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