A Welcoming Place

One of my favorite things to do is to take a walk or a run or a jog through Piedmont Park, the major community park in Atlanta. It's often called the "Central Park of Atlanta," and though the original in Manhattan dwarfs our little park here in the South, parts of Piedmont Park were designed by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the noted landscape architect who laid out Central Park.

Piedmont Park contains a lake, an "active oval" for softball, soccer, and even volleyball, a wide lawn for concerts and events, a couple of playgrounds, tennis courts, and lots of leafy paths to meander. Which I do as often as I can.

One glorious autumn afternoon I walked through the park listening on my iPod to a thirty-minute musical loop by Tim DeLaughter called "Acceptance," which seemed fitting. While I inhaled the crisp smoky air and let the music soothe my thoughts, I started paying attention to the people all around me. What hit me as I opened my eyes to my environment there in the park was the rich diversity of the population at any given moment.

Anywhere I looked I found something different. There on the wide green were young men vigorously playing touch football. Dogs of all breeds and mixtures were walking their owners, often in talkative clusters. A father with an infant strapped to his chest pointed his toddler daughter to see the geese landing as though on skis on the lake surface. Groups of students from the nearby high school wandered aimlessly, talking and texting and laughing together. A large and animated family of several generations gathered around picnic tables sharing a splendid barbecued meal. An older couple walked arm in arm admiring the brilliant foliage and sharing the moment with each other. A homeless man with a well-worn backpack sunned himself on a park bench with a plaque that announced its donation by a late society matron.

There were people of all ages and sizes and shapes. Runners, walkers, strollers. Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, straights, gays, athletes and the out-of-shape. And all found a welcome home in the park.

The picture surrounding me was so beautiful in that moment that tears came to my eyes. Tears of joy and hope. This was the family of humanity, gathered here in the midst of God's creation.

This image occurred to me as I read Psalm 104-a song of praise to our Creator God for all the incredible beauty and diversity of this world and the whole created order, a psalm drenched with what Walter Brueggemann has called God's "exuberant generosity." As you read these verses, open yourself up to read between the lines a bit:

24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. . . .

27 These all look to you to give them their food in due season;

28 when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. . . .

30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

God's whole creation is marked by manifold diversity, and in wisdom God made them all. All--all people no matter who we are, all living creatures--look to God to provide their needs. All of us depend on God to fill us with good things. And so we are all in this together. We live in the created order marked by uniqueness and individuality, yet we live together under the glory of God.

Can we welcome one another in this place? Can we live together and enjoy the differences each of us brings?

In a Day1 sermon, Jimmy Moor, who pastors St. Mark United Methodist Church near the park, drew an important lesson from this image: "It doesn't matter who you are, what your job is, how you are dressed, or what you've done. There's a place for you at Piedmont Park. The park comes to my mind sometimes when I think of what the church looks like at its best--a community where everyone is welcome and has the opportunity for healing and renewal."

Is that the case in your congregation, your faith community? Is it a place of generous welcome for all, offering healing and renewal to whoever comes? What can you do to help make it so?

Adapted from a chapter in Peter's new book, Connected: You and God in the Psalms (Morehouse Publishing).