Last weekend, I had the opportunity to gather near Atlanta, Georgia, with about 40 other people to think about the life of the Christian community in general and The Episcopal Church in particular. It was an unusual gathering as such things go in the church. No attention was given to who was ordained and who was not. We were of many different generations and came from around the country, but one only discovered another’s background through conversation. And, perhaps most radical of all, the gathering was convened with no expectation that there would be an outcome. No product was produced, no plan was articulated. The point of the gathering was simply to gather, to encounter one another, to have conversation and exchange ideas, and thereby to encounter the Christ in one another, the living God among us.
Biblically speaking, there are two images that emerge that seem to me to serve as analogies of what I experienced with this extraordinary group of people. The first was the image of the feast. While the Last Supper occupies a place in the New Testament as the feast par excellence, the scriptures are in fact filled with images of people sharing meals together. Jesus and his followers do this, Jesus does this with people who are not entirely comfortable with him, and the early Jesus followers of the latter part of the New Testament do this, as well. Feasts have wonderful qualities about them: everyone has a place at the table, everyone is fed, people encounter one another in unique ways. Conversations abound. People get to know one another more intimately. And, the biblical feasting stories strongly suggest that these are luminous moments when spiritual connections are formed between those at the table and the God who is somehow in the midst of them. The feast is a kind of open space in the Bible where profound things can happen. Our gathering last weekend was just such an open space.
The other biblical image that comes to mind is the story from the book of Acts of the disciples gathered together, awaiting the coming of the Spirit. The story is full of wind, fire, and cross-cultural connection as each person present hears the good news proclaimed in her or his own language. But before this happens, the disciples are following an instruction which Jesus gave them: to wait. Another way of putting this is that Jesus invited the disciples to create an open space between and among them, a space for prayer and discernment. And into the midst of this open space the energy of the Spirit flows in unexpected ways, forming new connections and leading the disciples into new possibilities. Last weekend’s gathering was also this kind of open space.
I have taken away many things from that gathering, most of which I am still processing in some way. But one of the most important things I took away is how valuable – and how rare – such open spaces are in the lives that most of us seem to be living. Whether we are speaking of secular culture or church culture, we generally don’t seek to create open spaces where we can simply encounter and be with on another in all the sacredness of our humanity. Rather than conversing, we often spend more time talking at or past each other. We want to categorize everyone we meet as soon as possible according to their work, gender, race, religion, politics, and social position. We seem to have a need to place a label upon everyone we meet as quickly as possible, and then any open space shrinks to closure as we assign to one another all the assumptions that come with the label we have created.
But this is not the way of Jesus. He went about creating open spaces as often as possible, filling them with feasting and Spirit-filled energy. And in doing so, he gave people the precious gift of encountering each other in all the sacredness that is the foundation of each and every human being. And so this week, I find myself thankful for the holiness of open spaces, and I find myself called to help our faith communities to be servants of such open spaces. It could perhaps be the greatest gift we could give to church and society in our time.