It’s been two years since we made the emotional decision to close out a four year journey with our downtown faith community known as Common Table. A number of times these past few years I have been asked to do a “post mortum” of sorts. To be fair, no one has ever been insensitive enough to call it that. Usually its been in the form of asking “What have you learned?” … “What are your thoughts?” … “Could you sum up?” All of these fairly kind and thoughtful questions that nevertheless play out in my head as “What went wrong?” or “Why did this fail?”.
Over six years ago the dream we had of an ancient-future type of table gathering as an expression of church seemed completely off in left field. We were generally unaware of it taking place other than in a small group context or outreach expressions of benevolence. It wasn’t copied, this was internalized through something undeniably spirit led. It wasn’t until we began that other similar expressions were revealed, not unlike when you buy a particular model of car and then all of a sudden your eyes are drawn to everyone else who has what you had previously thought to be unique. Along our journey others borrowed what we were doing, which was certainly flattering and reaffirming. We began to see books about it and see it expressed in other contexts. If you’ve never done something outside the boundaries of normal you may not understand how valuable the fleeting and momentary affirmation can be. My experience is that it doesn’t come from the establishment, affirmation I mean … generally you get sideways glances and questioning stares that are more likely to erode confidence than to fuel determination. In those settings, success … in my opinion anyway, comes to those who are determined to hold the line on the vision. I didn’t do that. I yielded to the norm and the questions of my sanity on too many occasions and ultimately it became impossible to reconcile the dream and the norm. If I saw failure today the same way I saw it then, I’d offer that as the “post mortum” or the “what went wrong”. Two years ago we closed out Common Table because I hadn’t been able to elevate the inner voice over the outer voices. Fortunately, and most likely the reason I am able to, for the first time, process all of this is that I do not see failure the same way. My field of observation has changed.
This month my wife and I celebrated 35 years of marriage. Earlier this Summer she had a profound idea to celebrate the occasion with 35 days of photos … one day of photos from each of the 35 years. It was an emotional and cathartic journey for us to scour through and organize moments captured over 35 years of a amazing and adventurous journey together. It wasn’t until we hit 2013 … year 29 of our journey … that we began to wade into our chapter known as Common Table. Over the course of the next 4 days, in the midst of some of our greatest family moments, I began to relive our moments with those who chose to join us on our journey to experience what it meant to commune, worship, and serve around a table centered on Jesus… each photo recording moments of grace experienced in profound and often unrecognized ways. Each photo replaying and elevating the voice of the Spirit previously so hard to distinguish over the noise of expectation and traditional metrics of success. During those four days and repeatedly since a new voice has broken through that has finally enabled me to see this chapter for what it really was … at least in the eyes of the only one who really matters. This was a resounding success. We weren’t crazy, careless or irresponsible. While everyone else wanted to know if this “could sustain itself?”, “would hundreds of people come?”, “could we pay staff?”, we set out to simply answer a different set of questions; “What could happen if a Christ centered, Christ proclaiming, Christ serving group was formed around a table (or tables) instead of in rows? What if we looked at faces instead of the backs of heads? What if we ate and drank, prayed, served, laughed and cried together? Would lives be changed? Would people see Jesus? Would there be a noticeable void in the neighborhood if we weren’t there? It turns out that the traditional metrics didn’t matter. The answer to the questions that really mattered turned out to be a resounding “Yes!”
Years ago I asked myself whether or not I’d lead a church if I weren’t getting paid to do it. My answer at the time was “of course I wouldn’t … what a ridiculous question”. The journey of Common Table forced me to ask that question of myself again and in that context I really began to question my previously held and commonly accepted opinion that success equals payroll. Towards the end of the journey I had finally resolved that, although one obviously does need a source of income, successful Christian community does not find its value in my pay check. I am certainly not judging or condemning paid staff. For nearly 20 years I had been paid for leading a community and I may return again to it someday … but the voice we were following never promised that in this instance. Supporting organizations and peers were certainly expecting it, but the voice was only calling us to faithfulness to the dream. Unfortunately I didn’t hear that in the midst of it … not until finally taking a breath and seeing the moments of grace we recorded along the way. Next time I won’t make that mistake.