I used to think the church wasn’t safe; it was people all cleaned up and perfect – and thereby close to God. But now I think the church is people broken and yet whole – the beautifully imperfect and free.
I sat in church as a teenager, right next to my parents in the dark walnut pews. The seven of us would take up a whole row. And when it came time to sing I didn’t think too much about singing right to Jesus. But I would listen to my dad raise his deep voice, and I would smell my mom’s perfume, and I would stand and hold the red hymn book, heavy in my hands. And I would lift my voice too.
Three rows of pews sloped down to the steps in front, maybe ten rows deep, filled by grandmothers and widows and farmers and families – the family not of blood but of the church. These were the people who cheered me on with smiles and quiet nods when I memorized all the books of the Bible in Vacation Bible School and stood at the altar’s front steps and recited them, one by one, Genesis to Revelation. And then I memorized and recited Psalm 23 too. I earned my own red-leather covered Bible – my whole name, Jennifer Ann Johnson, in gold block letters on the front. Maybe this was the church’s welcoming acceptance into a different type of knowing God. Looking back it all felt pretty simple, being part of this fold, this family, the church.
This church family also smiled like love when Pastor Rich stood in the water, the tub cut into the blue and green carpet where the altar usually stood. And he held my hand when I stepped down to him. He asked me if I loved Jesus, and he leaned me back with his strong forearms into the water, the white cotton robe hanging wet and heavy as I stepped up and out. And when I went out front afterwards and twirled in my seersucker dress my mom sewed for me, the one with the rainbow stripes, the church followed. They went on out the front red double doors and down the cement ramp and stood outside on the tiny patch of grass and made me feel safe and held.
I had chosen something good, my Jesus, and it never crossed my mind that someday I would think He would leave.
This church were the people who sat in the pews when I stood up front years later and gave a baccalaureate speech the Sunday before high school graduation, sharing how with God there is always hope and there are good things ahead. I said it all like I believed it, and I wanted to. But something had happened to this heart of mine, to the little girl who had once twirled in her seersucker dress right after getting baptized and the teenager who looked like she had it all together but was, really, doing everything she could to hide a secret she held deep inside.
She was keeping a secret from all the grandmothers and aunts – this church family who had known her since she was little – the secret that she just wasn’t sure if she belonged with them anymore. She didn’t tell them that the year before, two weeks before Christmas of her junior year in high school, she found out she was pregnant. She figured, of course, the church wasn’t going to want her, and there was no way her God could approve of her – especially after she decided that the preservation of her own life was greater than the baby’s inside her and she had an abortion and didn’t tell but one soul.
But she kept going to church and sitting in that pew, week after week, never telling anyone other than her boyfriend what she had done. In her heart she believed she could no longer belong; she was no longer part of the church; she was far now from the love that had held her all her life.
I used to believe church was a place where love shone all around – when you are good, when you are whole. I didn’t know, like I do now, that the church is a place of the beautifully broken, the gathered. It is in our brokenness that the church exists at all, the family of God, the brothers and sisters of the blood of Christ.
You see, I didn’t understand it when Laura and Kathleen, my Sunday School teachers, used to stand up front during large group with all the kids, before church started, and sing with joy, like they were singing right to Jesus. And then when the congregation got to make requests of which songs to sing in church, Kathleen would always choose “And Jesus said come to the water, right by my side, I know you are thirsty, you won’t be denied.” And Kathleen would cry, and then I would want to cry too. But not because I knew why yet, but because Kathleen was hungering for Jesus in a way I didn’t know I could.
I understand that hunger now.
When you try to pretend you are not broken – that you are already fixed up and everything is fine – the church is not able to be the church.
When we act like we don’t need God – that we aren’t falling and faltering and desperate for God to come and love us, we are our own gods; we are the idol. We worship an ideal of ourselves, at our own cost, and the church isn’t given permission to rise up, in its beautiful brokenness and show how, with Christ – only with Jesus – it is whole.
Growing up in that little country town church where I was known and I was loved, I wish now that I had tested what it stood for. I wish I had given it a chance. I wish I knew the church is a place of wholeness only when our own brokenness and sin is recognized – by each person, and as a collective whole, too. I wish I hadn’t try to keep the secret my own.
These words here were prompted by Sarah Bessey’s brand-new book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, a book that surprised and challenged me. It gave me a fresh perspective on the church’s role in my story. I had taken the church for granted, and Sarah’s vulnerable wrestling with her feelings about the church spurred me to consider mine. Sarah Bessey’s book, Out of Sorts, is an important one, and I am giving a copy away this week. I think it can bring healing to you too.
You want this book! To enter to win a copy of Sarah Bessey’ beautiful book, Out of Sorts Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, please enter using the Rafflecopter widget below. And here is where you can buy it right now.
How has your relationship with the church shaped your story?