Reclaiming Church

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When I was six years old, I found God. Or rather, God found me.

I grew up Catholic, not in practice, necessarily, but definitely in name. The daughter of two immigrants, I was enrolled in Catholic school because religion was a tie to the old country, so I went to Mass, was taught by the sisters. I found God again when I was nine, kneeling on the floor of a basement bedroom in my aunt’s home. I asked Jesus to make a home in my heart that day. I didn’t really understand how it all worked, if we’re being honest. But I was young, and I was scared, and the idea of a savior who could somehow fix my problems appealed to every part of me.

This God looked differently than the one I’d been introduced to just a few years prior. There are some, I suppose, who might say they were two separate entities. I don’t believe that to be true, though. I don’t think that God incarnates himself one way for the Catholics, another for the Protestants, and so on and so forth. Rather, I think we are the ones who craft God into the versions that best suit ourselves. God alone cannot be divided, after all. God is bigger, wilder, more abundant and good than we could ever imagine, so perhaps I saw merely a glimpse of him when I was six, and perhaps I saw another one when I was nine. I think that perhaps it must be God who remains the same; it’s only our vision that changes.

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I met God again when I was seventeen. I was in a Pentecostal church, listening to a preacher with a slow, Southern drawl. It was a Sunday evening. I sat in a pew near the back, still so young in my faith, so unsure. I listened to this preacher talk about God, and my insides felt hot, my heart like it might thump right out of my chest at any moment. At the end of the night, I made my way down to the altar, and the preacher prayed for me with his hands lightly touching my head, and I cried and raised my shaking hands to heaven, and everything around me was blazing in light, even though my eyes were closed.

I could sit and talk to you for hours about the seasons of life that followed. At first, I had my carefully constructed boxes of what was black, what was white, what was Christian, what was not. I was merciless in holding everything—and everyone—up to impossible standards. I didn’t yet know otherwise, you see. I had yet to be introduced to the glory of the gray areas, the sacred space that exists in the in-between, or even on the fringes and edges of what I thought I knew.

But that wasn’t all it was—there was beauty, and growth in that season, too. I could talk to you about how my faith came alive in those years. I could tell you about poring over the scriptures, praying in tongues I had never spoken before. I could tell you about how the Spirit sometimes made me want to shout and jump, and how there were other times I’d lay on the floor and weep while I felt it heavy on me. I could tell you about hearing stories from missionaries in India and Honduras. I could tell you about grandmothers who prayed over me at altars, at their kitchen tables, over the telephone in the middle of the night.

I could tell you so many stories of the seasons that came next, when I left that church and met God again in small, ordinary prayer rooms and living rooms all across the country, in Pennsylvania and Virginia and Colorado and Missouri and Washington. I could tell you about meeting him when I decided to leave church for a while and spent my Sundays singing and reading and painting and praying. I could tell you about meeting God halfway across the world, and how she no longer looked or smelled or even felt like she used to. She was sweat and mud and sea breezes rolling in from the Atlantic. God was hot sun and dust under my fingernails, and she was a gulp of cool water, a blessed reprieve. She became the wailing of a widow in black robes, the cry of an orphan, the ache of lack. And when I met my now-husband, I was introduced to God yet again. He was present in the longings finally fulfilled, prayers finally answered, and he was present in Kyle’s theology, how he celebrated community and communion and felt joy at setting the table for his neighbors.

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The American Church right now is under a microscope—and rightfully so. White Christian nationalism is on rampant display, and to be honest, I think what we are seeing is the fruit of all those trees we planted in the soil of toxic theology and Christian Crusader thinking. Even a brief study of the history of Christianity shows that we have much to repent from, least of all the ways in which this thinking has rooted itself into our teachings with us scarcely recognizing it. For centuries, the Church has operated from a stance of dominion, and with dominion, we believe, should come power and wealth and all that allows for unheard of assumption (and consumption) while others in the world are deprived. Any faith that seeks to impose itself on others through subjugation or oppression, even with well-meaning intentions, is doomed to destroy itself from the inside out. The Church is seeing that very thing these days, with all its division and discord. Scripture itself tells us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. What we cannot do, however, is sweep it under the rug under the guise of unity or trying to keep the peace. If we, as the Church, are serious about healing and wholeness for all of God’s creation, we need to recognize we cannot heal what we won’t name. We need to face some hard and ugly truths about ourselves and religion, and we need to commit to change. Yes, it can be terrifying. Yes, it is uncomfortable. But all is not lost. As Sarah Bessey writes, the Church is “sorting and casting off, renewing and reestablishing in the postmodern age, and this is a good thing. The old will remain—it always does—but something new is being born too.” This is our chance to flip the script. This is our chance to repent, which doesn’t just mean to say we’re sorry but to actually turn away from the destructive ways in which we have been living. This is our chance to start living the better story, the Story of a God who so loved the world—all of it. No exceptions. The Story of how broken things are miraculously made whole again, how death actually leads to life. The Story that shows us there is nowhere we could ever wander that we’d be too far gone for Love to find us. The Story of a kingdom coming to earth, of gardens of joy and peace being planted in hopeful anticipation of that New Eden. The Story of us as called and beloved people choosing to embrace simplicity and empathy in the face of a culture that tells us we are only worthy if we consume, if we look out for ourselves first. That is what we’ve been called to: not a flag, not a rally, not a gun, not a riot, not “me first” or “mine first” or even “America first.”

So I don’t know what kind of Christian I am these days. Some of you might be uncomfortable with that, and that’s okay with me. I am deeply connected to my evangelical roots, and it is both my love of and grief for that Church that compels me to stand up from the sidelines and say Christians, we must do better. The things of the Spirit will always feel like home to me. I still raise my hands and cry while I sing. I still tremble when I pray—and I always like to pray while I lay my hands on someone.

But I am moving with God in my new faith tradition too, in how I can feel the divinity of the words in our liturgy roll over my tongue  as I recite, in the knowledge I am taking part in something holy and ancient, a foundation of our faith. I move with God in how I’m learning to pray with my feet, and my wallet, and my kitchen; in how I lean into hard conversations and concern myself with peacemaking over peacekeeping; in how I experience God through the created world as I seek to repair the ways in which we’ve mutilated the land.

I think, perhaps, this is a glimpse of that new thing that God is doing. And I am so thankful that I get to be a part of it. I honor my past, but I will no longer allow that story to speak for me. This is our chance to take part in redemption. This is an opportunity to reclaim Church.
Who’s with me?

Photo credit: “Center Christ” by Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art LLC

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