In a rare moment of weakness I ventured into the mall a few days ago. At a T-Shirt kiosk I saw a shirt with this logo on it….

 Do not disturb!
I’m disturbed enough already

 I almost bought it, but I thought it might be overstating the obvious for me to wear that t-shirt.  I was at Clergy Conference this week in Niagara Falls and I saw a different sign that reminded me of the T-Shirt I saw a few days ago. I arrived for the opening worship on Wednesday a few minutes late. My colleagues were all assembled in the beauty and majesty of the chapel at the Mount Carmel Retreat Center. I locked the car and jogged up to the steps (ok, no I did not jog, I walked – briskly!) When I got to the bottom of the steps and could hear the beautiful singing from within, my heart leapt with joy and anticipation for worship. I looked up and there before me I read this sign ….

At the Mount Carmel Retreat Centre in Niagara Falls

The chapel is now CLOSED for a “RELIGIOUS SERVICE!” I could not resist taking this photo.  Being a priest of the church I was not shy about walking past the sign toward the inviting sounds of Angus Sinclar’s music and the unified voices of the clergy of our Diocese in song. When I got inside I thought, is that sign just another way of saying – Do not disturb! It was crafty to use such soft colour tones and such a pretty font, but the message here is not  subtle; “The religious people are praying, come back when we are done.” It may as well say – Do not disturb, we are disturbed enough already.

I suspect our conference organizers did not know that sign was there each time we worshipped because the spirit of worship that was offered would have been most open to any and to all. [I hasten to add that they did a fine job of planning a great conference – thank you for these past three days!]  Now I realize that the retreat house uses that sign when worship is happening because there are plenty of tourist who might wander into the worship space. But I ask; what if they did? What would happen if a stranger cam and stood among us?

What if the sojourner walked in the midst of her/his brokenness? What would the pilgrim find? Would he or she find a place of hospitality or a place of hostility? This is very serious question that we need to ask in our communities. The theme of our days together revolved around circles of dignity. The words that heard again and again these past few days were. ‘Dignity demands a response!’ I could not hold that phrase and that sign together – they are simply incongruous. How many of our congregations have this same message at the door? We do not need to have a well constructed sign with fancy font at the door to communicate that very same message. How often when people come to see us for the first time do they find that they are disturbing us? How often do people find us closed for religious service? It happens in subtle ways. For example, perhaps we are so caught up with being a ‘family’ that we forget that one can never really join another family. Perhaps we find ourselves using words or music that is foreign to many who are unfamiliar with church. Perhaps we find it obtrusive to the liturgy to announce pages or hymn numbers so we don’t. To the one who has never seen a Prayer Book, a BAS, or a Common praise – we are basically saying, we are all busy doing our thing, we’ll be with you shortly for a coffee. Perhaps we have seats we like to sit it and get annoyed when a stranger sits in ‘our seat.’ Perhaps while we smile at the visitor in our midst that cannot hide the scowl we have for our fellow church member who we are fighting with at the moment….I could go on…but you get the idea. There are many ways that we communicate by what we say or do, or fail to say or do.

We need to be reminded that the face of Jesus visits us regularly. Often the stranger brings so much of him/herself and it is often in an attempt to seek peace, sanctuary, rescue, forgiveness… we are, all of us, searching to have a balm for our brokenness. In the Wounded Healer Henry Nouwen asserts,    

 When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.  Through this common search, hospitality becomes community.  Hospitality becomes community as it creates a unity based on the shared confession of our basic brokenness and on a shared hope.  This hope in turn leads us far beyond the boundaries of human togetherness to Him who calls people away from the land of slavery to the land of freedom. A Christian community is therefore a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision  Mutual confession then becomes mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.

 Trouble is we cannot and we will not ever allow that community to be made real if we can’t bother being disturbed or interrupted in our moment of worship. I really enjoyed the time our clergy had with Dr. Gerald West and his Wife Beverly Haddad who was our guest preacher.  They reinforced the idea that dignity demands a response. Perhaps one of the first of those responses to dignity will be to remove those real and figurative signs that tell others that we are closed.

Is your/my Church community ‘closed for religious services?’ What are we to do about it?