“When we protect ourselves from what we fear, we also undermine our capacity for wonder.”
-Jonathan Martin, Prototype
I've been out of church for a couple of month's. In that time I've had to be very intentional with finding a place to belong. One of the problems that I'm having is finding worthwhile spaces of belonging. As a result of the decision to walk away from the local assembly the relationships that I did have, are now mostly non-existent. Why is it so hard to find a place to belong? I say none of this to put the burden of inclusion on the part of somebody else's shoulders. I have however, made some observations that are ultimately leading me back to the church.
In the weeks that followed my departure from the local assembly, I was asked a multitude of questions. Are you an atheist? Do you hate God? Are you still saved? I was expecting those questions. To be honest I can see how scary it is that somebody might walk away from a functional faith structure. What I wasn't expecting were the questions about my political affiliations, stance on the LGBTQ community and if our money will go to the right places now. My counter questions asking why those things matter made it abundantly clear of the real question. Are you still on my side?
People have a tendency to require a certainty about their social circles. It's a natural response in order to reduce our cognitive dissonance. Those people asking if I was at the very least still a Republican (which I have no party affiliation interestingly enough) needed to know I was safe. Not safe for me but, safe for them. I didn't fit neatly into the spaces of their lives anymore. I also don't blame them for not including me into their lives to the degree I was prior.
There was also a second category of people. An unkind category. People I had not talked to in years reached out in anger. There were no questions. There were only labels and damnations. There was pain. I got a phone call that was nothing more than a 10 minute accusation of my arrogance. Somebody who I had spoken to the week prior to announcing the decision to go churchless even attacked my integrity. What it showed me is that people feel betrayed when their vision of you doesn't match reality. It shows that those people's reality is only as big as themselves. Interestingly enough, I have no resentment towards them. Somehow by the grace of God my heart became all the more tender. I had let them down in a way. I wasn't who they thought I was.
One thing today's church is failing to allow us to do is hold people in the tension. Jesus had his fair share of accusers questioning his motives. Moreover, he had people like Nicodemus authentically and lovingly seeking to understand. Jesus is the greatest example of allowing people to be exactly who they are and who they will become in the same moment. There was no obligation by Christ to put on an image of something they were not. It was not required that anyone be in the closet on any issue or belief. There is grace in the light of Christ that reveals truth and eliminates shame. It's comforting.
Why do we have such a hard time being like Christ in this area? We have lost what it means to truly have an identity in Christ. In the United States we measure each other's Christianity by party affiliation, denominational label and what side of a social issue we stand. Judging by what suit you wear or don't wear on a Sunday morning is the measure of our piety. We've fallen into judging each other based on appearance and whether or not the cup is clean on the outside. God looks at the heart. God knows the potential of the human spirit as it pairs with the Holy Spirit. Our faith is not measured by appearances. Our lives are measured by the love we embody because the heart is the wellspring of life. It's what moves us in compassion and action.
In my time away from church my heart has become troubled. I've been faced with my own prejudices and judgments. I've been on the receiving end of other people's finger pointing. It's exhausting. For many like me, our hearts are broken but the hospital for our souls is a dangerous place. There's fear as to what the pastor is going to preach. There's fear that we may not appear "holy" enough for that church. Perfect love casts out fear. That love is found in one place that all people are welcome to partake. The Eucharist!
Our most worthwhile space of belonging is at the table of the Lord's Supper. It's where we are both who we are now and who we will become. It's glory now. It's where those with a broken heart find healing and restoration. It's where the proud are humbled. It's the place where your political affiliation doesn't matter because the Kingdom is greater. Your sexual orientation doesn't matter because it's the marriage supper of the lamb and we are all being made one with Christ! You can be wearing the finest suit, drove to church in the most expensive car and live in the most prestigious zip code and partake in Christ's poverty. Homeless men and women with nothing become heirs to the Kingdom.
This mystery of the Eucharist is the church's greatest show of unity with the older brother and the prodigal son. Even the mechanics of receiving communion force us to put ourselves aside. We all stand up together in unison, walk to a center aisle and walk in step together to the altar. My priest Father Kenneth Tanner always greets me with "Charles, the body of Christ!" and it shifts my heart. That bread ripped from the same loaf and wine from the same cup unites us all into the body of Christ. Each one of us unique in our work but together in Christ.
I'm going to start attending church again. I'm going to approach the table week in and week out. It's me standing for inclusion and unity in the fighting. I'm choosing to align myself with the heart of Christ. I'm taking heart and hoping that even though this world has troubles Jesus has overcome the world. There are no sides to take, only a table large enough for us to sit and eat together.