I slipped the picture back where I had found it. Then I realized something: That last thought had brought no sting with it…. I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night. — Khaled Hosseini, TheKite Runner
A friend of mine, a pastor, recently challenged her friends on social media to dream of a positive, grace filled alternative to a harmful billboard that has popped up in town. Because she is a pastor, many of her friends are tangled up in what Anne Lamott calls “our churchy web,” and therefore, naturally, responded with quotes revealing their commitment to God and the Church. Except one of her friends, clearly free from congregational confines, responded with “Dear all humans. You don’t need religion to be a good person or be part of an intentional community. Living an examined secular life can absolve you of unnecessary mores, guilt, and toxic, archaic worldviews.”
I don’t want to read too much into this person’s motives, as I don’t know her, but I can’t escape the suspicion that her proposed billboard was aimed more at me and my ilk than it was in response to the light-hearted challenge of my friend.
And to be honest, I really wanted to give her a hearty “Amen,” (or whatever the secular equivalent of that would be.) But my “Amen” would have been a lie. To be clear, I have no intentions of telling her how to live her life. That she has found meaning apart from religion, intentional community and toxic, archaic worldviews, is something that I take her word for. But she wasn’t just making a claim about her life, she was making a claim about mine, in her address to “All humans.”
As for me, the “archaic worldview” of the Church, the living, breathing body of Christ at work in the world, is something I have given my life to, over, and over, and over again. And I will continue to do so, however naive I may be.
Doing so opens me up to a world of hurt and grief. But those are the birthright of all of us, regardless of whether we are caught up in a churchy web or not. One is no less likely to be wounded reading the New York Times or making love or writing poetry or going for a walk in the park on Sunday mornings than they are trudging, week after week, to worship God with the sinners and hypocrites at the local church. We are all picking our poison.
This weekly trudging is something I have done my entire life, and I have a lot of scars to show for it. Not as much as some of my fellow travelers, but enough to fill a few baskets up. And I’ll tell you this: Church scars hurt like hell.
I got a lot of scars from UBC, and I often had people ask, “Why don’t you just leave?” (This question, asked by certain people, only served to wound me more.) I never knew how to answer that question. It wasn’t in my DNA to leave. I found my place, regardless of how uncomfortable it could be.
A lot of people left after Kyle died. I didn’t know it at the time, because we had a large church full of people who only showed up on Sunday mornings. And there were almost a thousand people there that day, most whom I didn’t know. Somehow our paths have crossed– over chance meetings in airports, in coffee shops, online– and they tell me they were there and couldn’t bring themselves to go back. They almost always tell me this apologetically, as if to say they took the easy way out. But I have no shade to throw their way. I wasn’t in the room. Had I seen what they saw, who knows what I would have done?
I continued to stay, though. And I’ll tell you one more thing: The scars that hurt like hell are nothing compared to the memories of laughter and joy and grace-filled memories. I’ve never laughed as hard as I did after making an unintentionally inappropriate joke in a Wednesday night community group in what would eventually become the Rock and Roll Room. At weddings and reunions we reminisce about the time in 2002 when I taught Sunday School with a hangover, and we reflect on how stupid, yet free we all were in those days.
We started having babies and careers, and bought houses with backyard lights and fire-pits, and talked and talked until the wee hours of the morning. And this made our times around the table even more rich, as we broke the bread and dipped it in the juice, and were reminded that broken things are our inheritance, but that this is where glory is found.
Now that I think of it more, I’m pretty certain that she was right: You don’t need religion or church to be good, and an examined, secular life probably will absolve you of unnecessary mores, guilt, and toxic, archaic worldviews. But I’m not sure the point of living is to be good, or to be absolved from all of these things. I can’t be sure, to be honest.
But I know this: I’ve yet to find a place like church where brokenness is kind of the point. I’m reminded here of the famous Leonard Cohen line, “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”
They are all broken, these churches that hold our archaic worldviews. Even the one I gave fifteen years of my life to. Broken to the core. But a lot of light gets in there. A lot, I’m telling you.
If you think the point my story was to reveal all the cracks, you are correct. There are more, and deeper ones that I have left out, to the relief of many. But I hope those with an astute eye will see the light that the cracks continue to let in, more light than could ever be revealed.