My twentieth high school reunion is coming up this summer. I’m unable to attend due to cost, distance, and time… but it’s also difficult for me to go because I am in touch with so few of the people I grew up with, and in reality, much more time has passed between then and now than the time I spent with my classmates, even the ones I knew from elementary school. Still, I have fond memories and there are people I will miss being able to see again. As I look up in my office, above the commentaries and Bibles and theology books, I still have a short stack of books from my high school English class: Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and The Little Prince, among others. I have kept a couple of notebooks of writing. I haven’t looked at it in years (maybe since high school, I can’t remember), but I haven’t thrown it out yet. There are some things I am still holding on to, after all these years.
It’s been thirteen years since I graduated seminary and there are very few books and notes that I look back to from that time. I do still use the Biblical commentaries I had to purchase (at $75 each!) and occasionally I scroll back through the pages of notes for sermons and Bible studies (and notice how much I doodled in the margins), and sometimes I go back to look at books on church history or brush up on some theological concept, but other than that, there’s not much that I look back on. Prior to my last move, I finally recycled most of my school notes, and culled some of my books.
In these thirteen years I’ve had to unlearn some things. I’ve had to unlearn concepts around church structure and organization. I’ve had to unlearn the idea of Sunday School as our society transitions into a new era of education and worship. I’ve had to unlearn ideas of stewardship as we move into an era in which most people my age cannot tithe ten percent and most of us, regardless of profession, have student debt up to our eyeballs. I’ve had to unlearn much of what was taught to me as the norm for many years
When I think of what I have learned in seminary that I wasn’t taught, for me it was the value of friendships in the community of faith. My seminary friends were the ones I could confess my secret doubts with, show off my beginning guitar skills to, and discuss my future with because most of us were heading in a similar direction. Though we’re scattered across the country, our paths cross more often than not in clergy circles, denominational gatherings and conferences—and also, thanks to social media, we have been able to stay connected. My seminary friends were the ones I could share my fears and hopes and dreams—and also share my questions, my skepticisms, and my struggles. Those were the friends I could truly be myself with.
“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong.” This was not a seminary student who told me this, but a churchgoer who recently decided to be baptized. I know not all churches are like that, but I realized that the congregations I have felt the spirit of God most poignantly are the ones where I could laugh among others, where we could tell jokes and be serious in almost the same moment. Where I could be myself. For this person, this church is where they could be themselves, where they were accepted, where they were loved exactly for who they are.
Maybe it was because I was an awkward teenager, but I never felt like I fit in when I was in high school. I’m sure many other people feel the same. Sometimes, I wonder if church can feel like a high-school reunion: we are going back to something that doesn't really connect with who we are now. When I found the place where I could be myself, I felt that I was at home. I felt that in my home church. I felt it in seminary. I still feel it on retreats with colleagues, and lately, I have begun to feel it within my own church again. I share my still-sharpening guitar skills as I miss chords but try to play anyway. I share stories of my own faith struggles. And what happens is that others begin to share their stories, too, and weren’t afraid of saying or believing the wrong thing.
Diana Butler Bass said in Christianity After Religion that we have to switch from the old pattern of “Behaving, Believing, then Belonging” to “Belonging, Behaving, then Believing.” Again, this is something we have to unlearn from seminary and from church tradition. It’s something you can’t teach, but you know it when you experience it: when you belong somewhere, you can be yourself. By finding a place where I can be myself, I am not only a more authentic minister, but a more authentic child of God and follower of Jesus. And in turn, I have found the church to be a more authentic body of Christ in all its diversity.
“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong,” the churchgoer told me. What are we doing to usher in that sense of belonging? What are we doing to bring about an understanding of authenticity, of a place where we are free to be who we are, with all our questions and doubts and head-scratching?