Exciting news! Received my first response from a previously unknown reader! Maybe that doesn't seem all that exciting to you, but to me it is! Especially because of the nature of their response to my writing thus far. You will have noticed my writing is in response to the way I experience the world and how I connect those experiences to my faith in God. This reader caught on to something I've been experimenting with and commented, "You share your faith in a way that doesn't make me feel guilty for not having that same experience. I wish the church did a better job of that."
I work in the church. I see the good and holy. I also see the damage. Many of you will disagree with my next statement, but I believe it is true. Christianity in the form of church institutions does more damage than good in furthering the kingdom of God.
One of my favorite Bible stories comes from Genesis 18:1-8. It is a pretty simple story and easy to look over. It is the story of Abraham and Sarah greeting their guests. My boss at summer camp used this scripture in the middle of the summer to teach and remind us of how we are called to be hospitable. It was important to welcome the newest group of children on week 4 with just as much joy and energy as we had the group from the very first week of the summer. Even though "it is hot" and we are tired and we've already played the games 398 times. Welcome with joy, gladness and authenticity. If you go back and read the Bible story, you'll hear how Abraham and Sarah were in their tent, trying to rest, when they look up and see visitors coming towards them. What I like about Abrahams' example in this story is the way he welcomes the guests. He doesn't sit and wait for them to come to him. He doesn't immediately start telling them stories and trying to convert them to believe in his God. He jumps up and runs to them. Greeting them with joy. Welcoming through serving them right where they were. It was hot. They needed food and rest. Abraham served them through their needs. He didn't just serve them. He served them with joy and gladness. Abraham and Sarah's actions were authentic and shared love in a way that went beyond simple service. They allowed God to be, through them.
Can you name a place you've felt genuinely welcomed? Your grandmother's house with a yoohoo? A friend with a funny joke? Your momma's kitchen with the smells of your favorite meal? That restaurant you enjoy so often they know you by name? This is how I imagine Abraham's hospitality. Warm and genuine. Can you name a time you felt that warmth upon walking into your church Sanctuary? I'm sure many of you have! But for more than you might expect, they do not. I see it often in the responses I receive in welcoming my children and families into the church building. I try my best to greet with a warm and inviting welcome. Sometimes I hear, a relieved, but borderline defeated, "We made it" or, "We're almost on time" or, "Our outfits don't match, but we're here" or, "We had a fiasco in the car and almost turned around." It is as if they need MY approval of their perceived failures as the passcode to enter. Somewhere along the way, they've been taught those things matter before the grace God gives. I often find God asks me to fill the gap, no matter how small it may seem. Remind them of the fullness of God's grace through a kind word of encouragement.
Have you heard the statement, "I am spiritual, but not religious"? I have grown to understand this in my late 20's and now early 30's in a different light than I might have years ago. This topic is relevant in conversations among those in my age demographic. For most young adults who grow up in the church, they enter the phase of life for having their own thoughts, making decisions on their own and realize they do not agree with much of what they've been taught. Especially what they have learned from the church. There is a level of expectation which is so unwelcoming that even before a sinner can walk into the church building, they feel less than. That "less than" feeling is so overwhelming they do not even try to enter. In response, I've heard it many times, "But once they come in...", "But once they get to know us...", "But once they know God..." I've probably said those words too. Yet, even once they come in, get to know us and even know God, still we fall short. We are indeed all sinners, just of different varieties. Why does that mean any one of us should feel less than, so much so we do not feel worthy to enter? Those who feel less than, often want to believe in something that is bigger than them. They may even seek the relationship with God to find "the bigger." What they don't want and frankly, don't need, is our collective judgement. Our collective "unwelcomeness." There is power in the practices without the onlooker and the community. Therefore, they are "spiritual, but not religious."
Through my experience of the world and people, I do not see my faith expanding or building without community. It is valuable for my own faith, even though often frustrating, to be a part of the faith community. However, I am not fully myself or doing what God has called me to do without stepping beyond my own beliefs to meet another where they are. Meeting others where they are does not mean I have to lose myself. It is not always easy, but God doesn't call us to do the easy.
I took a Sunday off. I didn't go to church. I didn't watch online. But I did worship. Here. Alone. With God. And the birds. All the birds!
To the person who feels less than before even stepping in,
I would like to first acknowledge your pain. I would also like you to know, you are not alone. I cannot name a single human who has not stepped foot inside God's house, whether a church building or creation, without feeling less than. We with our fancy clothes and perfectly worded prayers? We are a fraud. You are not reading us inaccurately. There is nothing wrong with you. You've figured it out. Let the sure and rising sun be a reminder, you are seen, known and loved.
Let the birds singing fill you with Hope that the world does not get to tell you your worth is less than. The church does not get to tell you you are not welcome because of the clothes you are wearing or the baggage you bring with you.
Listen to the birds again. What do they sound like to you? To me, they sound like they belong. They fit perfectly. And you do, too.