Alternative title: So, I Have Some Thoughts About Church.
Or: It’s Good to Reflect On Our Faith.
Or: I Think Sarah Bessey Might Have Written a Book Just For Me.
When I was six years old, I found God. Or rather, God found me.
I grew up Catholic, not in practice, necessarily, but definitely in name. The daughter of two immigrants, I was enrolled in Catholic school because religion was a tie to the old country, so I went to mass, was taught by the sisters. I found God again when I was nine, kneeling on the floor of a basement bedroom in my aunt’s home. I asked Jesus to make a home in my heart that day. I didn’t really understand how it all worked, if we’re being honest. But I was young, and I was scared, and the idea of a savior who could somehow fix my problems appealed to every part of me.
This God looked differently than the one I’d been introduced to just a few years prior. There are some, I suppose, who might say they were two separate entities. I don’t believe that to be true, though. I don’t think that God incarnates himself one way for the Catholics, another for the Protestants, and so on and so forth. Rather, I think we are the ones who craft God into the versions that best suit ourselves. God alone cannot be divided, after all. God is bigger, wilder, more abundant and good than we could ever imagine, so perhaps I saw merely a glimpse of him when I was six, and perhaps I saw another one when I was nine. I think that perhaps it must be God who remains the same; it’s only our vision that changes.
I met him again when I was seventeen. I was in a Pentecostal church, listening to a preacher with a slow, Southern drawl. It was a Sunday evening. I sat in a pew near the back, still so young in my faith, so unsure. I listened to this preacher talk about God, and my insides felt hot, my heart like it might thump right out of my chest at any moment. At the end of the night, I made my way down to the altar, and the preacher prayed for me with his hands lightly touching my head, and I cried and raised my shaking hands to heaven, and everything around me was blazing in light, even though my eyes were closed.
I could sit and talk to you for hours about the seasons of life that followed. At first, I had my carefully constructed boxes of what was black, what was white, what was Christian, what was not. I was merciless in holding everything–and everyone–up to impossible standards. I didn’t yet know otherwise, you see. I had yet to be introduced to the glory of the gray areas, the sacred space that exists in the in-between, or even on the fringes and edges of what I thought I knew.
But that wasn’t all it was–there was beauty, and growth in that season, too. I could talk to you about how my faith came alive in those years. I could tell you about poring over the scriptures, praying in tongues I had never spoken before. I could tell you about how the Spirit sometimes made me want to shout and jump, and how there were other times I’d lay on the floor and weep while I felt it heavy on me. I could tell you about hearing stories from missionaries in India and Honduras. I could tell you about grandmothers who prayed over me at altars, at their kitchen tables, over the telephone in the middle of the night.
I could tell you so many stories of the seasons that came next, when I left that church and met God again in small, ordinary prayer rooms and living rooms all across the country, in Pennsylvania and Virginia and Colorado and Missouri and Washington. I could tell you about meeting him when I decided to leave church for a while and spent my Sundays singing and reading and painting and praying. I could tell you about meeting God halfway across the world, and how he no longer looked or smelled or even felt like he used to. He was sweat and mud and sea breezes rolling in from the Atlantic. He was hot sun and dust under my fingernails, and he was a gulp of cool water, a blessed reprieve. God was a handshake with snapping fingers, hugs with a kiss on both cheeks; toothy smiles and weathered skin and little fingers that claw my legs, stroke my hair. I met God in hunger, and in need. God was unmarked graves and children who leave this world much too soon. He became the wailing of a widow in black robes, the cry of an orphan, the ache of lack. And when I met my now-husband, I was introduced to God yet again. He was present in the longings finally fulfilled, prayers finally answered, and he was present in Kyle’s theology, how he celebrated community and communion and felt joy at setting the table for his neighbors.
I remember the first, and only, time I questioned whether Kyle and I could make it work. It was during our first date, actually; we went to Starbucks for five hours and drank hot espresso and told each other our histories. He’d grown up in the Reformed Church in America, a denomination this “happy-clappy” (to borrow Sarah Bessey’s term) charismatic had never even heard of (though he’s started serving a Presbyterian church as of last year). He feels most at home in the order of tradition, the rhythms of the church lectionary and ancient liturgies. He’s had unpleasant experiences with evangelicals in his younger years, and so he spent much time with his spiritual guard up, understandably so. And here I was, talking about things like prophecy and speaking in tongues, and I sat across the table from him and wondered, “Am I going to be too much for him? And furthermore–is he going to be enough?”
