Some may say, “Well, wasn’t it just a handful of people at one church that hurt you? It wasn’t the whole church, right?” Or “Don’t let one bad apple ruin the batch.” I didn’t include these in my series on cliches last year (starting here) but perhaps I should have. Here’s the thing: being hurt by five or six people in one church is a big deal. Five or six people is a lot, especially for an introvert. It matters. It is a big deal when even one fellow church member judges, abandons and/or slanders you and it should be treated as such – especially when that person is in leadership.
Why? If God is who we believe God is, then relationships matter. God is relationship, perfect relationship in God’s self and makes it clear that God places right relationships high on God’s list of priorities. “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24). I’ve heard of churches encouraging congregants to go find someone they know may have an issue with them and work it out before they take communion – the one time my former church got close to that, we were discouraged from doing so because, at least right then, it was just between you and Jesus. I am being “counseled” not to expect apologies from the people involved in this situation; I am told not to wait for appropriate things to be done; I am told I need to prove myself worthy of the truth before people will stop withholding things from me. I know there are plenty of verses that say not to judge but why should those verses take precedent over the one quoted above (and others like it) and my seriously wondering how you can truly follow Christ and not follow it?
Furthermore, this church situation and my experience with the seminary have impacted my relationship with God. How could they not? God can and does work through means other than people but, to quote Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth, “God refuses to be God without us.” So what believers do with, to and for one another matters. That my best friend is strong enough to both listen to me process this stuff time after time over a period of years and to be honest with what she sees – that matters. What we do with, for and to the rest of the world matters. So again I ask you, how is it okay for those in church leadership to simply move on when one who was in their midst for so long leaves without saying goodbye? How are you following Christ when you come to your own conclusions about people and their motives without talking directly to that person, regardless of who told you not to? How is it loving and light-shining as Jesus calls to focus on the victim’s anger as the problem rather than the perpetrator’s complacency? I have to think, given Christ’s example, that if you notice someone in your church who has left and you don’t at least attempt to check in, then you’re doing it wrong. And if you resist the enemy’s temptations to abandon hurting people who can’t see in themselves what you see in them no matter how many times you tell them (like my best friend does), then you’re doing it right. Yet people were specifically discouraged from doing anything like that – following up, offering support, being a part of my healing process really in any way – in my situation.
So now I have to wonder: am I worth it…specifically to God? The people who have been supportive and strong in my life are not to blame for me feeling this way, as if their heroic care for me is somehow deficient. It’s just that there are so many other pressing issues in these times than my stuff – I marched in the MLK Day Rally through downtown Seattle last week and saw signs protesting just about everything about modern-day life from earth abuse to police brutality to continued systematic racism; in my county last Friday morning, 3,772 people were counted sleeping on the streets (up 21% from last year) while luxury condos are going up all over the place and there’s a ban on rent control). Given my specific church/seminary experience, I don’t exactly know how to believe anymore that God provides or will provide for me, especially when all this other stuff is going on and especially when I’m the only person in my family, it seems, that isn’t a rock star with direction and purpose towards something awesome and helpful for the world.
I feel guilty for really enjoying things that seem to only benefit me – reading, writing, curling up on the couch, spending time with people I know very well. I used to think I was going to have this big, beautiful life. Now, I just feel guilty and bad about myself for the space and resources I take up when I see others doing amazing things – anything, really – but I don’t have those specific goals. All I feel is pressure to do something great, build something awesome, engage the culture, change the whole world, or I won’t have any value to anyone or God. It’s hard to believe you’d really be loved for who and how you are when, say, you graduate from a school who’s motto is “Engage the Culture, Change the World,” celebrates alums doing just those things all over the world and you can’t find even one thing to be or stay engaged in, let alone change anything close to the world. Then again, I never really fit in at that school, either and did not find the family, support or connection that I read about so many others finding there.
So does God love talentless people? Does God love people who have no “use” in society? The Church is all about transformation and how Jesus changes lives – I’m an expert at wanting to be different than I am (as in, a different person) but there’s a very dangerous thing about preaching and proclaiming how radically different you are after Jesus enters your life. It makes those of who feel no different, who feel they have made no progress toward God or a meaningful life, as if they are doing something wrong. As if they haven’t “really” found Jesus. I’ve had numerous people tell me they think I’ll “bloom later in life.” Great, and in the meantime? Life doesn’t wait for the slow ones and, even though the Church is specifically called to – to actually go after the lost ones, it really hasn’t in my experience, either.
I want to be grateful for what I do have in this life – a phenomenal best friend who has remain committed to me and our relationship through all this and some of our own gnarly issues, others who have listened to me ad nauseum over the years about this stuff, various people who have reached out to me, the healing that has happened in my life, my husband. And also, I just have to say that it’s hard to live in America (including the Church) if you haven’t written a book by age 25, started a nonprofit by 30 and aren’t well on your way to changing the world before you hit 40. And hearing repeatedly how much “you are loved” (that’s a distancing, non-committal phrase if I ever heard one) or how much even God loves you “anyway” doesn’t help. At least, it hasn’t helped me. It really does seem like “different” means “defective” – at least in my case. I’ll admit, it’s much easier for negative evidence to stick with me than positive evidence and my inability to see genuinely good things has really hurt people I love. I just don’t know what to do with this protracted pain and isolation, stuckness and confusion, this trying what feels like everything and having nothing really work out. Yet. Lord, in Your mercy…