A Pergola

Be compassionate as God is compassionate. ~ Luke 6:36 (Jerusalem Bible)

Late this spring after the snow had melted and the grass turned green, I heard a child laughing, a dog barking, an infant crying, and a young mother tenderly talking outside my office by the pergola. I went outside to see if everything was all right. The little dog was wrestling with the young child and the mother was changing her baby’s diaper. “Oh, I’m sorry. Are we bothering you while you’re trying to work?” the mother asked. “Oh no, I’m fine. How are you doing?” I asked.

She folded up the stinky diaper, told her older child to be gentle with the dog, pulled a bottle of milk out of her diaper bag, and then the young mother sat on the grass while she fed her child. “I’ve had better days,” she said. “I don’t know how my mom did this.”

“I can remember when our kids were young. We were always tired.” “Yes,” she said while telling her dog to be gentle. “Are you sure we aren’t bothering you?” “You’re fine.” “The kids love the soft grass here.” “Good. Always feel welcome to come by.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I am positive. I’m Craig by the way.” She introduced herself, her children, and her dog.

Sometimes during the school year, I will hear kids telling colorful stories with vivid language, laughing, and carrying on. I step outside my office and three or four high school kids are sitting on the benches under our pergola. They stop in mid-sentence when they see me. Deer in the headlights. “How are yo all doing?” I ask. “Oh, we’re fine. We’re just eating lunch. Can we eat here?” “Oh yeah, you’re fine. If you could though, please throw your trash in the trash can behind this building.” “O.K., we will. Are you sure we can eat here?” “Yeah, it’s O.K.” I ask about teachers they have that our children had in high school, and we find a common ground.

One summer, in the late afternoons, an old man would sit with his dog on the bench under the pergola. “Are you the minister?” he asked the first time I saw him. “Yes, I am.” “My wife went to church, but I never did.” “Why didn’t you go?” I ask. “Pardon me for saying, but the church is just a bunch of hypocrites.” “Yeah, we’re human, but we also do a lot of good stuff, too.” “I suppose,” he said. “My wife was a good person. Can I sit here?” “Yes, and you don’t have to come to church to sit on that bench.” He laughed.

The Italian poet Carlo Carretto wrote of the church, “I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.”

Many of us, like Carretto, have a love-hate relationship with the church. I’ve sat in a church basement, when a mob of church goers voted to get rid of a pastor. I’ve participated in church gossip thinly veiled as “lifting a person or a couple up in prayer.”

And in hours of darkness, the church has held me and Jennifer. Members of our church showed up in the courtroom when the judge sentenced the man who took my sister’s life. The church was not there to condemn him but to love us. When my mother died and Jennifer’s mom as well, the church gave us space to grieve and to breathe. The church, despite its flaws, has always been a safe place to be human for me, but the church has not been a safe place for everyone.

At the end of this past June, I went to our annual conference. Thirty-eight churches formally disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church over our human sexuality debate. They do not believe LGBTQ people can be ministers and they do not honor same-sex marriages. One of those churches, the Meeker United Methodist Church, was the church that sent me out into ministry. It saddens me to see dear old friends leave our extended faith community.

What does it mean for us to see one another and the world with the eyes of Christ? Who is welcome and who is not welcome in the church? Who is in and who is out?

No one is left standing outside of God’s circle of compassion, Luke writes, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). Father Greg Boyle says, “If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. Compassion means dismantling the barriers that exclude.”

Bishop Karen Oliveto, our bishop, wrote in an open letter to our conference churches, “We will continue to ensure the dignity of every child of God, and make sure they are welcomed in our churches for who God has created them to be, not who we think they ought to be.” Love unites us; it does not separate us.

One morning when I arrived at our church, I found a folded-up blanket on the bench below the pergola. A couple of mornings later I found some cigarette butts and a couple of empty cans of beer. The next morning, I found a package of Hostess donuts with one left. Someone’s been sleeping here at night I thought.

One late evening, I walked around the back corner of our church and a man jumped up off the bench under the pergola. “I’m leaving,” he said. “I’m leaving.” “You’re O.K.,” I said. We talked and found out we had many common acquaintances.

“You’re welcome to stay here during the day if you’d like, but you can’t drink here,” I said. “Church policy.” “Oh, I don’t want you to get in trouble,” the man said. “Me either,” I said.

“And if you need to find a place to sleep at night, I think we can find a better solution.” “O.K.,” he said.

I do not know what happened to him, but as a church God’s grace calls us to create a community of belonging not exclusion. “Jesus taught and modeled inclusivity and forgiveness,” writes Rohr. It is possible. Yet, living in a community where all belong is very difficult and we need to set safe boundaries. Bishop Karen wrote, “I do believe God seeks a unity that defies our desires.” May we be a faith community where all are welcome to sit under the shade of the pergola as we struggle to be a community of belonging. Amen.

Blessings and peace,