A couple of weeks ago, Christianity Today posted an interview with Eric Jacobson, author of The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment.
He spoke in the interview (which is definitely worth a read) about what we’ve lost in the Church by suburbanizing ourselves. He spoke about the power of the parish and the idea that when a church is woven into the life of a neighborhood, it helps create shared living, true fellowship, in the same way that living in a place where homes, shops and offices all exist in a communal space encourages neighbors who encounter each other and know each other.
When your kids need a snack and you can walk down the street to grab a couple of bananas at the corner shop, or stop by the local café for an afternoon hot chocolate on a cold day, or when you can perform your daily tasks without needing the separation of enclosed vehicles; you are forced to participate with your world. If you have to walk city streets to get to Walgreen’s, it’s often impossible to shield your kids from the reality of homelessness. You are forced to confront its ugly existence with your kids beside you. You’re forced to not only talk about compassion but allow your children to witness your own response to the broken lives in front of you. Walking on the sidewalk demands community.
We moved back to San Francisco two weeks ago after being away for a little over a year. And there’s something I have been noticing in these short weeks back in urban living: This overwhelming city is beginning to feel small.
There’s something about being forced outside—outside the house, outside the (now nonexistent) backyard, outside the car—with your kids, that makes you talk to people. When there is no yard, you go to the neighborhood park and you interact with kids and parents and caregivers you never would have met otherwise. When your kids are going crazy in the afternoon and there’s nowhere for them to play, you head out for a walk in the neighborhood and see what you can find. You talk to the old lady with the cute white dog that she has crowned, “Princess of the Castro!”
And, here’s the thing. When you’re forced to get out of your house with your kids, you might as well be with other people. And that is why, amazingly, I’ve already had six (six!) play-dates with old friends these past two weeks.
I understand the attraction to suburban living. I loved having a backyard in our last house. I loved the ease of sending my four-year-old out to play by himself, fenced in and safe, while I actually accomplished something in my kitchen and peeked out the window every once in a while.
Sometimes, though, I spent more time accomplishing tasks than looking at roly-polies with my little boys. Sometimes, I missed the chance to be quiet and still and watch them pick up rocks and roll them in their hands. I forgot to be awed by their discovery of wind in the trees. Walking moments are holy. And sometimes, I simply need to be forced outside, away from the dishes and the papers and the crumbs on the floor.
These past two weeks have been re-teaching me how to move slower. It’s hard to walk anywhere with a four-year-old and a 19-month-old and be in a rush. I’m being reminded that there is time, time to not only pay attention to each other, but to pay attention to the strangers around us.
It’s hard to live in a city with kids. When I found out we were moving back to San Francisco this past summer, all I could think was: I can’t do this again. I need a yard. I need a garage. I need affordable housing.
But here’s what I’m remembering: Sometimes the hard thing is the richest and fullest and most satisfying. Sometimes the easy thing feels nice for a while, but it lacks depth. I’ve lived here before. I know that right now it’s sunny and 70 degrees everyday. But, come next July, when San Francisco is 55 and overcast, I’m going to be grouch. Right now, I’m giddy about our city sidewalk strolls. Soon I’ll be complaining about how dirty it is and how much I wish my kids could go explore in the woods and how terrible I feel for doing this to them and ruining them for life by making them afraid of bugs. Cities aren’t perfect. City living isn’t for every one.
The hard thing and the easy thing battle it out every day in my head.
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That same battle exists in our churches. And so I’ve been thinking: What if the Church began to take Eric Jacobsen’s advice and began to think of place and space as sacred? Would the richer, deeper work would begin to emerge? If neighborhood and community began to inform how churches reach cities and towns and suburbs, perhaps every kind of person in a community would begin to be cared for and welcomed and offered the gospel.
It’s difficult to find the people in need across the street. It’s difficult to create a church culture that embraces the impoverished, the life-wrecked, the person struggling with his or her sexual identity, the unimpressive.
But I can’t stop thinking how in nature, the hard thing is always the force that shapes the beauty.
Photo Credit: OmiB91 at Flickr