Thursday, October 15, 2015

I used to think

If your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care?

Church has been a constant presence in my life. I was raised Catholic and attended mass every Sunday with my family. I also went to church during the week as part of my Catholic school education. After I'd graduated college and taught in Catholic schools, I took my students to mass and sometimes was responsible for planning the service. If any of these churches ceased to exist, my life and livelihood would have been affected, and I would most definitely have noticed.

But for a long time I saw church as just a place to go. I used to think Church was a noun, not a verb. I was part of the Church as one is part of a social group--it was just a place I went because I always had, or because my parents had taken me. When it was up to me to find a church when I went away to college, I didn't. I replaced my need for socialization with campus organizations and my sorority. Because Church really wasn't about my relationship with God, I didn't feel like I was missing anything. I simply filled my time with other things.

And then I met a boy. That boy took me to his United Methodist church, and I met Jesus there. Church changed for me not because I needed it to but because I was ready to see it with new eyes. I began to see the Church as a social change agent. I didn't feel oppressed by rules or doctrine. I saw strong women and men who led worship and children's ministries. I saw broken people showing up every Sunday to hear scripture and sing hymns and drink coffee. These people fed the hungry and housed the homeless. They stretched my thinking about what loving my neighbor actually meant. I was challenged each week to live out a faith I'd held since childhood but had only just started questioning.

I used to think Church was just for good people. Now I think I'm not so sure.

I know so many good people who have been hurt by Church, and each person can retell a particular moment that changed Church for them. Each story is evidence of how imperfect people of faith get it wrong sometimes, often in the name of God. Hurt feelings and exclusion and ruined reputations should not have a place among faithful people, and yet I hear stories every day of the same scenario being played out--our narrow understanding of God's love causes us to close off that which should remain open.

If your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care?

There wasn't an emotionally charged fight or embarrassing moment that drove me from the Catholic Church, but I, too, was hurt. While I was teaching at a Catholic school in Michigan, Todd was discerning his call to ministry in the United Methodist Church. I knew it would be difficult to straddle two worlds as a Catholic school teacher and the wife of a United Methodist seminary student, but I didn't realize it would eventually sever my ties with the Church. I was told during a training session by a church employee that taking communion in a non-Catholic church was "a deliberate turning away from Jesus", and that I was not welcome to be a Eucharistic Minister during school masses. This did not fit in with my idea that the Lord's table was open to all. I began to worry that my job might be in jeopardy if it was discovered that I wasn't attending a Catholic church on Sundays. So although my paperwork was in order--I'd been baptized, confirmed, married and trained as a certified catechist in the Catholic Church--I didn't feel safe. It seemed that it would have been better for me not to attend church at all than to attend a non-Catholic church.  I don't loathe the time I spent there, and I'm not running from it. I'm still awed by the beauty of tradition and liturgy I find there. The Pope is pretty cool, too. But it's just not where I feel comfortable today.

I used to think I was a perfect church girl, until someone decided I wasn't. And I didn't like how it felt to be outside of the rules. 

We are a ministry family now. Church is our life. Church means more to me now than it did when I was a child. Church is a place, but more than that, it is people. I want the churches we minister to to be safe places for everyone. Places where you can ask questions and wrestle with the answers. Places where you can find physical and spiritual food if you are hungry. I want the people there to be open and welcoming and loving and funny and compassionate and messy and a little bit different.

I used to think that I needed the Church, but now I think that Church needs me. 

But even though I'm pretty intimately tied to my church, I'm not sure I can always answer these question affirmatively: If my church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care? I know some people have a painful history with my church, and might not feel that bad to see it fail. But many are fed, literally and figuratively, by our programs and presence in the community. How do we balance the pain and comfort church can bring? How can these coexist? 

Because life is full of paradox. Beauty and pain, sorrow and joy, life and death circle around one another, intertwined, every day. And they always will. Church helps me see and embrace the mystery of these things in my daily life.

Have you been hurt by Church structures or by her people? I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey. I've been reading and advanced copy and there is so much inside it's pages for church lovers and church avoiders alike. It's a love letter to those trying to sort out their feelings about faith and the faithful. You can find my full review here

I'd love to start a conversation with you, dear reader, about what you think about Church and how your feelings have evolved over time. I welcome your comments here on the blog, and I want you to know this is a safe place. But even more I hope you have conversations about Church around your dinner tables and Sunday school classes with friends and family. Let's begin!

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