They said it was going to be a retreat. I was skeptical. Retreats offer spiritual exercises and spans of quiet time designed to nurture insight and to encourage renewal. By contrast, our weekend together was shaping up to be a blood-letting.

The vestry and clergy of our large suburban parish gathered at a Methodist Conference Center for what was billed as a time of visioning led by a highly-paid consultant. Along with our polo shirts and Bermuda shorts, some participants dragged along seething resentments and others smuggled in poorly concealed anxieties.

Tensions between the rector and the lay leadership had been mounting since before I had arrived as a newly minted priest the previous summer. A couple of assisting priests and I were loyal to our rector.

We recognized that he struggled with administrative tasks and delivered sloppy sermons. His vision for the parish was vague and uninspiring. And yet, we loved him. He was deeply kind and nurturing, generous and good-humored.

The morning unfolded with two increasingly rocky sessions. The unstated agenda among a strong core of the vestry was to announce their disappointment with the rector’s performance. There was bitter acrimony in the air from the beginning. The message was clear. The rector was incompetent and the consultant’s fee was an exorbitant waste of money.

syrian_refugee_child_627818052At the lunch break, members of the vestry stalked directly to the dining hall. Along with the other assisting clergy, I loitered with the rector. He had taken a beating. We wanted to make sure he still had a pulse and to reassure him that we still loved him.

As I emerged from the cafeteria line and looked for a place to sit, I noticed the vestry sitting at a large round table. I made my way there only to see that all the seats had already been taken. Every head turned my way. Some faces bore an embarrassed expression. Others uncertainty and mistrust. A couple of people gave me the stink eye.

No one offered to make space for me at the table. Somebody muttered that they were all about to leave anyway. There was some awkward shuffling, but nobody moved.

Finally I said, “Don’t worry about it. I can just sit right over here.” I sat alone at an adjacent table.

This memory came back to me when I read a very different dining hall story by my friend Diana Butler Bass.

Early in her Freshman year at college, Diana carried her tray into the school’s vast dining hall searching for a place to sit. The room was filled with unfamiliar faces and the chatter of people already in comfortably established groups.

Then someone she had met at Orientation called out for her to join her. When Diana got to the table, she saw that all the seats were taken.

As Diana began to turn away to another table, her new friend started pushing plates aside to make a space for her. “There’s always room for one more,” she said. (Grounded, p. 240)

There is always room for one more. But we do have to make space for her. For them.

I had known each of these vestry members before that wretched retreat and awkward lunch experience. We liked each other well enough. In fact, I had grown close to some of them. All of them were good, kind, generous people. And yet, they couldn’t make room that day.

As I look back on it, I realize that all of us come to a place where making room for one more seems not only unattractive but downright hazardous. So, we build walls. Walls to protect us from them. And we shrink and wither, neglect others and diminish ourselves with the very barriers that we thought would make us safe and strong.

So I guess it should come as no real surprise that Jesus identifies himself as a gate. The Church calls the fourth Sunday of Easter Good Shepherd Sunday. We read different portions of John’s tenth chapter every year.

Preachers and teachers invite us to imagine Jesus as a gentle shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. Kitschy artists and artisans could not have asked for a better subject. Sweet Jesus carries each of us as his precious lambs.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but the Good Shepherd narrative includes the odd, unromantic image of Jesus as the gate in the sheep pen. He says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:9) Jesus is more interested in gates than he is in walls.

We build plenty of walls. That’s our problem. What we need is a gate.

Many of us remember the adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” And maybe you’re thinking something like that right now.

That phrase came to many of us from Robert Frost’s familiar poem The Mending Wall. And there’s an irony—and perhaps a fearful resistance—at work when we recall it. You see, we’re either unwittingly or deliberately recalling it out of context.

As my friend Diana Butler Bass reminds us, the poem deliberately and artfully calls the virtue of building walls into question. Listen the first line of Frost’s poem: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

peeking through wallAs the two men collect and stack the tumbled rocks, one man begins to wonder about the wisdom of such a wall in the first place. After all, a pine forest grows on his neighbor’s land. An apple orchard grows on his. They are building the wall just for the sake of separation. Pines and apple trees don’t pose a threat to one another.

The second man utters the phrase about fences and neighbors unreflectively. It’s what he learned as a child, I suppose. He remains untroubled by his neighbor’s musings. His words fall upon deaf ears.

And yet. There remains something that doesn’t love a wall. The frozen rain and the shifting earth, the burrowing rabbits and the frantic beagles never stop their work. Ragged gates keep tumbling open by a force that neither neighbor can resist or eradicate.

The question is only this. Will they have the courage to pass through that gate? To welcome others as they pass through? Or will they scramble again and again to shore up their walls?

Jesus doesn’t say that he is the sheep pen. He is the gate. The gate through which the sheep can come and go.

Later in the chapter he adds, “I have other sheep that do no belong to this fold.” And yet he wants one flock. Not a confederacy of separate sheep pens. Those many folds—all of those us and them divisions maintained by the walls we build—will become one flock only if the sheep pass freely through the gate.

