Names and dates and places don’t matter anymore, because it could have been anyone, anytime, in any number of congregations I’ve served and/or been part of. It went like this “Where’s _______ been for the last few weeks?” he said, wondering about the absence of a freshman in high school from weekly youth group gatherings.
I had gathered together a group of volunteers to check-in, see how things were feeling midway through the year, and we’d all noticed the absence of this particular student. I didn’t know, in the moment, that the student’s parents were divorcing and he’d recently self-identified as gay. A lot for anyone--especially a fifteen year-old--to deal with.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” I replied, affirming that something wasn’t right but also not pretending to have an answer. And for the next few minutes we went back and forth with the usual, “Not everyone’s here all the time,” and, “Have you asked ___________ (insert name of student’s best friend)?”
I didn’t say much, just listened, knowing in my heart that the student must have something going on, and also believing he was likely choosing space from youth group for a while as he worked it out.
And, then, into the conversation, someone said, “But this is where your expertise should come in, Julie! You should be able to fix this!”
Not too long ago I sat talking with a colleague who is, like many of my colleagues, sorely frustrated with “the gay thing,” swirling about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He has church members who condemn homosexuality as a sin, and he has church members with gay family members who have waited--too long--for Church to embrace their loved ones the way that they do. And he’s stuck in the middle, trying to balance pastoral identity and responsibility with his own deeply-held convictions.
And in the midst of our conversation he exploded, “You know what I need? I need someone in charge to tell me what to do--to map a way out of this, to show us the way! I need someone to tell me what I’m supposed to do!”
And against his frustration, all I could offer, quietly and truthfully was, “But here’s the thing--no one’s quite sure what to do.” Stunned silence was the response.
How I long, some days, for twelve easy steps to church transformation, to new ways of being. How I wish there was a bridge from here to there (wherever “there” is), clearly marked, and able to be crossed with a modicum of ease.
There’s not. Moreover, there never is for the things that matter most. And a communal life of faith is about much more.
It’s about knowing not a one of us is perfect, and yet somehow, all together, there is an inherent beauty in us, and we are so much better off when we recognize that.
It’s about realizing that not a single one of us has the corner on Truth.
It’s about asking difficult questions without expecting definitive answers.
It’s about learning from the collective history of this world: not once, since the beginning of time, has it fundamentally “worked out” to exclude one part or another of God’s creation. Divisions beget more division, and when we say, “You’re out,” or, “You do not count,” or, “You are not as good as me,” the result is always--inevitably--heartbreak.
It’s about trusting that somewhere in the night is a star bright enough to guide us and that somewhere in the stumbling is a staff strong enough to lean on.
It’s about believing that we have not yet lived all that there is to live, and somewhere beyond is the promise of God’s redemptive grace--enough to heal all that stabs at us and keep us from wholeness.
And it’s about believing in one another, finding our way to the merciful truth that in each of us dwells a bit of God and so each of our lives is sacred. Sacred.
You cannot “fix” heartache. Or loss. Or betrayal. Or attendance numbers. Or opposing theological viewpoints. There is no magic formula for how we live and move and have our being as Church. And there is no “First do this, then do that,” for getting us all where God is calling us to be.
Now, before you go accusing me of copping out of the very difficult work of being Church, hear me when I say that not a single thing I’ve written here gets us off the hook. We don’t just get to say, “I’m out, God!” and wash our hands of it all, letting some mixed-up idea of fate-meets-predestination rule the day.
No. Because between here and there is “in the meantime,” and let me tell you, I am a big fan of “in the meantime.” Most of what’s lovely and amazing in life happens “in the meantime,” in the spaces between who we are and what we will be, in the pain between brokenness and wholeness, in the asking, “What the hell?!?” between what’s gone down and what will make it all okay again.
And so, in the meantime, might I suggest that we listen. That we let go of cynicism. That we find a way past “my way,” and into “our way.” Might I suggest, that, in the meantime, we love.
That we just Love. Fiercely, honestly, mercifully and unconditionally--Love.
It isn’t easy. I know this. I’ve known the depths of cynicism and disappointment in Church. I’ve known the temptation to walk away entirely. And, finally and blessedly, I’ve known the realization that, at its best, Church is only God’s own trying to love God and follow Jesus. And we aren’t always going to get it right.
But, as my family’s dear friend Ray Chester used to say, “The church is kind of like Noah’s Ark. The only reason you can stand the stench within is because of the storm without.”
Fix it? No. I can’t do that. And neither can you. But--in the meantime--we love each other. And out of that, I have to believe . . . something good and grace-full will come.
May we be ready.
Julie Richardson Brown is Team Minister for Youth Ministry, Christian Church in Indiana. She is also a founding member of nPartnership (www.nPartnership.org), an organization dedicated to fostering relationships and best practices in youth ministry. She blogs regularly at www.julierichardsonbrown.net.