I love writing on the train.
There’s something so therapeutic about being in close proximity with a handful of strangers, in a place where the scenery is always changing, always new. I have a deep respect and affinity for the unfamiliar.
When I was in college, I used to frequently ride the train with no destination in mind at all. I merely enjoyed the opportunity to observe and meet people, to stare out the window at the scrolling landscape, to be silent.
As I’m writing this, I am realizing how creepy I must have appeared on these rides, I’m sure there were many occasions where someone noticed that I was laughing at their corny joke or humorous reaction. As much as I would like to think of myself as a super sleuth, I’m fully aware that I am nowhere close to such a title.
Even now, sitting on the train watching the countless people walk past me or sitting near me, I am reminded of the precise inimitability of each person here. Each so specific and individual, and with no other perceptible commonality other than the decision to ride the 3:55 into the city. Some are chatting blissfully, while others don a hoodie and sunglasses -the universal signal for “Leave me alone or I may punch you in the throat.”
It is sometimes overwhelming for me to think that each person here brings with them a lifetime of stories, good and bad, triumphant and sorrowing, exhilarating and lackluster.
I think that many of us spend a lifetime trying to convince ourselves and others that the narrative of our past has no bearing on our present or our future. So often we pretend that our experiences are isolated incidents, meaningless in the greater composition that is your existence. And for those who have encountered great tragedy, I especially understand the appeal of that dogma.
When we all moved into our little Elgin house in 2006, I remember passing by this obscure little building in our neighborhood on a couple of occasions. It didn’t have any visible signage or markings except for an old neon sign that was never on. After a few weeks, our curiosity got the best of us and we decided to investigate this mysteriously bland building.
The first time we set out to examine the structure, it was obviously closed. We approached it with great hesitance, like a child who spots road kill for the first time. Once we mustered the courage to peek inside, it was pretty obvious that this was a bar of some kind. It was dark and murky, so we couldn’t decipher much past that so we resolved to return a different day.
Our second visit to the peculiar little bar was much more successful. This time, when we arrived all of the lights were on and the door was unlocked. Still rather unsure if entering was the wisest choice, we decided to give it a go. Upon entering, we observed a fairly standard dive bar atmosphere -but about an eighth of the normal size. I don’t know why we were surprised by how small a space it was, we had already thoroughly examined the exterior of the building. But I digress.
There were a few people scattered throughout, a half-functioning dart game in one corner, and a small television from the early 80’s mounted on the wall in the other corner. It was still dark, even though all of the lights were on; there was a haze of some sort hanging in the air. I don’t remember if it was cigarette smoke, or if this bar was part marshland.
Feeling a bit out of place, and knowing full well that every other person there was aware that we weren’t “regulars” by any stretch, we decided to sit down at the bar any way. Within 30 seconds of sitting down a man named Dave approached us and kindly introduced himself. He then proceeded to introduce us to literally every other person in that bar. He would point a person out, tell us their name, and then give us a brief snapshot of their life. We’d run over to shake the hand, and he’d do the same for the person next to them, and so on. Within a matter of fifteen minutes, not only did we meet every single person their, but we now knew a fraction of their story as well.
We actually ended up staying there for over three hours, talking, sharing, laughing, and even crying with the fine people of this strange community. We heard stories of all sorts, from all walks, and with varying degrees of absurdity. We played darts, shared our own stories, and even had the opportunity to tangibly show the love of Christ.
I walked away from that experience a little stunned and a little stirred. I remember specifically thinking, “If the Church could begin to live out the kind of love, acceptance, and devotion to community that I saw at this little bar, it could literally change everything.”
I know that I am not the only one who has had an experience like this. I suspect there a great deal of people who have been to a similar place and had their standards of what community can look like absolutely shattered. There is something deep-seated in our humanity that utters “yes” when we see that kind of love lived out. And the remarkable thing about most bars is that they don’t have mission statements, vision banners, sign-up sheets, or name tags. I’m certainly not against any of those things, but isn’t it astonishing that such mutuality can be forged so powerfully without any of those things?
Now I believe very ardently that acceptance is certainly not the only responsibility of the Church. Undoubtedly we must have both grace and truth. But what if we’ve been starting at the wrong point? What if unknowingly we’ve been communicating to the people around us that they must first get their act together before they are allowed to “darken the doors” of our sacred space? What if we could address the insecurity and lethargy in our communities head on and provide substantial avenues for moving towards healing from them. What if the things that keep us quiet and isolated on a train ride are the very things keeping so many broken and hurting people at an arm’s length from our congregations? What if we were able to see that our similarities aren’t simply that we happen to share an analogous space or proximity, but that we each are on a voyage and in desperate need of a savior?
What if we took Galatians 6 seriously, and applied it to every person we knew or met, not just those we liked?
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2)
I find it both interesting and heartbreaking that the people who literally ran up to Jesus, are the ones who are running away from the Church. The prostitutes, liars, cheaters, and beggars who were captivated by Christ’s message and lifestyle of redemptive grace, are the ones who feel the most condemned by his followers. And that is by no means a one-way street. Some people will condemn themselves before allowing anyone else the chance to show them differently. But don’t we have the responsibility to at least consider not only the identity of our churches, but also the methodology by which we love those around us? Should we be unsettled at how accustomed we’ve become with “doing church” without ever truly thinking of (and taking action towards) the marginalized around us?
I so desperately want to move past my hesitancy into the freedom of eagerness and persistence as I limp towards loving others as Christ did and does. Not simply in the cute and cuddly fashion we’ve come to understand, but the kind that revolutionizes entire communities and thoroughly upsets the status quo (and probably those who profit by it). After all, they don’t crucify people for merely being nice guys, do they?