So, as you sit at your comfortable place at the table, remember that it’s actually not your table. It is Christ’s Holy Table. It might seem full to you. But Jesus sees things differently. There’s always room for one more. You might just need to shove some of your plates aside to make space.

37 Comments

  1. Hi Jake — This is the first time I have commented on one of your essays, but I felt I must. It must be a God-thing, a coincidence, a synchronicity, or whatever you want to call it. Today before reading your post I was reading an essay in Barbara Kingsolver’s 2002 book “Small Wonder” — in which she references this very Robert Frost poem. (It is the first essay in the book and has the same title.) I haven’t figured out yet how I am going to respond to all this nudging; so I’ll just have to keep you posted. Keep nudging! Your posts are always insightful and thought-provoking!

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    1. Hi Pat! Thanks for telling me about the God-thing we’re caught up in. Let me know how this nudge goes! And thanks for reading! I’m really glad you took the time to leave your thoughts.

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  2. One of my favorite children’s Christmas books is “There’s Always Room for a Little One.” It makes me joyful and it makes me cry and it gives me hope. As do your blogs. Thank you.

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  3. “So, we build walls. Walls to protect us from them. And we shrink and wither, neglect others and diminish ourselves with the very barriers that we thought would make us safe and strong.”, how incredibly true! We have the power within us to over come the obstacles in front of us, but we simply choose to pick up bricks and start stacking! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

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    1. And thank you for “Artificial Comparison.” I really enjoyed that post. I think we’re talking about similar spiritual struggles in these two posts. Hiding and faking it from fear of not being loved or from fear of being hurt run pretty deep with us humans.

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  4. Reblogged this on I'M NOT A LIFE COACH and commented:
    Tuesday Wisdom from Jake Owensby. I related with the opening scene where people are being charged incredible amounts of money for what the author describes as a “blood bath”, and was pleasantly surprised at the lesson it led to:

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    1. Thanks for reblogging this post. I especially appreciated “Duality” over at your blog. While I know that you avoided using the word “suffering,” I came away wondering if some of my own reflections about suffering might not connect with what you were saying. Thanks for getting me thinking this morning.

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  5. thank you for writing this. As a disciple of Jesus, I am confounded sometimes by people who profess to be christians – baptist, methodist, episcopalian (I am a “recovering episcopalian” I tell my Episcopal friends) who are often don’t have room at the table for ‘weak’ faith, an uncomfortable questioner, or one of ‘you people

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    1. Other people still stretch me and challenge me. But I think that this is part of spiritual growth. That’s not to same that I don’t experience growing pains. I’m curious why you’re a “recovering episcopalian.” Don’t want to pry, but it sounds like an interesting story. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to reach out in a comment, David. It is a shame that we build walls, but as you know we humans have been doing that sort of thing one way or another for a long time. And it seems to me that the Gospel urges us to keep at dismantling them. The work goes on.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for putting this out there Jake. It got me thinking about a poetry window I’ve started at our church. I’ve copied Robert Frost’s Mending Wall for this month’s poem, it seemed appropriate some how. It will also let me move my “Why am I surprised ” poem which has been up a little too long!

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  7. Wonderful reading…the images of the two tables, one of younger people, so image conscious and struggling to be seen as fitting in, all scooting over to make room vs the other table, one full with people of generous heart and spirit in their working life who could not find the compassion to make room for one more in their ‘down’ time….

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    1. Thanks for reading with such a keen eye, Kathleen. And thank you for the tender stores over at your blog. “Acceptance in the Now” was a powerful portrait of grace. And “Turn Left Here” lifted my spirits and put a smile on my face. I want to follow you, but I couldn’t find the follow button. I keep trying.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thankyou for this post . It reminds me of the themes of Phil Yanceys book ” what’s so Amazing about Grace” , where we need to exhibit inclusion and grace in all aspects of our lives .

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    1. Thank you, Sandy! I think Philip Yancey and I have much in common in how we approach grace. And I love your illustrations over at your blog. A Boy and his Dog (The Adventures of Henry) was where I started, but I was charmed by the whole illustrations page. I look forward to seeing what you do in the future with your trusty tablet (and I’m amazed that you draw such terrific stuff that way).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Loved this piece. I was immediately drawn to the title. It reminded me of the song: “there’s room at the cross for me”. Very profound message especially the walls and Christ as the gate. Indeed it’s not our table!

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    1. Thank you! And thanks for reminding me to keep dancing over at “God is Trying to Hook…” At some point I finally heard it when someone told me to quit looking for a way to make life turmoil and challenge free. She told me to accept that each day will bring struggles and work on being the person who will be okay with that. That’s what your post made me think of. Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I am so grateful and thankful that I’m not where I use to be, but if I’m honest, I am still not where I want to be. I want to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. I want to be able to make a difference in peoples lives and help them. I want to be that encourager that people come to. I want to be that friend that people look to. I want to be that lover that my wife is drawn to.

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    1. We’re all a work in progress. My theology professor once said that, in this life, we take a few steps in the million mile journey. There is always something more that grace will make of us.

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