Sara Miles, author of Jesus Freak and Take This Bread, returns with her third non-fiction exploration of a life of faith lived out loud. In City of God: Faith in the Streets, Miles traces her path through Ash Wednesday, 2012, as she bears the ashes of Lent’s beginnings out of the church’s four walls and into the streets. Not knowing exactly what to expect, it’s a rediscovery of finding God where you are and recognizing that God’s movement is not confined to the life (inside) of the church.
Miles’ style reminds me of Anne Lamott’s (whose blurb graces the front cover). Having spent a few hours one Ash Wednesday (2008) with Lamott, chauffeuring her around Richmond, Va., I’m struck by the way that each moment is real, gritty, and yet, theological. No detail is too small, no moment misses the opportunity to both be an annoyance (a stop light when running late) and yet also an opportunity to see the grace-filled paths that God leads us across.
Early on, Miles wraps up Ash Wednesday’s complexity (the movement toward repentance and yet an acknowledgment that Lent ends with the joy of Easter): “Repentance means turning toward other human beings, our own flesh and blood, whenever they’re oppressed, hungry, or imprisoned; it means acting with compassion instead of indifference. It means turning away, ‘fasting,’ from any of the little and big things that can keep us from God–drugs, religion, busyness, video games, lies– and accepting the divine embrace with all our hearts” (21). Miles has come to understand church, but now living out this Ash Wednesday repentance on the streets, she finds God in the mundane, in the interaction, in the person-to-person humanity, and it makes her exploration of God grow.
As I explore my own understanding of “church” as a Protestant Christian and as a pastor, I find myself recognizing that the definition grows and changes and becomes more (and needs less) than I once thought. And worship is that act of the church that we are constantly seeking to do ‘better’ and to find meaning in, but which always seems flat when only done one way, or with one pattern. Miles writes that “worship outside of church buildings is the unexceptional historical and contemporary norm for Christianity,” and it reminds me of John Wesley’s (my denominational forefather) preaching outside in the fields to reach those who were not welcome inside of the institutional church (66). What would it look like if my church’s understanding of what worship looked like grew, until we saw God in places we never expected?
Miles implores us through her story to see God in the way other people worship, in the things other people are doing. It’s a provocative look, to find God worshipped in the streets, but she insists that it requires us to put down ourselves and our expectations. “In movements,” she writes, “we often want to be right in our assumptions more than we want to receive the truth from others… It’s so much easier to offer analysis of the correct path than to see where people already are going themselves” (79).
Miles’ Ash Wednesday looks much more exciting in her interactions and adventures by the end of the night than most of mine have ever been. But I wonder what it would look like if we took the “ashes” (not just the marks of the ashes) out of our churches into the streets, and shared the good news of God’s love? What would that look like? Right now, I’m not exactly sure, but Miles’ thoughts have stirred my soul to consider if God isn’t calling us to the streets of our cities, boroughs, and towns. God is already there working and caring for people, just waiting for us to join in.