Hold a Space Please

September 16, 2013

Being shorter in stature, I am familiar with the concerns of being in a crowd. I remember attended a concert with a number of friends when I was significantly younger. We managed to carve out a space for the lot of us in the area in front of the stage where everyone presses forward during the music. There was little room to do anything but jump up and down to the beat. Inevitably, a friend and I decided to go get something to drink. We pushed out way through the crowd and out toward the back of the open air arena. As we turned around once we were free from the crush of people, we realized that we had just left the massive crowd, and like water, the people closed in after us, making clear that getting back in would be quite the challenge.

I think that is sometimes how communities are. I have been thinking about the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. (It’s actually a story about the Father, but that’s something we can visit a different point.) A boy leaves his family in pursuit of his selfish wants. But he doesn’t just leave his family. He leaves his family with an insult to his father. And when he insulted his father, he insulted not simply the whole family, but the entire village where he lived. What he did was essentially cut himself off from the community and went on his merry way.

We know from the scripture what happens to the son. What he does with the money he got from dear old dad. What we don’t know is what happened in the community after he left. I’m going to speculate a few things so bear with me. I wonder if most everyone in that community went on with their lives. They got up the next morning and kissed the kids good-bye when they went to work. They continued to knead the bread for supper and manage the household. They continued to save money for that rainy day and pay taxes. They continued on. Essentially, when the boy left, they closed ranks, filled in after him, and kept living life. Like most of us. Like many of our communities do.

Someone leaves us and while it may cause an uproar and some gossip for a few days, eventually we close rank too. In this son’s case this could have been a deliberate closing of rank- shutting him out as an outcast. Or perhaps it was just a gradual return to normal. Either way, the result is the same. People who step out- for good reasons or for bad- often find it difficult to reenter a community they once knew and loved.

This prodigal left for all the wrong reasons. But sometimes we must leave for good reasons. Sometimes we must leave to care for ourselves, or our families. Sometimes we must leave to tend to our spirituality or to heal. Sometimes we must leave because something occurred in that community that is so unbearable it cannot be healed without some absence from it. Sometimes we leave to get perspective. Sometimes we leave to rest. Sometimes we just leave. And the question is: does our community- our faith community- hold our space? Or do they close in after us and move on?

Again, we don’t know from scripture, but I wonder if there was one person who didn’t move on when he lost sight of his son on the horizon. I wonder if there was at least one person who still insisted the table be set for both his sons, even though one was missing. I wonder if there was still one person in that community who peered over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of his familiar face coming home. It certainly implies that the father was in fact holding his son’s place- in his heart, but perhaps even in the community- since the father notices the boy from a long distance and runs to meet him. And perhaps, just perhaps, the Father is holding our space too. Not allowing the crowds to press in to fill the void we leave behind. Keeping our place in the midst of the community we left- regardless of the reasons.

And if the Father does that, shouldn’t we? Instead of the turning our backs on those we once knew and loved, instead of closing ranks behind the person who left, instead of simply moving on as though it means nothing that that person is gone, wouldn’t it be more “Father-like” to save that space? To know that the natural impulse is to turn fill in the spaces and to resist that impulse because this person we love might return… will return?

When my friend and I were done getting our drinks, we faced the daunting task of getting back into the crowd and finding our friends. Breaking through the wall of people was the hardest part. No one wanted to let us in, unless one boy saw us and created a small space to let us break in. We stepped in. Then another person turned to let us push through. And another, and another. And eventually we found our friends, who had pressed out a bit, allowing space between them, knowing and anticipating our return, even as the pressure to pull in tight was so great around them. They had held a space for us.

That takes a great deal of faith to do that as a community. To remember that there’s someone you loved once who may need to return, and to not close rank. To instead make a space and hold it… with faith that that loved one will return. It may require strength you didn’t know you had. It may require belief in someone no one else believes in anymore. It may require a love that is tenacious even when everyone else has moved on.

But if you are someone who has stepped away, it is transforming to have someone look over their shoulder at you, make eye contact, and begin to press open room for you, a place that says to you, “I always knew you’d return home. Here, come stand by me. I’ve saved this space for you.” How Father-like, indeed.

One Response to “Hold a Space Please”

  1. […] ordaining faith tradition is not very good as saving places for people (see here).  It is not very good at including pastors who needed a break- for whatever reason, even good and […]

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