On the way to visiting yet another church a couple months ago, I shot up one of those arrow prayers, Lord, I am looking for Christ in your church. Help me see him if he’s there.
It’s been an agonizing search. The Friday before, I wrote this in my journal: It’s Friday. Black Friday. Christ seems to have died in the church. We crucified him a second time. Who—we are looking—who has tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age (Heb. 6:5)? If so, we would walk into your church and see resurrection living. Where are you?
That was a low point of despair. We are on a search for the living.
In this search for a new church, my family has seen some doozies. There’s been plenty of good people. And there’s always something to learn about God. We’ve been blessed to see God through the eyes of other ethnicities. And seen congregations rise to close the food poverty gap in our city in a significant, sacrificial way. We’ve heard different styles of preaching. And seen the widows served, missionaries helped, and churches sharing spaces for meetings to help with the needs of our community, such as addictions.
We’ve also worshipped where the band is so loud that we can’t hear any of the unmic-ed voices of God’s people. And seen worship services turned into building fundraisers, with the widows exploited for their faithful giving. Cool people; we’ve seen so many cool people. We’ve noticed engagement is happening not by personal invitations, but by joining programs. We’ve seen Christian Nationalism on display, with the American flag waving near the pulpit and elders rallying for local political causes. Sadly, we’ve also seen the gospel turned into a gimmick.
We see striving, but it’s a church without faces. Without personhood. Or suffering and vulnerability. Without beauty and discovery. It’s all so put-on.
We did find Christ that Sunday morning of my prayer—in the liturgy, the sermon, and the people. We are cautiously hanging out at this church for a while to see what God does. I’m so thankful for how Christ is developing us through this painful, liminal space. It’s even funny to think how he has had to work with me in the waiting to shed the Reformed elitism off. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have stepped foot in this church. But you do these things when you are desperate. And Christ shows himself.
All along, he’s been showing his face in my relationships.
It’s funny how you can get all the way into your forties and fifties before you let some truths come out of you. Memories and their impact on your whole life. What they even mean. What it is you really want. And it’s just a glimpse. My friends and I are getting better at this. Matt and I are doing work here. It’s glorious. Maybe it takes this long because first you have to build a love strong enough to hold it. To find our faces in one another. What a gift it is to be able to hold one another’s stories, to empathize with one another’s wounds, to begin to be more curious about why we react the way we to, and to help plow new neuro-pathways for repair. It all makes me think about how much more complex and rich confession, repentance, and forgiveness is in the Christian life. So much more than the transactional functionality we present it as. Soul work is holistic. And it brings us to joy and beauty.
Anyway, that was all floating around my mind as I reread these words from Rowan Williams this morning, talking about what kind of place church is to be:
A place where real human difference is nourished. I don’t just mean the obvious fact that the church has to be a place of welcome for all races and cultures but that it must work with the grain of different personal gifts and histories. A healthy church is one where there is evident diversity in this respect and plenty of bizarre characters…An unhealthy church is one in which unity has been reduced to a homogeneity of opinions and habits, so that certain styles of devotion, or certain expressions of what God means to this or that person, are frowned on. Virtue becomes identified with uncontroversial ordinariness, and there is a nervous cultural “sameness” in the way people talk, dress, and behave. And beware of thinking this is a problem just of the political right or left or, in general, of “them” rather than us.Rowan Williams
It takes committed, protracted time to plant and nourish this kind of culture. And we need to make room for and see our need for bizarre characters. They make our hearts grow bigger.
All baptized believers need reminded that:
Because of their baptism, they are bound to the patient, long-term discovery of what grace will do with them. And it is a work that requires the kind of vulnerability to each other that can only come with the building up of trust over time, and the kind of silence that brings our fantasy identities to judgement….Rowan Williams
If the church can manage this rather difficult agenda, it will be what it should be, a powerful challenge to all kinds of human togetherness that seek to override the reality of the person—whether the subtle pressures of consumerism or the open tyranny of totalitarianism. It will also challenge some of our impulses to take a shortcut around the process of real personal exchange…Rowan Williams
In this light, what is an honest “spiritual life”? Perhaps we should say that it is one in which the taste for truth, rather than sincerity, has become inescapable. We don’t know what we will be, what face God will show to us in the mirror he holds up for us on the last day, but we can continue to question our own (and other people’s) strange preference for the heavy burden of self-justification, self-creation, and weep for our reluctance to become persons and to be transfigured by the personal communion opened for us by Jesus.Rowan Williams
A strange acceptance has come over me with my circumstances. A patience, maybe. I don’t think it’s numbness. I’m hoping it’s rest. The rest that I need in this liminal space because the anxiety and fear in it can become overwhelming. And gratitude in the people’s faces God puts before me, which are helping me see the divine face. Turns out Christ’s features in them are not what I expected. I want to be attuned to the faces of others and the meaning and transformation I receive from them as I am trying to find my own. Because that’s what grace does with us over time, it gives us a face.
