I did a year-end reflection exercise that asked me to think about my biggest surprise in 2016. I sat with this question for a while and then I realized: the most surprising thing to me is that I didn’t leave the church this past year.
It may be an odd thing for a minister and theologian to say (or maybe you can see how it makes perfect sense), but I have been cynical about “the church” for quite some time and I’m honestly surprised that 2016 isn’t the year that finally sent me packing. The breakdown between Christ’s call to work in the world, and what much of “the church” was actually doing almost became too much.
Disconnect in belief and practice
Since becoming a parent I’ve grown much more sensitive to the fact that - although I can process and handle the cognitive dissonance sometimes required to both believe Christ’s teaching’s and participate in the church - my daughter is too young to do so. This means that I’ve made choices about where we attend church and how we practice our faith that I might not otherwise have made.
Because the church - as an imperfect organization of humans - has broken my heart repeatedly over my adult life.
It’s told me that as a woman I have less value and fewer opportunities; it’s told my non-heterosexual friends that they weren’t already complete and whole and made in God’s image; it’s sought ways to prop up systems of injustice instead of tearing them down; it’s embraced mis-treatment of the earth for human gain. These are just a few examples, and ones I’ve personally experienced. These things have led me over the years to shake off my religion, to “do” Christianity and express my faith in a way that I’ve pieced together as I pursue Truth - not as part of a specific system, or denomination, or set of beliefs.
But this year, I witnessed an overwhelming number of my church-going brothers and sisters willingly and enthusiastically stand behind a man who has unapologetically done most of the above-mentioned things and many more. I’m certainly not the only Christian to be upset by this, but there was more than one Sunday when I sat with the bread and the cup, crying because my belief in the power of the Table was truly being tested. Upset that this was the legacy my daughter would be receiving and not wanting her to have to sort through all this the way that I have.
Resistance to reconciliation
Spiritually, I believe in the Table. I believe that the work of ultimate Love has the power to reconcile us to each other, and all of humanity to God. But, quite honestly, I didn’t want reconciliation with those who flagrantly disavowed what I view as crucial elements of Christian faith and behavior: care for the vulnerable, giving up our power for the powerless, and preaching good news for all people - to name a few.
I wanted to be done with it; to become one of the “dones” or “nones” ... who just so happened to work in ministry and have a deep interest in theology. Those people exist, right?!
The church isn’t just a building that can be exited. At its best, it is an expression of God’s work in the world. It is a diverse group of people working through what it means to live out Christ’s teachings in their context: this is a feature, not a bug. And ironically, this is also where my passion lies - bringing theological topics into focus for everyone so that we can all shed Light to the places only we inhabit in the world.
But when it came time to put my work into action, to make good on the belief that God’s love has something to say to everyone, and can contain all of our diversity … I almost bowed out of the whole situation. But I didn’t.
And this is how I know that God is moving in the world and using imperfect humanity as a means to do so: a vision of the church at its best is in my heart and will not let me walk away when I see its people at their worst.
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, in their book "Resident Aliens," make the case that often the church does its work incorrectly - by focusing outward and attempting to legislate morality. We should instead be focusing on the church community as a living, breathing, dynamic embodiment that has the power to move mountains when we live by the ethic and power of divine Love.
In essence, we must be the change we want to see in the world. We must acknowledge, with Martin Luther, the two-fold nature of the gospel: its power to change our souls, and our ability to then change the world around us through this power.
So while, yes, God has the capacity to contain all our diversity - and even disagreement and displeasure - Hauerwas, Willimon, and Luther remind us that Love has the power to move and change. My brush with leaving the church isn’t teaching me to exist painfully and uncomfortably alongside people mis-interpreting (or disregarding) our call. It’s reminding me that Love is persistently luring those who are mis-interpreting and disregarding. (Which, let's face it, is all of us, in one way or another!) Just as I join God in caring for the vulnerable, giving up my power, and sharing Gospel truth to the edges of society, I should also join God in demonstrating that same persistent Love to those right next to me on Sunday mornings.
This assumes one thing that is necessary but uncomfortable: I must be in community with those I fight being reconciled to. The mystery and power of the church is that it contains all these dynamic possibilities. And this is a possibility I can’t walk away from.