Blair and I took time for a night out alone, a rarity for parents. We decided to walk along the Atlanta Beltline. We parked on a side road and could see Ponce City Market ahead. It was a cool night for July, somewhere in the 60’s. We even joked that the pumpkin spice lattes would soon be rolling out.
We love the Beltline if for no other reason than to people watch. I also love the outdoor art, the color and the city skyline. It’s not perfect. The Beltline has gentrified out a lot of persons of color. That’s something to work on. But the human spirit is alive in this place. The creativity of aspiring artist, the entrepreneurial types risking business ventures, the millennials playing flag football on the field near the Old Fourth Ward, the drummer banging away under the Freedom Parkway Bridge, the teenagers coming close to hitting us as they whiz by on electric scooters.
We did a progressive dinner, eating appetizers along the way. We ate our way down the Beltline and justified 3 scoops of Jenni’s ice-cream at Krogs Street Market because we had walked there.
We ate on outdoor plazas to enjoy the crisp weather and it reminded us of those piazzas in Italy in the hub of the city life. A young couple in their twenties next to us looked like they were on a date. No wedding rings. And the young man awkwardly reached for the bill on the table and she too seemed unsure if she should help with it. I told Blair, “I’m so glad we’re done with that stage of life. Dating is painful.” But we also secretly wished we could go back a day or two to our 20’s. We wondered how I was getting so close to 40 and where did our 30’s go?
I guess what stuck with me was walking among the people knowing that every emotion imaginable was alive…the excitement of teenagers who were visiting from out of town and snapping pictures under the bridge with the graffiti, the exhaustion of parents in workout clothes strolling their infants, the warmth of a homeless man on a bike who smiled at us and kept singing, the hurt of the couple who didn’t seem to mind arguing in public. I thought, “These are God’s people. Every shape and size.”
I could not recall the number, but I knew that statistically the majority of the people would not have a church home or an active relationship with God. I kept reminding myself that God has something more grand in store for this creation. I was struck by the signs throughout the Beltline that said, “Common Ground.” That seems to be a good phrase for today’s people. With all of the hurt and wounds of our world, people seek a common place, a safe space for sharing life. As simple as it seems, there’s something comforting about people from all walks of life sharing common pavement, as a means not just of transport, but life.
As a pastor, I realize that for many people religion has become just another means for division and hurt. I want the people to be able to see fullest expression of God’s design for the world. God designed us for each other. God’s son, Jesus, came to heal and express a love that unites us in a common faith. So many people have seen the church show its judgmental side which can leave can an impression that God’s nature is such. But in truth, our God is one of love and mercy. I’ve even thought about putting in big letters on the side of our church, “God is love.”
I’m reminded of Pope Francis’ words in his recent book when he writes,
“Sometimes, even from the Church, we hear, ‘too much mercy! The Church must condemn sin.”
He would go on to remind Christians that the church does not exist to condemn sin, but to show mercy. The church names sin and calls people to change, but the primary nature of God is mercy. As I looked upon all the people on the Beltline, I kept thinking about how much life was in this place. But I also know that these lives have hidden wounds and scars. Everyone of them. I want them to know that God’s nature is one of mercy for a wounded world and that mercy is wide-open to them.
Time was running short. We had to be home to relieve our babysitter by 9. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t wait for 6 months to do this again.