“My heart says this about you: ‘Seek his face.’ LORD, I will seek your face. Do not hide your face from me.”Psalm 27:8-9
11 thoughts on “Where God Happens”
We are on the same journey. So much resonates here. Thank you
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Thank you for this .
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For me, it started with asking what a non-abusive, non-legalistic church would look like. Then I read a lot of church websites looking for red flags. When I finally found a church without the obvious red flags, I gave it a try. What hit me with my current church was how “free” the people seemed when they were worshiping. One time early on, my kids were acting up in a way that would have gotten us lots of side-eyes, uncomfortable body language, and maybe even reminders about the nursery and children’s classes, but we felt none of that, and the woman who would have been most distracted by their restlessness made a point to tell us how much she enjoyed seeing our children in the service.
One thing I have struggled with growing up RP is the intensity of fellowship. Maybe it’s unhealthy, but it seems like people in similar life stages seek each other out in ways that don’t happen in other churches. It’s been hard to get used to having to actively seek out connections.
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I feel the same way, although you seem further down the road of finding a worshipping community. I’ve tried staying within the tradition I’ve always known, but keep feeling like I’m looking for a steak in a mall food court. And I’m not even being picky! I just want a fellowship that has a caring community of believers who focus on God, not politics or culture wars. They seem to be hard to find.
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Amen! I’ve had many conversations with my current pastor. I love much about the church, but not exaggerating too much here, when he has to pick an example sin to rail against, it’s almost always sexual immorality. We have a culture filled with harm caused by greed, abuse, structural racism, and the Evangelical church seems only concerned about the sin that happens in bed between consenting adults. I’ve told him, I completely agree with you, but aren’t there other things happening in this world that the church needs to talk about? It’s sad because he has so much wisdom and encouragement for how we relate to God and within the church that I needed to hear when I was considering walking out entirely.
I resonate with much here. Reformed elitism is a reflexive posture that’s hard to shake. Tied to so much inner needs to be right, and feel secure. Love the excerpts from Rowan. Best description of the unity vs uniformity problem I’ve seen in a good while.
I find much healing from the noise of reformed theology and evangelicalism in my local Lutheran church. The simplicity of the liturgy, the traditional songs (truly, not just old, ha), and the focus on the Scriptures and Lord’s table help me pivot from me to us.
This is nothing more than a poorly veiled pity party, it seems.
By pity, you mean compassion, right? I’m not sure why you’re so opposed to compassion, but Jesus repeatedly portrays his father as compassionate and shows compassion himself. He says that those who follow him will do his works and the works of his father. He arrived at Mary and Martha’s house three days after Lazarus died, knowing full well he was going to bring Lazarus back to life, and what did he do when he talked with Mary and Martha? Did he say, “This is a poorly veiled pity party…[time to ‘fortify’ and move on]”? No, he wept with them.
Maybe Jesus had this wrong thinking in mind when he said, “But if you had known what this means: ‘I desire compassion, rather than sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matt 12:7).
Ironically, when I see Evangelicals throw pity parties, it seems to be pity on their disgraced leaders, like how Bobi Gephart and her husband walked out alone while members and leaders had a pity party for the pastor who raped her when she was 16. Would Jesus have shown compassion to the rapist still refusing to confess the whole truth of what he had done, or the victim?
Great article thank you Aimee for your work. It’s truly appreciated.
I’ve checked in to this website off and on. This is the first time that I have posted.
I’d characterize the author’s written account of her experiences as her endeavor to share with her fellow Christians, her thoughts about her challenges. Rightly or wrongly she is no longer affiliated with a religious tradition that she held dearly for years. In the eyes of some, she has become an outsider.
Were I in her shoes or in the place of others that identify with her, I’d take great comfort in knowing that the ministry of Jesus was all about taking people on the outside and bringing them to the inside. The reason people were “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount is because up until that time, they were not fit for God’s blessings (in the eyes of the “insiders”). Previously, they were on the outside. Jesus changed that.
Luke also is full of illustrations of those considered to be on the margins who received favor from God.
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