Friday, January 13, 2017

Danger! Do Not Enter!

       Last Friday, I acted as a sort of co-host for a group of church historians here, in Denver, for an annual conference. My part, as co-host, was to help put together a tour of some significant religious spaces in Denver. It was as fun project, and, even though I had been in some of the buildings before, it was instructive to hear the "tour guides" talk about the spaces. You'll always learn something: about the religious tradition, about symbolism, about local history, about architecture, about finances, about the environment's impact on buildings.
       One of the buildings we visited was surrounded by chainlink fencing, scaffolding and tarps. We had to go in via a side door, and just as we entered, I noticed a sign attached to the fence:  "DANGER  DO NOT ENTER". I commented to some of the guests, "Now, that's an interesting sign to have posted just outside a church!" Chuckles ensued. We entered anyway, and were treated to a lovely interior -- no scaffolding or tarp -- and gracious and informative tour guide.

       As the week has gone by, however, I found myself returning to that sign and its message: "Danger Do Not Enter". I thought of a couple of alternate (i.e., non-buildling-construction) interpretations.  The first might not be particularly flattering to some religious institutions.  Many religious bodies have seen dramatic declines in attendance because of particular positions they have staked-out on thorny social issues; depending on one's personal stance on those issues, entering that building might be "dangerous". Other people have fled "religion" because they have felt that they have had to "park their brains at the door" (or outside the "Danger" sign). Still others have found either the worship/preaching, or congregation, verging on "shallow"--a religious sort of "elevator music". In all cases, preserving one's integrity or sanity might have them in agreement with "Do Not Enter."
       I also considered a second, perhaps a "flip-side", interpretation. I don't want to reprise last week's reflection on  "A bit o' commitment" (although there are certainly resonances) but at their best, religious institutions often challenge people to reconsider some of their long-held beliefs or habits. That reconsideration might indeed be dangerous; making a decision to move in one direction can rule out other paths. As we have seen throughout history (including in our contemporary world), affiliation with a particular religion can mean ostracism from family, or even a death sentence, in a hostile-to-that-tradition country. Yet people often do find something compelling enough to make a "dangerous" change.
      And as I thought a bit more about the "Danger Do Not Enter" sign, I also began to contrast it with another sign more often found outside places of worship: "Visitors Welcome!". The cynical side of me wonders whether some of those places of worship might bend over backwards to make visitors feel good rather than challenging them to make a change. I certainly don't want to paint those worship-centers with that broad of a brush, but raising the question of whether a faith commitment is "dangerous" or "welcome" seems, to me, to be a conversation worth having. That is, what might be so compelling that someone might ignore the "Danger Do Not Enter" sign and enter anyway?


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