By Neil Earle
On a cold rainy night in Pasadena not so long ago my wife, Susan, and I took shelter at our favorite eatery in that area – Conrad’s, a place noted for good corned beef, lamb shanks and white tablecloths. That particular bitter night after a movie about some high-class café people in 1930s Shanghai, the restaurant appeared particularly inviting.
The frigid weather we were experiencing made the place a cosy place to be, let me tell you. As well as “the White Café” in the movie we had just seen, I thought also of Rick’s “Café Americana” in the movie “Casablanca” – a little outpost of rest and neutrality and convivality in the darkening 1930s.
I shared my flashbacks with my wife and told her of an Ernest Hemingway short story that always stuck with me. It was titled “A Clean and Well Lighted Place.” It’s about an old man who comes to this nice Spanish restaurant and orders the same thing every night. He comes just before closing. The young server is impatient and wants to go home but the older proprieter is more compassionate – “No, serve him, He’s an old man. Maybe he just needs a clean and well-lighted place to go to. Who knows what trouble he’s seen.”
And it all struck me that Hemingway was using a nice retreat during the night as a metaphor for a place of rest and refreshment in the midst of a terrible century. Hemingway has been called an “old softie” by some and this story always stayed in my mind.
It struck me as a good intro to a sermon. What I’m trying to say is that that’s what the people in this dark, dank world are maybe looking for in 2012 is just this – a clean and well-lit place, a place to hang their hat, to find some cheer against the physical and spiritual storm outside.
Someone said the last decade was such a bad year that we get to do it over again. Let’s hope that’s not true. From Tsunamis to terror, from nuclear failures to hurricanes, we’ve seen enough. We need, the world needs, a clean and well-lit place and my prayer is that the Church can be just that in the next year. You know:
“Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came…”
If Christians are not alert, pop culture has a way of stealing the Gospel agenda. It seems to happen all the time. Think of such phrases as “long long ago and far far away” (Star Wars) or “a soft shoulder in a hard world” (AT&T), or even “You deserve a break today.”
By mentioning the theme from “Cheers” I’m not recommending alcohol as a cure, by the way, I’m just saying what Jesus said, that the Church is to be the Light of the world (Matthew 5:14). He himself was accused of being a friend of the drinking set, “a friend of sinners,” of wine-bibbers and gluttons. Remember that? He was condemned for that, remember? Maybe one reason Jesus hung out with sinners is because sometimes they were more fun after all than the uptight righteous, or those who thought they were righteous.
A clean and well-lit place. In his thoughtful book, The Weight of Glory, The great Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis expressed his concept of heaven as a place where we would be welcomed and well-received and given a top spot at the master’s table. In one place Jesus is pictured as hosting us (Luke 12:37) and he often compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a banquet (Matthew 22:1), a great party and the end of his work with us as the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). That’s some party. one you won’t want to miss and the symbolism draws upon the rich tradition of respect and hospitality that is so evident in the Middle East and its gleeful experiences of eating.
In another context, Jesus uses the parable of him knocking at the door of our conscience asking that he will be received by us. That’s in Revelation 3:20-21. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.”
It’s no secret that the Christian church always has a job on its hands trying to get the balance between rejecting the values of the world (1 John 2:15-17), and showing God’s love to the world – John 3:16 in tension with James 4:4 and all that. It isn’t easy.
So how about this? Can we think of our church home as a clean and well-lit place, a beacon, a place where sinners can come and not feel condemned? It’s an uphill struggle. Every pastor knows what it’s like to encourage his people to walk the line between being the Light of the World and not being overcome by the world.
One principle that helps us keep the balance is having a heart for the lost, as Jesus clearly said he was all about (Luke 16:10). We are to be inviting, open approachable people, welcoming people into our circle of concern, not inviting people to “the church” as such but inviting them to a reflection of the Kingdom on earth, a clean and well-lit place where they can find rest for their souls (Matthew 9:35).
That’s a tall order, because many times we’d rather condemn the world than reach out to it. It’s easier to blast Hollywood or whatever but its always easier to criticize than to create a superior alternative – a clean and well-lit place.
Ultimately we’ll be judged on how many prisoners we visited, how many sick we looked in on, how many strangers we welcomed, how many people we helped (Matthew 25:41-46).
That’s a bit scary in a way but it is a good reminder of what we are supposed to be all about as God’s people. John Stott said evangelism is one beggar telling another where he found bread. Seems like a pretty good motto for another year.