Church: Running, leaving, arcing
Any runners out there? I started running in college - well, I kindof ran in high school track until I missed a baton pass on a relay - but, whatev. Obviously I don’t think about that anymore. mkay. (And, to prove my running prowess - here’s a picture of me circa 1991ish obviously winning the sack race - or so far behind no one else is in the shot.)
Anywho. I used to run with an app that would track my pace, mileage, splits, and lots of other fancy metrics (because I love data for most aspects of my life). But then I started finding myself competing with myself on pace and mileage. And, you can see what’s coming. I lost the enjoyment of the act of running for the hustle of competition with myself. (For you enneagram peeps, there’s probably a number for that…but, you’re not supposed to ‘type’ people, right?) =) So, I took the app off my phone around 4 years ago and started loving simply running again.
A few weeks ago I put the app back on my phone because I wanted to map out a few new running routes. Three days later, I get a notification:
“Congratulations! You’ve run 100 miles!”
Uhm, negative. My running has slowed way down (which I’m fine with) and some days I do 3 miles, some 6, other days I just walk. But there is no way on God’s green earth that I ran 100 miles in 3 days. I realized that the app was also counting the miles I had run years ago along with the past three days.
And, it made me think about church.
You may have heard me tip-toe around leaving a church this past year. I want to share some of that story - but, most will stay as a ponderment in my heart, like Mary. (I think I coined that word ‘ponderment’. You’re welcome, Webster.) Just like many of you, we entered the pandemic with a sense of solidarity with other Christians and many churches. It was really easy to say “yes and amen” in the early days to love our neighbors by inconveniencing ourselves by wearing a mask and doing our individual parts to contribute to the collective good. My first “faith” writing waaayyy back in 2020 was about the Good Samaritan story (which is why I named my FB page about the ‘neighbor’) and how epidemiology in a pandemic is used to quantify the most in need - and, then choose to not walk by. That post outlined the neighbors as the elderly, those with underlying conditions, and those on the margins due to poverty (which is synonomous with low access to healthcare when you need it due to lack of insurance, funds, or living in a rural area). Imagine that last group as a family who has to make impossible decisions between food on the table or the risk of a high ER bill - or being an essential worker who has to go to work and rely on others wearing their masks - or not trusting the healthcare system because of legitimate historical reasons to not trust it.
That last group of neighbors is where I think the problem came in for the church in 2020 (the problems were there well before 2020, but were not as exposed for many of us until this past year), particularly around the issues of power, privilege, race, blame-shifting. For many in the church (based on messages and comments from you all), we (collectively ‘we’) had never seen inequities at this magnitude before they were unearthed in 2020. We had not heard unconscious or blatant racism come from the mouths (or shared FB posts) of our own Sunday school friends. We didn’t understand how Christian speech was getting intertwined with politics in really messy (and unfair/racist/fill-in-the-blank ways). We were now hearing from friends or church leaders that we should have more “faith” and come back to church (in the height of the pandemic), that the pandemic is blamed on BLM rallies and immigrants, and more subtle shaming of not being a Christian if we stayed home (but, we believed that would protect your neighbors across the city, the essential workers who didn’t have a choice to go to work when we did, etc). I think you know these examples and can probably add some more.
The result has been a discomfortable angst of saying, “this is not how it should be as the Church.” For many of us, we believed that if Jesus was physically on this earth right now - he would have worn a mask and distanced during this pandemic - still full of faith, but also faithful to his opening sermon at the synagogue about what his ministry on this earth was going to be centered on.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” - Luke 4:18-19
Do you see how He was centered around the neighbors, the margins? He, as the fulfillment of the law, ushered in a new era, a redefining of the Gospel, with a special focus on the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. What is the result? A proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor. Glory, hall-le-lu-jah.
But, that’s not what many of us saw in 2020 and continue to see in 2021, is it? If you felt the deep angst of “this is not how things should be” in 2020, I picture a tree branch that is tied down to the ground unnaturally. It tries to bend towards the sun, but that results in tension because it can’t quite be what it is supposed to be. The tension is what many of you have felt. That unnatural bending might feel fine for a while. But over time becomes uncomfortable. I think that’s what happened in 2020. And, that tension became tighter in 2020 when issues of masking, faith-over-fear, CRT, privilege, nationalist Christianity, and freedoms not aligned to the Cross (but pretending they were) started coming out in messy ways. In reality, these tensions have been around in some church spaces for decades with oppressive systems that resulted in power for a privileged few in ways that were hard for many of you to see and recognize. Until it was unearthed in 2020.
