Narrating Grace

Ocean-side Faith

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A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the magical little town of North Wildwood, NJ.  Granted, I may love the town because I spent my time there with dear friends I haven’t seen in person in three years.  We spent our time together talking (and talking and talking), reading for hours at the beach and exploring the local delights.  We found a bagel shop where local residents (and those who’ve owned vacation homes there for years) could walk in on a quiet morning, sneak into the kitchen, and dress up their own bagel.  While playing trivia at a local establishment one evening, the local handyman haggled us from the opposite corner of the bar.  Everyone was friendly as we walked down the street or on the sea wall next to the ocean.  The conversations with strangers rarely stopped at hello—they all seemed to genuinely want to know about us and introduce us to their beloved town.  Their extraordinary friendliness almost made me wonder if I’d return home to a new slew of Facebook friend requests and wedding invitations.  Not to be, although I’m sure if I crashed their parties they’d welcome me in without any questions.
And oh, the ocean.  Our first morning there it was sprinkling and windy, yet I pulled on my shoes and set out for my first-ever ocean-side run.  The waves were active while I ran, crashing against the shore with insistence while whitecaps waved frantically.  A ship settled far off the coast in the fog and seeing it made me feel lonely as it sat in the vast empiness.  The ocean’s power is in its ability to make us feel simultaneously frightened and calm.  There’s peace and comfort to be found along with a reminder we’re only a small part of God’s good creation.
One of my friends kept saying, “The people here love it so much, and they want us to love it just as much.”  Their passion was contagious.  I’m still thinking about North Wildwood as I enter back into my patterns of leading worship and talking about the mission of the congregation I serve.  I know mission and evangelism are about more than hospitality and getting people into the building.  I know it’s about listening (and listening again) to the community around us as we look to reforming for the present and future.  I know it’s not about making our congregation welcoming enough.  Even if we built a perfect building, others may not come.  I know it’s about finding our unique mission.   
Yet I can’t get North Wildwood out of my head.  The people there drew me in by their passion and their genuineness.  As we walked past a neighbor of the condo we rented, each time he’d tease us about helping him wash his driveway.  A man sat by us as we watched the ocean, talking about the recent rise of the tide.  The people noticed us and treated us like we were worth a bit of conversation.  Their friendliness was contagious and heartwarming.

What if we, people of God, displayed such unabashed passion for our faith and our congregations?  We may not have a beautiful ocean-licked town, but we do have a bigger-than-the-ocean God who claims us at a font full of water made holy.  We want people to walk into our church kitchen to dress their own bagel (or coffee) as they talk with local friends and neighbors.  Our faith brings us such joy, peace and comfort.  We can speak of our faith the way the people of North Wildwood talk about their little piece of the ocean—with pride and welcome, hoping people will become part of our community and come back again and again.  Day-to-day life is different than a vacation at the ocean, yet we need to remember people are at a congregation for only moments–a vacation from and for life each Sunday.

I don’t have answers, but I know my experience of hospitality was powerful enough that I’m still thinking about it.  So I’ll continue to ponder what hospitality will look like in our changing churches and culture.   


                                            The view from my first ocean-side run.

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