As I made my Sabbatical Journey last fall, I had the opportunity to stop along side the road and see sites that causes me to stop and think. On one particular day, I was driving down a road that I had no plan to travel, out in the middle-of-nowhere South Dakota. There are not words to describe how “out there” this road was. As I rounded the corner, I came upon a church alongside the road. The site that I saw was so compelling, that I stopped and spent 45 minutes to an hour just looking, listening to the prairie wind blow through the grass, and hearing the Holy Spirit speak to me.
The picture here looks pretty cool. The cross, on the steeple of the church, silhouetted against a crystal-clear, azure blue sky spoke immediately to me of the grace that God was so freely pouring into my soul on this journey. While this picture spoke immediately, and powerfully to me, it was the rest of the scene, that unfolded before me that reached deep into my soul, and has not escaped me to this very day.
You see, this scene was repeated to me on at least three other occasions, in very diverse locations across the 13,000 miles I spent behind the wheel of a rented pickup truck. On four occasions, I saw these roadside churches, out in the middle of nowhere. Each of them had the same haunting appearance. Each of the churches stood as a mute witness to some events, probably not a single cataclysmic event, rather years of small decisions and occurrences which resulted in the state in which I found them, empty. Each church building stood empty. Windows were broken out, or removed. Doors flapped open in the relentless prairie breeze. Furnishings had been taken out, or left behind in the decrepit fashion that negligence brings with it.
I found myself wondering what led to this sorry state of repair. After about 20 or 30 minutes, my eyes fell to a sight that you can see in the foreground of this picture, a barb-wire fence. With everything in my soul, I wanted to go inside, sit down and be alone with God. The barb-wire fence kept me from walking up and entering into this building that had formerly been a sanctuary. I thought, ever so briefly about stepping over the fence and going in anyhow, there was a fence gate at the over-grown drive way. A quick reflection on the consequences of trespassing in the west caused me to choose NOT to take that track.
As I stood there, mesmerized by the beautiful, tragic site of this prairie ghost-church, this site became a parable for me.
You see, so many congregations are in the process of passing from existence because they erect fences, rather than open doors and extending hands. No, we may not put up visible, barb-wire fences, but our actions, our words, our methodologies all communicate the very same message that this barb-wire communicated to me; “You are not welcome here.” It was as if this silent building was saying to me, “Come. Look. See. But do not stay. There is no community for you.”
All to often, we are so busy protecting our turf (physically, intellectually, emotionally) that we forget to be open, hospitable, and loving to the world to which we are called to witness. Outsiders may come, but they rarely stay for this simple reason, we are not open to bringing them into our fellowship, into our community. Oh, we probably don’t think we are cold and unwelcoming. The reality is, we don’t extend invitations. We don’t go out of our way to involve ourselves in the lives of others. We simply don’t get involved. In other words, we say to the world, “You are not welcome on my turf.”
Well, that is my wonderings today. I hope they give you the pause to stop and think, “Am I building fences?” or “Am I building community?” Ask yourself, “Does my church REALLY welcome outsiders?” or are they an inconvenient fact of life?
Well, I am just pondering…