Is that you? Did you feel the tension? Do you feel church homeless?
If so, let me give you some hope. Where do we go from here?
If you have felt a deep angst/discomfort over what was unearthed in 2020 in the church, I think you felt the birth pains in Romans 8 - the birth pains of “here and not yet”, of a new wineskin, of a new way (or perhaps the original way). Perhaps the tension was part of the birth pains towards a new way that aligns with the Cross where the ground is level for all (as Ephesians 2 talks about). And a way that calls us to be ambassadors to be the Church in a world where the ground is still not level - yet.
Will it cost you? Yes, especially after 2020 when we can’t un-hear or un-see things. We have memories now of what was unearthed. And, just like the Good Samaritan story, we now have a choice to not walk by. This includes taking a stand sometimes to choose to not walk by with our actions (wearing a simple mask), our words (not blame-shifting the pandemic in racist ways, unconscious or conscious), and our allegiances (not aligning my “holy” rhetoric more to Christian nationalism than the Cross). You may lose friends, communities, conveniences, privilege, power, comfort when we align to the new wineskin. And, these are deeply hard, friends. I want to acknowledge that and make wide space for that because I hear that hurt in so many of you - and, because I can empathize with it too. Many of you have lost friends and communities you have been a part of for decades. And, in no way am I asking anyone to move on and get over it. It will take time to lament and heal. It’s ok that it will be hard or is hard. Those are holy groans of Romans 8, the birth pains of the “here and not yet”. But, it is ok that’s it’s just junky for a while.
Is it worth it? Oh my friends, yes. Because there is another side of walking through a valley. You will emerge with bruises, hunger (for the right things), and loss. But, the freedom is palpable. Like that tree branch that was tied to the ground, when you cut the unnatural tie that branch boomerangs back up towards the sun like it was supposed to. And, it starts growing with buds and branches towards the sky and roots deep in the soil. When you break out of that improper bending, what was tying you down becomes cut like a tree branch that is being trained away from its natural movement towards the sun.
And, then my friends, you start arcing towards the sun that gives life.
As I’m writing this, I look over and see my geraniums arcing. Even they, along with all nature (go read Romans 8:22-23), know where to bend with their allegiances for growth. All creation groans.
What do you do next? I don’t know. That’s a deeply personal decision to be made full of wisdom, discernment, grace, and, yes, courage. And, by no means am I saying we leave churches because we don’t like the color of the carpet or because the music leader sang one too many stanzas or they changed the time from 11am to 10:30am. Those are not proper bending reasons, they are shallow reasons. I don’t know what cutting the ties means for you. It could be God calls you to stay to be part of the change. It could be God calls you to find another community. But, I do want to tell you there is another side. A new wineskin. A new arc.
If you do choose another faith community (or don’t want to go back to any church), let me encourage you. I have met with several hundred pastors during this pandemic from all sorts of denominations. And, you know what I’m convinced of? There are so many of them that have been loving their neighbors through their leadership for months at this point. There are churches that have chosen, from the beginning, to mask, distance, go over and beyond what is necessary to love not only their congregations but the margins around them. You will likely not see them celebrated in the media and you might not have one near you. But, friends, they are out there. Those churches exist. I grew up charismatic, married a Baptist, and now go to more of a liturgical church. So I’m a praying-in-the-Spirit person trying to figure out when to stand and sit and if I say the words in bold and ‘wait, what’s intinction?’. You might have to pivot to a different denomination or watch someone you trust online. But, the Church that has lived Luke 4:18-19 (remember that verse from above) for months is strong. And, you know what else? I’m watching it grow. I’m watching it arc magnificently towards the sun in a proclamation of the Lord’s favor.
Let’s go back to my running story. Remember when I got the notification on the 100 miles but I had only run three days that week? The notifications were of the past 100 miles - and, needs to be celebrated. But, I was also running a new path now years later. These new paths by no means discount that past 100 miles, or my past churches. I’m looking for something new, but have been invested in the 100 miles for a while. I can still honor these churches, remember the great people, relationships, and formative ways they have been to me, and lament the hard parts I want to forget. I can still recognize the 100 miles I did years ago while also choosing to run a new route.
A race set out for me towards the Author and Perfector of my faith.
Living into a freedom that is centered at the Cross and bends towards Galatians 5 for my neighbors.
A natural arc to the sun with groans of creation.