They chose their favorite scripture verse. Some chose the most popular lines from Yohan Anderson’s “Songs.” The soundtrack of 70’s youth groups. They painted walls a dynamic “Presbyterian blue,” then stenciled their chosen verses all over in coordinating “Presbyterian red.” It was 1981 and once the donated foosball and ping pong tables were in place, the Sr. High youth room was the place to be at PLCPC.
As an advisor to the program I watched with pride as they claimed their space and their times. They were terrific. Years later I heard that a new vision for children and youth ministry had been adopted by the church. All the walls were going to be painted. There would be murals in the hallways, each classroom would have a different theme and the game tables were given to their sister congregation in Tijuana. It was a good vision and nice donation. I was bummed!
Then I heard the sanctuary was going to be renovated. The pulpit, lectern, piano, and communion table would all shift from permanent places to moveable ones. The 20’ cross behind the choir would be replaced by a stained glass window. The thing was, there was a building behind that wall. So the “window” would be fake, with a backlight to make it appear a “window.” The changes would enhance worship logistics and “alternative” space use. Sounded reasonable. I was bummed, again.
That was the space where I first sensed Christ’s claim on my life. That was the space where I publicly professed my faith and was baptized. Did it matter that it had been 15 years since I lived and worshipped there? No! I did not want to see what I had been a part of creating, change. I did not want that comforting space that embraced me at the darkest moment of my life, to ever be different.
What is that about? Why do so many of us get bogged down in trying to keep things from changing? I suspect it has something to do with our fear of loss. Our fear of being disconnected from a place or community that’s significant in our lives.
Perhaps our death grips on the way things always have been, whether that is a church, a home, a relationship, at work, or wherever, has something to do with fear that the things we value, the things that have given us a sense of meaning, a sense of belonging, will disappear.
Do you hear the common denominator here? Fear! Unfortunately, when we learn that something is going to happen that we find difficult or undesirable or scary, fear tries to wage a hostile takeover. Fear can paralyze us so that we find ourselves checking out of the situation.
But fear can also kick us into an overzealous campaign to firm up our place, our position, our safety.
It seems the later is what happened to Jesus’ disciples when confronted with the fact that Jesus was going to be killed. They didn’t understand what he was talking about when he went on about that dying and rising stuff. And in their confusion, or denial, or fear, they start trying to firm up their own position.
“Who is the greatest among us…”
The disciple’s response is, of course, in direct opposition to what Jesus is trying to reveal to them; namely that everything is…changing! Not only is Jesus going to die, but the familiar paradigms of honor and power, that they’re busy arguing about, all that is changing too.
The impulse to seize power or jockey for position in order to get attention or respect, or accolades, or your agenda, is a vestige of the old ways. The new vision, or better stated, the old vision fully revealed in Jesus, is that real power, life giving power is found in vulnerability. In humility. In welcoming and serving those who cannot reciprocate or offer us anything other than themselves.
A child, lovingly lifted by Jesus, puts flesh and blood on his point. The child has no power to ascend the ladder of success. A child has no clout or pull. A child can’t get us VIP seats or free tickets. A child doesn’t have the capacity to make us more money or make us more popular or improve our standing in society.
What Jesus teaches is that greatness in the kingdom is measured not by how we welcome the “important” “dues-paying” people. But how we welcome those who have nothing to offer.
Greatness according to Christ is measured not by how high we climb, but how humbly we serve.
Regardless of whether we held a position of power and authority in the world or if we serve in a role others might deem inconsequential, the call is the same. Greatness in the kingdom is to welcome and love and support others. Especially the vulnerable. Without the expectation that it will get us anything in return.
And we say—Wait a minute! You mean all this is not about quid pro quo, and what can I get for myself? You know, it’s not just the first disciples who have a hard time getting this. The feelings I had about the “demolition” of my church spaces, were wrapped up in the “all about me” syndrome.
It’s so easy to get caught in the self-focused, self-serving mode that we lose sight of what its really about. Jesus says that our lives, and most certainly our church, are to be focused on loving and serving others. When we forget this, it is very tempting to think that the church should be focused on serving me.
Now that’s not to say that we should not expect to receive the gifts that we covenant to share when we become part of the church. But the point is that in the church it is never all about me. In the church it’s all about Christ. It is about loving and serving others I a way that truly reflects Christ’s way of self-giving, self-sacrificing love and service.
Years ago, another church I had served, planned some major renovations to make an old building more welcoming and suited to current ministries. The first steps were “abatement,” getting rid of dangerous or unwanted stuff in the building, like asbestos.
And then “demolition.” Things were not just painted over, walls came tumbling down. Now as you might imagine, during the process, community life became increasingly complicated. Folks lost access to things and spaces that held precious memories and were no longer there is some ways. Folks comfort was challenged. Things …changed. It was a learning time, a challenging time. A time for the congregation to try to stay focused on what all the mess was really about.
You know, its one thing to talk about change and quite another to live through it. The way to travel faithfully through real change, the kind of change that excites our fears and our anxieties, is to keep focused on the goal and to remember it’s all part of a reality much larger than our individual experience. Jesus shows us how it’s done. The goal us humble service. To live with love and compassion. To be willing to sacrifice everything in order to show and share, to be God’s love in the world.
The pattern, the big picture, is life, death and resurrection in every change, in every loss in every moment when cherished spaces or even our lives, are falling apart. Remember, God is brilliant at the whole “new life” thing. We don’t need to be afraid. We don’t need to scurry around trying to secure our place in the world. Our place is already secure in God’s heart.
So our job is to humbly serve. When we focus on serving others, offering our best selves, our best gifts, extending welcome and sharing the blessings we ourselves have received, sometimes we have to let go of things. When we make humble service the primary goal, then sometimes our ego has to die. Or our great places have to be surrendered and our own comfort has to be sacrificed.
But Jesus shows us that self-giving love and service leads to new and true life. Life, death, resurrection.
New life is the benefit of demolition. Clearing out dangerous and unwanted stuff, abatement, leads to greater health and wholeness, in our building and in our lives.
Tearing down walls, and structures and ways of living that no longer serve us or others, the demolition business, opens up space for new life to emerge. It happens in our lives. It happens in our church. Not just once, but again and again as we try to live after the example of Jesus.
A decade or so ago, I went back to my home church. I walked through the old youth space I had known, worshipped in the sanctuary that had so comforted me. I no longer recognized much of the spaces. But there spaces there were truly inspiring and worship there was a comfort. They have been welcoming subsequent generations of children, youth and worshippers for years now.
The small font that had been pulled into place at each baptism, and mine, was now a centered large glass font, such that an infant could immerse in. In its centered place, it served to remind all, each Sunday, of their baptism. Mine included. A new life center had been built with better foosball and ping pong and even darts. And that fake window, showered the worship space with the light than every moment called us to be as Christ, light to the world.
Amazing benefits were born out of the demolition of the old ways for the sake of a new vision focused on welcoming and serving others.
No matter the abatement or demolition happening your life, you are invited to remember what it’s all about.
It is about loving and serving others. It is about letting go of some things in order to create space for new life to emerge. It is about sacrificing our own comfort for the sake of welcoming God’s children. And I trust that you will move into the changes and challenges of this season of your life with generosity and grace, and will reap the extraordinary benefits of purpose, hope, and even resurrection.