactive gaze.

And even the signs in front of our churches can be confusing. What is the "service" we do on Sundays at 11:00 if one has never been to a Sunday service? Or at our place, what does it mean when one parking sign abundantly tells folks coming to church to drive into the garage and take a ticket while the building's sign says the parking lot is full?

I am reminded often of how far we have come and how far we have to go. May God open my eyes to see anything we are doing as a congregation to provide barriers instead of paths to entry. And may God help me to see how my life can be better used by God as an invitation to others instead of anything that would cause harm.

I'm off to order gluten free wafers now.

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