Friday, November 30, 2007

God in the Common Places

I was in my "office" again today - the Second Cup coffee shop at Promenade Mall. I have a hard time being productive when I'm just sitting at my desk in the basement of my house. It helps me focus when there is a lot of "white noise" activity going on around me. I get more reading done. I can journal better. I can even write better sitting in a busy place.

But that's not the only reason I go to the mall. I like to watch people. I like waiting for divine appointments. I like to see the interactions that happen "in passing." I wrote this following article for a newsletter a few years ago as I was trying to understand the concept of what I now know as Missio Dei or "the missional God" - the one who becomes like us and goes out from where He is to be with us. He is the incarnational God - God with us - Immanuel. Here's the article ...

It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Monday. The regular crowd shuffles in. I have a large Paradiso Dark on my table and a Billy Joel tune floating through my mind. I can hear the gentle splash of the fountain providing a pleasant white noise in the background. It’s highlighted by the staccato clank-clank of spatula against grill from the Japanese food outlet. There’s that unique hubbub a hundred voices make in a large room - occasionally punctuated by the excited scream of a toddler or the high pitched beep of a cell phone.

I watch the people. It’s amazing: the diversity of humanity that you see in a public place. The retirees sitting alone reading the paper. An older woman writing a dollar store birthday card to her granddaughter. An impossibly young teenage mother pushing a squirming, straining baby in a stroller. A nervous young guy with a black Roots toque pulled low, waiting for his dealer to come by. An old man with a full grey beard, and grey lifeless eyes, drinking coffee – looking all the world like life has used him up. The group of four or five older men having an animated discussion in a language I don’t recognize. The four teenagers from the high school, cutting class to meet with their boyfriend or girlfriend. The weird, but harmless looking guy with the silly grin, who picks up his coat and bag to change his seat every five or six minutes. He’s changed his spot eight times since I’ve sat down.

At 12:03 the place starts to buzz with the growing lunchtime crowd. Teenagers are ten deep at the McDonald’s counter. The tables fill up quickly. Security makes an appearance – standing around the edges, keeping an eye out for trouble. The guard stares for a moment at four young guys at a table near me and quickly walks over to them. I wonder what they’ve done wrong. “Sorry guys. No card playing allowed.” Crazy Eights is apparently a restricted activity here.

By 12:40 the room has become quieter again and there are no kids from the high school anymore. Only the real regulars are left – the harmless, weird guy, the seniors, moms and their kids, the unemployed guy going through the want ads, and a few “suits” still on their lunch break. Especially endearing is the older gentleman sitting two tables over, hands in his lap, patiently waiting for his wife to return from shopping. You can tell he’s done this a thousand times before.

I love to watch people. I enjoy interacting with people. I especially notice the people sitting alone, reading the paper – or more often than not, just looking around. Once in a while I have a conversation. Sometimes I see someone I know.

Yes, I’m at the mall. The mall has become the modern public square – the modern marketplace, the new human crossroads. A busy mall may see tens of thousands of people come and go every day. It provides employment for a thousand people at any one time. It’s a place people go to shop, to access professional services. It is increasingly becoming a place to go when there’s nothing else to do. It has become something of a social outlet for many – especially for youth, seniors and for others looking for connections. As a result, a mall not only provides commercial products and services, but has become in many respects a meeting place, a place to hang out, a living room.

People come to a mall because they are lonely and looking for human contact; looking for something to change their desperate existence. They may come because the prospect of facing four walls with only a TV for company is too daunting.

People come longing for things they may not be able to afford, filling their credit cards with debt they can't handle. It’s where tired mothers go when they don’t know what else to do with the kids. It’s a place estranged fathers take their children - struggling to entertain them during their one visit a week. Teenagers go to the mall – desperately wanting to fit in with the crowd at the food court – and willing to do almost anything to find acceptance. These are not just financial and commercial issues. These are social issues. More importantly these are spiritual issues.

The public crossroad places of life (malls, coffee shops, school parking lots, book stores) are places of safety and familiarity for people. For one reason or another people do not perceive the church to be a safe place any more. People tend not to share their innermost longings, doubts and self-destructive, sinful habits with the complete stranger at the equally strange church fellowship time – especially if they think (rightly or wrongly) they are going to be judged for being sinful. Why reveal yourself too candidly to people who you perceive to be “holier than thou’? Paradoxically, they will share their innermost longings, doubts and struggles to overcome destructive habits with a complete stranger at the coffee shop, knowing that they may never see that person again.

I believe people deeply need to be listened to. They are desperately interested in the healing touch of God, something that can transform dull, impotent, sick, meaningless routine, into vibrant, useful, healthy and purposeful living. People are seeking to be changed.

In order to be effective in the new millennium, we need to prioritize our time to be purposely spent, not in church meetings, but in the public crossroad places of life being with people. Can we take time to listen to people who are willing to speak candidly in an anonymous atmosphere free from fears of judgement? Can we hear the longings of the lonely? Can we read between the lines of conversation to discern the doubts, self-recriminations, and dreams of the people? Are we willing to take the risk to invest our lives encountering people we have not yet met?

The mall is one of those common places where people hang out, waiting for connection, and longing for transformation. God is in the common places. Too bad the church isn’t.

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