Why Church?

In recent times, I’ve often seen top ten lists as to why you should or why you shouldn’t do something: people argue valiantly and vehemently in favor of or against such things as yoga or sleeping or avocado toast. And it follows that, especially in light of the shifting reality surrounding religiosity in America, those of us who remain committed to the big, messy, family dinner called “Church” may want to actually consider why it is that we continue to be part of this community that, at its worst, has been toxic and destructive in the lives of so many.

[disclaimer: swears ahoy!]

But I love the Church, because I have seen the Church at its best. I, a gay, over-educated, Diet Coke-addled, world-weary millennial clergy person, still show up and still demand that God’s people practice God’s welcome, even though there are some people in the Church who would rather I just shut up and sit quietly, even though there are some people who—I speak from direct experience here—would rather me be dead. As Emily Joy says, “My ass will be in that pew more Sundays than not, if only to look up at that crucifix above the altar with defiance and wonder and say See? I’m still here. I often suspect that I have outstayed my welcome in organized religion and am becoming more of a thorn in their side than I am worth but what can I say? I like to have a place to bring casseroles.”

When church is at its best, it is a great place to be. But for many of us “church” brings up some difficult memories and emotions, too. Church is a place where dysfunction and toxic relationships happen just as much as in any collection of people. And I own my own part in that. And at the same time I also own the fact that church truly can be “Church At Its Best” if we also admit that we can’t be perfect but we can be good; we will fail miserably but we covenant to forgive and repair the damage.

If you’re on the fence about visiting for the first time, or if you’re wondering whether you should come back, consider this my Top Ten as to why I, a person who has every right to ditch the Church, still continue to pattern my life around it.

TEN: Come and be blessed. Not the “hashtag blessed” of vapid Instagram queens showing off their latest Lush bath bomb, but rather, real blessing—Church is a place where you, your entire self, can be called “blessed,” that is, be acknowledged as very good because God made you. You don’t have to check any part of yourself at the door when you walk in, whether it’s your brain, your doubts and beliefs, your sexuality, your gender—all of that matters to God and it matters to church at its best too, because you matter, and you are blessed.

NINE: When shit hits the fan, when the bottom falls out of your life, it’s pretty cool to be connected to a community that can lift you back up. Because, to be honest, when everything’s going wrong isn’t the time to begin a relationship with God and we will never try to say, “Oh, your life sucks right now because you don’t have Jesus.” I know that coming to worship regularly helps me have a solid foundation for when life inevitably throws curve-balls and I find myself standing there, mouth-agape and clueless, both as to what has happened and what I’m supposed to do now.

EIGHT: We aren’t all about money. We are an organization that has operating expenses, sure, but the money we use we are trying to use as judiciously and responsibly as possible for what matters to us. If you can’t give, don’t. But walking alongside Jesus helps us reorient our relationship with money and free us from being slaves to it. It can also open us to new ideas about economic justice and fair wages, because at the end of the day, there can be enough for everyone according to their need if we give according to our ability, which is one of the underpinning messages of the Old Testament.

SEVEN: Any good church will have good food, because eating food with friends was one of the things Jesus was all about. It’s not accidental that the kingdom of God is described like a banquet.

SIX: Churches offer immediate ways to get involved with helping the community. If you want to help, chances are there’s something you can immediately jump in and start doing, whether it deals with racial justice, income inequality, food insecurity, gender justice, LGBTQ inclusion—most churches already have something ready to go and your energy could be put to good use.

FIVE: If you want to start something new and have a knack or a gift for something in particular—photography! nursing! social work! carpentry! flamenco dancing! yoga!—there’s a community of people who want to bless you in doing that.

FOUR: No one is asking you to believe anything you don’t want to believe or behave in a particular way. Because we’re a community we say things like our Statement of Faith or the Lord’s Prayer together, and we are in this together. If you can’t believe part of the statement of faith, or if part of a prayer makes you squirm, you don’t have to say it. I’ll say it for you. On the same token, there isn’t a single major doctrine in all of Christianity that I haven’t at some point ditched wholesale and reclaimed in my own way later on in a way that was healthy and appropriate, but what enabled me to do that was being part of the Church.

THREE: The world says you have to work 50-60 hours to make it, to be someone, and that if you ever take any time to yourself you are being an irresponsible member of society (at best), or at worst, a parasite. Church breaks that myth wide open and gives us time during the week to be truly human. We’re not meant to work ourselves to death; we’re meant to cultivate and enjoy the goodness of the world. The idea of Sabbath is revolutionary.

