May 10, 2009
“I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what God will say to me.” Habbakuk 2:1
People watching is fun. It just is. At least I think it is. My wife gets embarrassed when I watch people, probably because I lack discretion. She was taught to watch people by giving quick, diplomatic glances that won’t embarrass others or draw attention to yourself. Not me. I full on stare at people, like I’m watching TV. Chris will say, “Matt, stop staring at those people.” I’ll say, “What?! I’m not staring. I’m just watching someone else without turning my head or blinking.” There is probably some kind of rule about how long you can look at someone before it becomes staring. I’m sure that I’m straddling the border of propriety, but I learn a lot.
I like to make up stories about people Io watch and then categorize them. For instance, there was the elderly woman I saw who carried a shopping bad of white gloves, riding the T in Boston. Every time she touched something, she removed a glove from her hand, put it in a dirty glove bag, and then put on a clean glove. At the time, I worked at a boat propeller repair shop, and I was the dirtiest man in Boston. And I was smushed right next to this woman at rush hour. This falls into the category I call, “Better than a sitcom.” There are actually a bunch of handwear stories, like the one about a woman pushing a stroller. Instead of a cherubic child, she was pushing a stroller full of mittens through Central Park. Was she practicing for an impending birth? Doing a social experiment? Delivering mittens to her knitting group?
My favorite people to watch are the ones who have those “parent of the year” moments. We’ve all had them: those times when the kids are screaming in public and you hear words coming out of your mouth that sound just like the words your parents said to you and you promised you would never say them to your own kids. Here are some of my favorites, in honor of Mother’s Day:
From the “It must be hard to raise the Buddha” category: A crazed mother slapped her five-year old child and screamed, “Don’t you ever do that again!” The child looked serenely at the mother and said, “Well, are you happy with yourself?”
The “Mommy Dearest” award goes to a mother who pushed her small child in stroller in New York. The child said, “Mommy, why did you wake me up? Don’t wake me up when I’m sleeping!” The Mom answered back, “Fine. I’ll leave you on the train and you can miss your stop and then the rats will get you.”
Airports are great places to watch people. I once heard a kid say “Mom, am I fat?” The mother said, “Yes. Now get in the airplane.” The kid said, “Dad says I’m husky.” Pushing the child along, the mom replied, “ That means fat.”
To be fair, it’s not always the Moms who are mean. Like the mom at a diner who begged her son, “Please eat your dinner.” Her bratty child replied, “Mommy, you’re meaner than God.”We know about people watchers. But how about culture watchers. Who looks for trends and movements around us and helps us navigate these new times? The church has not always done a good job at this. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching about how churches find themselves in a strange new time. I’m comparing this to the experience of the biblical exile, when the Israelites were taken to Babylon.
- Like the biblical exiles we are being forced to live in a land and a culture that is quite foreign to what we knew years ago. You could call this land post-modern, post-Christian, secular, consumerist, or profane. But it is generally hostile to our faith and our spiritual community. It can be uncomfortable to be a devoted Christian.
- One of our primary feelings is loss. Church memberships are down, worship attendance is down. Churches have lost influence. We have less unity. We just aren’t what we used to be.
- As the biblical exiles were scattered and divided over the ancient Near East, so are we becoming divided and separated from one another. Our theologies, our politics, our language, our worship music … all seem to drive wedges between us.
- Like it was for the exiles this experience is long, and hard, and discouraging. It feels like God has abandoned the church. But, God is not done with us, and as it was in the Bible, we are returning to God and God is returning us to vitality by bringing us to something new a little here and a little there. Signs of growth and the new church are emerging.
The church needs watchers. During exile, we must look for what God is doing, and how God is using this experience to do something new.
There is another word we use to describe watchers. The word is martyr. It’s not a popular word anymore. When I hear the word martyr, I think of three things. First, I think of prayers to the Holy Martyrs, those Christian women and men who died because of their faith in Christ. You might see a Roman Catholic Church called Holy Martyr. Today, we also hear the word martyr connected to terrorism and religious fundamentalism. I also heard the word when I was growing up. In those moments of teen-aged self-righteousness, when I knew I was right and the whole world was persecuting me for my knowledge of the truth, I would rant about how cosmically unfair I was being treated. My mother would just smile and say, “Life is tough. You’re such a good martyr.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I knew she was being sarcastic.
The English word martyr comes from a Greek word that word means, “witness” — a person who testifies about the faith. A witness does two things. First, a witness looks for God. I witness the fact that God is everywhere and in every situation and so my life has nothing to do with my ego, my individual efforts, and my melodramas. Watchers, witnesses, are people watchers, culture watchers, and God watchers.
This is a difficult task today. A few decades ago, when Christianity was the unofficial religion of North America, and when half a dozen mainline denominations were the religious establishment of the country, our faith might have been described as “civic faith.” Churches provided a religious ethos for American culture and society. Supported by the culture, churches returned the favor by playing a useful role in society. Churches were the conscience of the community, standing on the forefront of change and calling the culture to accountability. Churches were the primary instruments of aid to the least fortunate in society. Churches were also the center for community life. This is no longer the case. In our secular and pluralistic society, there are many voices claiming to be the exclusive voice of God. Many organizations are into charity work: banks, schools, sports teams, non-profits. Families and communities no longer have one center. Life is now multi-centered, and the church fits in with people’s multiple loyalties. The church is one center, malls and shopping areas are another, the coffee shop or bookstore another, the sports field yet another. People now reject churches that claim godly character but seldom embody it. Petty squabbles among members, conflicts between clergy and laity, sexual and financial scandals convey that the church is no different than other human institutions
The point is, the church, once founded and established to make a difference in the lives of others, faces a time of change and confusion. It is a time of exile — a time of diminished purpose and vision. Our earlier roles — conscience of the community, instrument of aid, and center of the community — no longer define us. We lost track of where God is and what God wants us to do. No longer sure of our purpose, buffeted by social change, we have circled the wagons and tried to exist just for the sake of survival. Who will be the watchers? Who will be the witnesses? Who will be the new martyrs?
Watchers have a second job. The first is to observe. The second is to let our actions display what we see. With all my gloom and doom talk, it’s actually a great time to be part of the church. When we realize our new context, we realize that our purpose is not to support the state. Our purpose is not to teach good citizenship. Our purpose is not to form a social club or humanitarian aid group. Our purpose is to change lives. In the era of civic faith, people came to church because that’s what one was supposed to do. Today, I find that people come to church because they have questions. “How can I live a spiritual life? How can I get God in my life? How can I be different?” People long for depth, for meaning, for worship and spiritual practices that put them in touch with the sacred. A new kind of living is demanded of exiles. Today is our opportunity to live out our purpose and show others how God transforms us.
Here’s something I’ve noticed about people watching. Every once in a while, you get caught. Or, you realize that someone has been watching you. It’s true about us as well. In fact, we want to get to a place where we are caught. We actually invite people to watch us — to come and see. Come and see if faith can make a difference in your life. Come and see a church family who loves and cares. Come and see people who are committed to the work of change and healing. Come and see a congregation where worship is alive. Come and see people who don’t have all the answers but who search together for God.
The church needs watchers. So be ready to see the world in a new way, and get ready to live your faith in a way that shows others that God changes lives.