I have some pretty strong feelings on the topic but when I go to write about it, for whatever reason, my thoughts tangle together like an uncooperative ball of yarn, and I begin to second guess my own ideas and beliefs. Is it because I haven’t yet come to a conclusion that allows for all of my experiences with the church, both in and out of it, to make sense? Is it because I still cling to the idea that the church, whatever else it may be, is holy and above reproach, above questioning? Is it because I have more questions than answers and to follow any one line long enough inevitably leaves me more confused and embittered than I was to begin with?
I’ve got to resolve this ongoing issue. I have got to be able to work my way to the root of whatever is going on so that I can be at peace. I need to be at whole relationship with God, whether it is again or for the first time.
Traditional church, for me, is the place that you go and pretend that everything is okay, where you share only pieces of who you are. I’ve been doing this inside of the church for many years. As a young teen a minister came to our house and he and I sat and talked for awhile. This, to me, felt like a big deal. Our minister wasn’t the ‘roll his sleeves up and get dirty’ type, the kind to hang with the kids. My mom and step-dad invited him over and so that he and I had could have some time to talk alone. I can’t remember, really, what we talked about, but it was something about how parents make mistakes and it’s important to forgive. My family kept going to church every weekend and pretending everything was fine. I watched my mom pretend that everything was just fine, that her family was just fine, thank you very much, every week for years, for one reason or another.
I always assumed that my own screwed up history so early on must have set a pattern in place. I assumed that I kept feeling like I was experiencing that same demand to pretend that everything was fine in other churches and with other Christians because I was subconsciously searching for it, for validation of that first instance as a child. I became adept at presenting to the church exactly what it wanted to see, and little else, and blamed the ensuing lack of fulfillment on my own inability to move beyond my past.
The thing is, as I’ve gotten older, and a bit braver, and as I’ve entered into real relationships with real people who are Christian, I’ve realized that a lot of people feel this way about church. I have a friend who wrestles very seriously with whether or not to let her church family know that she occasionally has a glass of wine. There’s another who worries about what impact her platonic relationships with the opposite sex will have on her standing within the church. I have a friend who struggles to accept a theological precept of the church but is fearful to talk about it with anyone.
Is this the church where I am supposed to feel safe to confess my sins, to share my struggles?
When I was in rehab, I lived on top of a mountain with an average of 50 other women all fighting their way back to sobriety. All of the staff, right up to the Director, were graduates of the center; survivors of drug addiction and eating disorders, former prostitutes and past jail inmates. Everyone knew who everyone was on that mountain, and who everyone used to be. Everyone knew that none of us were perfect and that everyone was on the same journey to becoming whole, to becoming like Christ.
I’ve never felt so safe in my life. There were guidelines to growth there, clear cut and understood by everyone. The rules were universally applied to all of the women at the center, no one was favored above the rest. If conflicts arose, and they inevitably did, the pattern of Matt 18:15-17 was strictly adhered to; first you go to your sister to confront her on your own. If your sister doesn’t listen to you on your own, then bring a friend or two to help out, and, if the conflict still can’t be resolved, you go to the authority. This was such a serious rule that if you skipped steps one and two and went straight to the authority, you were not heard.
The healthier women took care of the sicker women and everyone worked together to make the things run smoothly. Everyone started out in housekeeping and no one, not even the staff, was considered better than the next. If sin was known of, it was confronted. If character was lacking, it was addressed. Becoming a better person, a whole person, was not a hopeful prayer, it was a daily expectation and active aspiration. We all worked on becoming more like Christ every day, and we all did it together. I felt compelled, while I was there, to share my confessions of sin, in hopes of victory, to share my struggles in search of answers.
Not once, in 10 months, did I ever seem them turn away, or fail to lead, someone who was struggling.
That felt like church.
I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what the church is supposed to look like or feel like, really. Maybe it’s a question of nature vs. nuture, is it the church’s fault or society’s? I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have all of the questions yet.
But I do know one thing.
I’m not going to pretend anymore.