TWO: Bread and wine, water and oil, hugs and paper and casseroles and pancakes and carwashes and all the ordinary stuff of our life becomes extraordinary in the Church and somehow God shows up through all of them, breaking me open and helping me to be more kind and compassionate with others (even when I don’t very much feel like being kind or compassionate at all).

ONE: Jesus is f*cking awesome. Where we profoundly screw things up, Jesus enters into the ugliness and says, “I’m still here.” And then Jesus does something amazing with it if we let him, and raises the dead. Jesus will show up and give you bread and wine and things you never thought possible will happen.

We know that many of us who are already in church do a lousy job of following Jesus and emulating him in our lives, content to keep on crushing and destroying and screwing people over, but Jesus hangs out in the midst of all of our garbage and the worst of what we have to offer, taking it in, destroying it, and raising us from the dead with him.

I hope that we in the church will always have the humility to acknowledge that we too need gracious care, that we too are in need of being “raised from the dead.” Come to Church to get to know Jesus, because he’s bigger, more expansive, more open, more welcoming than any of us could ever hope to be.

(This post was inspired by, and in a way adapted from, a similar top-ten by The Rev. Anne Russ of Argentina Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock, AR.)

Beginner’s Mind

And so we reach the dusk of a stressful day of Facebook arguments, boundary violations, writing building use request letters, exploring possibilities, dreaming, aching, and spending time with friends. Though the day has been transformative in some ways, mind-bangingly frustrating in others, and ultimately the opposite of an “off” day as it was supposed to be, I have learned. And I have unlearned.

The interesting thing about my seminary education is that it robbed me of learning, scrubbing off my patina of erudition and the sores of “having all the answers”–that unique plague of Western Christendom. To be sure I learned information: verb conjugations, literary forms, pastoral skills, and so on–but putting that information into practice necessitates letting go of my grip on what I think the right answers are, being led from the “correctness” that glows like ugly orange industrial sodium lamps into the flaming sunlight that is “truth.” I no longer have all the answers. I have what I believe, sure, and I have the Christian tradition in my blood and my education as my means of framing my relationship with God, but the more I grow the more I see my own beliefs as being smudged reflections of Truth. Truth is not a parcel of information to be meted up; truth is a Person who draws us into his wild dance of creation and resurrection.

Living in the gritty waltz of grace is something that takes unlearning. It takes what the Zen masters call shoshen, that is, beginner’s mind–a mind free of preconceptions, of answers, and of self-assurance, and one that is radically open to the new learning that dancing in the great gracious rhythms of Christ will provide. And so I make my evening prayer tonight as I do every night: “let what mattered stick, let what didn’t matter fall away, and open my heart to the dance again at dawn.”

Talk Inclusive To Me, Baby

Let’s talk about inclusivity and the church.

And let’s not talk about how any one people group needs to be included more than any other; we progressive Christians have harped on that long and loud enough. If we truly believe in a God whose charge to us was a ministry of reconciliation, then we cannot get big heads about being inclusive while continuing to excise certain individuals and groups from the table. It’s become vogue to talk about inclusivity, but what does inclusivity really mean? There will always be a group that isn’t getting their fair share of the shalom of God, and our missional obligation is to right this imbalance of embrace in order to ensure that all people are welcome at the banquet table.

See what I said there? All people need to be welcomed at the banquet table of Christ. And the movement of embrace is the most powerful prophetic witness that we have. It is in embrace that evil is disarmed and hearts once opposed to one another are transformed into hearts that love one another. It is in the movement of embrace that God has embraced us in Christ, even in the midst of suffering the worst that humanity has to offer. The movement of embrace says to our oppressors, I forgive you, and to the ones oppressed, please forgive me. It requires humility, and in fact may be humiliating. Actually, it is humiliating, because Christ’s embrace of all humanity came from arms stretched out by an instrument of torture and a whispered and weary “Father, forgive them.”

Embrace welcomes the weeping Peter back into the fold.

Embrace welcomes the thief into paradise.

I would even go so far as to say that embrace can welcome Judas into the kingdom of God.

And Christ-bearing embrace, if we practice it in our lives, can welcome our Peters, our thieves, our Judases into the kingdom of God with us. Embrace can heal the world.

If we practice the movement of embrace, who will we find at the altar rail alongside us? In whom will we find Christ extending a hand, an opportunity to welcome and be welcomed? Do we have the boldness to take Christ’s hand in the other and ask them to dine with us? God help us that we would be so bold as to trust in the ministry of reconciliation which we have been given.