A few years ago, living in Dallas, finishing up a Ph.D. in theology, I was running on the sidewalk alongside a busy suburban street, sad about yet another church experience, wondering when and where I’d find a church off life support, and suddenly found myself in intimate contact with the sidewalk. Rolling over, I shook out my knees and elbows and staggered back into motion, not really upset at the fall because I knew why it had happened: I had started thinking again about trying to start the church of my dreams, and had rapidly gone off the deep end into that thought, such that the smallest irregularity in the sidewalk was enough to tumble me off my feet.
That was some years ago. I’m still running … and still stumbling over the idea of church. I can find all kinds of ways to convince myself that what I dream of can’t be done. But desire has a funny way of circumventing logic. Here’s the latest way.
I was out for a run (you are perhaps noticing a pattern here) and thinking about the latest iteration of the dream. This one has a little more substance too it. There is a co-conspirator — one Aleese Moore-Orbih — who shares the idea that we should all have access to a community experience that we can bring our whole selves to: to God, to each other, to worship, work and play.
In the best of all worlds, we could call this community experience “church,” and it would be what church is supposed to be. But Aleese and I — and so many thousands of you — often don’t experience church being what it is supposed to be.
Many if not most of us have had the experience of wanting to enter into a church, or other communal experience, but then hearing, “Well, we are happy to see you, but check that at the door …” the that being our particular experience or expression of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, or any of a myriad other aspects of ourselves.
This makes me wonder if we should even call this new thing church … Aleese, who is African American, says, “Yes, we should, because my folks expect church to be church. We just need to be able to reclaim and define church for ourselves.” I can follow that. But I still think about all the folks who won’t be interested if it’s church … although they might be interested if it was “Come to supper,” or “Let’s hang out and talk ….”
Of course, there’s nothing new to that. Lots of folks are trying to reinvent church, and that’s a good thing. That reinvention actually needs to happen, in every age.
It’s just a little funny when I think about trying it, myself. Saying I’m starting something feels like asking the universe for a whack upside the head. I get very tentative.
So, back to that run. I was running along on a country road outside Hillsborough, NC, pawing through my internal constraints like so many worry beads, and a little voice said, “Think of it like this. It’s not a church. It’s a table … a table in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.” (The little voice in my head is economical like that … often reuses old stuff from books, movies, the Bible, etc.)
The voice went on. “You come in and sit down at the table. It’s not your table. You didn’t build it or set it. The waitress welcomes you, and everyone else at the table. She calls you ‘honey.’ She brings you food to eat and something cool to drink. While you are sitting there, some folks get up and leave … some others come and sit down. You do your part, listening and talking and sharing in the communing. When you are through, you get up and say your good-byes and leave. The table is still there. People are still coming and going and sharing with each other while they are there.
“The Table just is … you don’t own it, you don’t control, it’s not yours. You wouldn’t come back a couple of hours later and say to the people sitting there, ‘Hey! That’s my table!’ Because it’s not. You just did your part while you were there; you were welcomed, and you welcomed others, and when your time there was done, you went on to whatever was next.
“How about that, Tammerie? Can you deal with the Table as a way to think about church? Stop trying to think everything through. Just set the Table. What happens after that will depend on the folks who show up, and the Waitress.”
Yeah. This little yarn unspooling during a run may have just been my wiser side trying to get me to loosen up and let go of the outcome, knowing that I can talk myself out of almost anything if I get attached enough to what might go wrong — or right.
It’s stuck with me. And then, during yesterday’s run, another Douglas Adamism popped into my head. Early in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford tells Arthur that “The Guide says there is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
Ford ruefully admits he doesn’t quite have the knack; but he does have knees and elbows torn and worn through with trying.
I don’t have the knack of church planting; but I do have knees and elbows torn and worn through with trying to find what my heart knows is possible.
So, maybe for me the knack will lie in throwing myself into chance after chance to meet people, some of whom might have similarly crazy dreams, of a Table where all are welcome, where we all can come just as we are, where we can feed each other and resurrect each other and the Waitress will call us “honey.” And then someday, accidentally, we might all learn to fly.