In the months to come, I was questioned by others too, dear ones with the best of intentions who gently voiced their concerns about Kyle’s and my differing faith-backgrounds. I determined early on I wouldn’t take it personally, and here’s why:
After that first date, God put me and all of my questions in place. I was reminded of all the seasons of life I’ve walked with him through, and I remembered he was in all of it, every moment. God is no longer found solely on a Sunday morning while sitting in a pew with my head bowed. I’ve come to find him in both my comfort and my discomfort. My joy and my pain. In my excess and my lack. In fulfillment but also in the not-quite-yet. In how my husband fathers our son, and in how my heart has become that of a mother, and how God is both/and. In the land of my Canaan but also in my desert. In the hard places, in the uncomfortable and the mess, where I’m stretched thin and my heart feels heavy and yet full, and in my rejoicing, celebration, the place of my abundance. In liturgy and old-time hymns, in hands raised in worship or folded in prayer. In tradition and the ancient paths, and in the new way which springs up before me. In the past and the future, in our faith’s history and what is still to come. God in all things; I truly do believe it. In him I live and move and have my being. And because of that, everything is changed for me now.
In Sarah Bessey’s Out Of Sorts: Making Peace With an Evolving Faith (which seems like she could have written just for me!), she writes:
“Jesus isn’t only in your tradition. You get to love Jesus without being an evangelical or a Pentecostal or a Presbyterian or whatever new label you’ve acquired these days or old label that just doesn’t fit anymore.
Your pet gatekeeper isn’t the sole arbitrator of the Christian faith: there is more complexity and beauty and diversity of voices and experiences within followers of the Way than you know. Remember, your view of Christians, your personal experience with Christians, is a rather small sample: there are a lot more of us out here than you think. …
The Church is sorting and casting off, renewing and reestablishing in the postmodern age, and this is a good thing. The old will remain–it always does–but something new is being born too. If It is being born in the Church, it is first being born in the hearts, minds, and lives of us, the Body” (pp. 84-85).
I don’t know what kind of Christian I am these days. Some of you might be uncomfortable with that, and it’s okay. I understand. But it’s true. I am deeply connected to my Pentecostal roots; the things of the Spirit will always feel like home. I still raise my hands and cry while I sing. I still tremble when I pray–and I always like to pray while I lay my hands on someone. And I am moving with God in the Presbyterian tradition, too, in how I can feel the divinity of the words in our liturgy roll over my tongue as we recite them in unison, in the knowledge I am taking part in something holy and ancient, a foundation of our faith. I find God in sunshine that warms my shoulders and the way my son’s hair curls up around his ear. God is in the dinners my husband cooks sometimes, and how we hold hands while we pray before eating. He’s in how he uses Kyle to ground me, and uses me to challenge Kyle, and how we grow so beautifully together. God’s in my tears over war and racism, our broken planet, the loss of life. He’s in the dark and the silence, and he’s in the light and the noise; the order and the chaos; who I was and who I am becoming.
Maybe you’re like me, and you don’t know where you fit anymore–I’m with you, and you have a place to belong here with me. Maybe you’ve walked away from faith entirely–I love you, and I am not judging you or trying to save you. Maybe you don’t like change, so you stay in what’s familiar–I understand you, and I hope you have life–and life abundant!–in your current situation. Wherever we find ourselves on the journey, I believe God is holding us all together, and I am comforted that the scriptures remind us every path of the Lord is good.
Maybe whatever our label, whatever our denomination or tradition–maybe it’s not a surprise to God, and maybe he even delights in our diversity. Maybe we can think less about who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s got this Christian thing down and who’s doing it a hundred and eighty degrees differently than we think they should. Maybe we can sing hymns and songs of the Spirit, maybe we can listen to both men and women who preach, maybe we can bow low and jump and clap. Maybe being able to tap into every side brings us that much closer to experiencing the fullness of God. Maybe all of this is not better or worse, not less important or more. Maybe we need to remember again that we are the Church; it’s not a separate entity. It is alive and active because we are alive and active. We don’t stay stagnant, we don’t stop growing, we don’t accept a stalled narrative. Maybe “there’s room for all of us.” Maybe “there’s room for all of me” (p. 81).
Maybe it all matters.
Maybe it’s time to “reclaim Church.”
Who’s with me?