(Read the first post in this conversation here)
My friend responded to my thoughts about churches and community and vulnerability with a refined version of his original question.
I certainly agree that authentic, organic, courageous relationships in community is one of, if not the most essential part of Christian community. What I am pondering is how to make that a normal expectation / behavior / value / lived practice that is an essential part of our DNA in the North American Church vs. “an hour on Sunday.”
Let me begin around the far side of this question and wend my way back to the beginning. It has been (and continues to be) such an mind-bending, life-altering experience to realize the “truths” I always thought I understood about God’s love for me aren’t true at all. In my own life and writing, I keep circling round and round, then repeating myself again, making sure I reiterate just how much we are loved by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe NO MATTER WHAT. We don’t have to believe a certain doctrine or follow a particular ritual or even try hard to be a good person. God loves us just because we are.
We are worthy, we are valued, we are adored, just breathing. For me, simply coming back to that truth, repeatedly sitting with it, pondering it, feeling the amazing fearlessness of knowing–no matter what I say or why I do or how I mess up or whenever I fail, I can never be unloved–utterly releases me. I am free to love, free to share, free to embrace myself and everyone else, no matter where we may find ourselves on this journey of life and faith. I can dispense with the spiritually codependent notion that I am somehow tainted by getting too close to the messiness of others’ lives. When I remember that I am not even being judged for how cleaned and polished I’ve kept my own life, I can embrace my vulnerability, admit to my very human failings, and be open to the intimacy of relationship for which we were all designed. For when I am weak, then I am strong (see 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
I regularly revisit the words “shameless honesty.” I love the phrase for a lot of reasons, but the most powerful is the idea that we can be completely honest, sharing our true and deepest feelings and thinkings and beings without self-recrimination. I have no need to be ashamed of who I am, just as I am, because I am loved without reservation.
Sadly, this is not a truth I came to the experiential knowledge of at church. Oh, sure, I was taught from infancy that God loved me. Even, once I was old enough to understand the term, I knew God loved me unconditionally. Yet every human interaction, every religious experience seemed fraught with conditions. Going to church meant dressing up, brushing hair, and smiling, even when I didn’t feel like it. Gathering with what passed for Christian community over most of my growing-up years meant peppering our speech with blesseds and amens and praise-the-Lords. It meant, I learned, to pretend to be confident, positive, and joyful, even when I was doubtful, conflicted, or depressed. If I weren’t clapping my hands because I was happy (and I knew it) or feeling peace like a river, joy like a fountain, and love like an ocean, I darn well better act like I was or else somebody might get the mistaken impression that this Christianity thing wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
As individuals, especially those of us who grew up “churched,” we have a lot of expectations of what going to church is supposed to be like. For many of us, even though we no longer believe that’s what church is or was ever meant to be, we’re not sure what else to do.
Which brings us back to our question: how do we change this culture? On a corporate level, how can we share the incredible gift of this great and powerful love beyond all measure? How can we allow others to catch a glimpse, to see themselves bathed in the redeeming light and love of Christ? How can we build a community of faith that actually expects and practices deep communion?
Here are the best words I know to offer, words I heard when I was praying for the heart of a beloved friend camped out in a dark canyon on the path of life.
Do not demand.
Watch and listen and most of all love.
Though the words are simple, they are not easy. I am much more apt to fall into the trap of telling, requiring, and demanding. I want to skip over the messy, uncomfortable, time-consuming process of love, yet it is in this very time and discomfort and mess that real relationships are forged.
As the Church, as congregants and clergy, as family, can we begin to ask one another, with compassion, “How are you? How are you really doing?” Can we offer our prayers, our help, our selves? Can we invite each other over more regularly to share coffee or dinner or an evening of board games? Can we share in the joys and the sorrows and the everyday doings of life together? Can we respect the limits of others who may not be ready to dive deep into relationship right now? Can we continue to treat those who hold themselves away from us with honor, respect, dignity, and grace? Can we watch and listen for opportunities to love the members of our community with our words, our attitudes, and our actions? Can we sit and stand in the uncomfortable places, simply to be together?
And, as we try to answer these questions in the affirmative, can we keep our own hearts open and receptive, so that each of these activities continues to be a response to the outpouring of Christ’s love for us, rather than becoming yet another ministry project? I know we can, because this is the community we are called to inhabit. This is what we are empowered, through Christ, to do. This is who we are.
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11, NIV)