Not long before all of the news turned bad then proceeded to take a steep nosedive to the rocky bottom of hell, I remember reading a few short articles concerning the reasons why other people were leaving the church. This was back when I had the time to read an article slightly longer than a paragraph while not also staring into the glowing abyss of my phone. I remember relating to a lot of the reasons that were offered up for leaving. Despite all of the wrestling and vacillating I landed on staying which sounds batshit.
Here are the reasons that I am returning to the place despite all of the difficulty and frustration that the decision ensures.
All people are perfectly capable of doing beautiful and loving things, then turning around and being miserable bastards. Sometimes this change happens in the course of a short car ride. I have a whole app that is a scrolling feed of memes either excusing or trying to cope with these crazy contradicting behaviors. Almost all of us are always doing both good and bad at the same time in different relationships. Typically we are blind to the awful stuff and will push away anyone and everyone who sees the negative side. My first marriage failed, in part, because the relationship revealed to me that I was not who I thought I was. All close relationships are a mirror. The value of church relationships is in their potential to become close relationships which are always revealing, if not always in flattering ways.
Which is why there should be a place in the world where forgiveness is still held at the center. Inevitably this will mean that people will get away with shit (and that does sound awful and inexcusable) until I remember that I am the perpetrator of some of the fairly bad shit. Forgiveness sounds like a terrible idea until you are the one in need of it, at which point it starts to sound more like the only door out of a room filling up with water. Forgiveness sounds terrible until you realize that all relationships require it to continue. Often in a relationship we cease to recognize it for what it is because it is so easily granted. In love we are often assuming the best about someone’s character.
All guilt is not disposable with a wave of a hand or an even extremely logical-sounding rationalization. To apologize for a harmful action in many instances does nothing to fix the consequences of that harm. However, feeling perpetually bad and trying to carry around all of the weight of every failure all of the time is an unsustainable way to live. The world doesn’t seem to be offering much in the way of forgiveness and I can’t heal anything or love anyone if I cannot see beyond the failures which are revealed with every new relationship. The way in which Jesus tied the whole church to this central premise will never cease to be of vital importance to me.
The forgiveness that I can offer to myself is limited by the unfortunate fact that I am an unreliable narrator with blind spots and hidden excuses, so I find myself wanting it to come from something beyond me. In church, on the days when it is working correctly it can be a place where I am reminded of again of forgiveness. Perhaps this is felt, rather than objectively observed , but it doesn’t make the experience less real. Faith at its best can still be about the more generous and hopeful parts of our imagination.
It has never been and never will be a sign of superiority to never be sorry or never regret anything in the course of a life. I like being in a building where this is acknowledged even if it often goes ignored and can quickly lapse back into the comforting clarity of the good person vs. bad person game.
In church you cannot dispose of the people you would typically avoid interacting with in real life. They also have to let you in because of what they believe, some might pout really hard, but that’s the downside to yammering on about how much you love sinners all of the time. Some bad people might show up and wreak havoc on your good person narratives. It is a shame that most people think that the church is supposed to be a good person party at all, but it is a message that gets preached so often that it is assumed. The best church definition that I have run across comes from Francis Spufford who refers to church as the “International League of the Guilty”. It sounds uncomfortable until you realize all of the mutual responsibility for one another that is encompassed by the title. In the end there can be all kinds of talk about how to be a better person with silly little bullet points, but the prayers, the older hymns, and the rituals all reject the unrelenting narcissism of the American fantasy about being self-made. The most cruel behavior in the world is thinly papered over by the easy narrative of basically being a good person, or even more uselessly, being a productive person who is perceived as important by other important people.
The world is exhausting and I am tired. I have this hidden hope that I will walk back into church and someone might bring up Jesus and grace instead of all of the helpful-sounding, but ultimately useless ,coping strategies offered up everywhere else. NPR is great, and I like learning, but it’s nothing like church. All of the strategies for a better life now might as well be unscalable walls for all they are worth to me. If I have learned anything during this quarantine it is that I need something stronger and more complicated than my own lonely little willpower to thrive. It turns out I eat massive bags of popcorn in a single-sitting like I am feeding a wooly mammoth when I am anxious. It is much more difficult to function in isolation from other people. It makes you strange.
When the church is healthy it can be a support network for suffering. My brain is a bit broken, so I can’t even trust the thing on my own. It is nice to have people offer that up in prayer even when I am not sure that it is a worthwhile practice because I cannot see around myself. In prayer people say merciful things about one another and I just want to hear another person say a kind thing once in awhile. Not a clever thing. Not a snarky thing. I want one person to say one kind word once in awhile.
It seems like people all cycle between thinking that we can prove something by leaving a perfect legacy than coming to our senses in the shower when we have enough time to notice that our legacy is not all it’s chalked up to be. The pandemic was great for coming to terms with extreme limitations. To be human is a constant process of learning how to manage with the ongoingness of life until you don’t have to anymore. The best way I have to cope with the burden of ongoingness is in the massive, admittedly dangerous and sweeping mercy that are represented in the rituals of the church. I like grace because it leaves room for me to be surprised by a good thing for a change. The terrible stuff is so predictable now that it has become the default and it is tedious like a movie with a transparent plot. It is never shocking to me to hear that there are hypocrites in the building because I am one. That’s why I go. My love and my actions never seem to match as much as I wish that they did.
I only have compassion to the extent that I believe that I have received or relied upon compassion to survive. Or to pull from Jesus “whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” I still find Jesus lovely even if that sounds silly or childish. It sounds that way to me too sometimes. I’m going back to church because not ten minutes after typing that sentence I will go back to operating as though almost none of this were true. This will not happen for lack of aspiring to live out of something more beautiful and true, it will happen because being human is complicated and distracting. I have to be reminded of grace over and over again by different people with different experiences. Being human is a state that requires mercy to continue and sometimes church helps with that. In the times that it fails to deliver (or offers up accusation, or helpful life tips instead), sometimes the community itself can offer something that sounds like the gospel. I have never felt welcome in the place and I probably never will because there is so little cultural overlap between me and the folks running the show. We don’t understand what makes one another tick at all. I cannot imagine how someone who has even less overlap feels. In the end it doesn’t really matter, there are faults in both the culture itself and my brain and the lines get hazy because it is all human stuff. I don’t know if church attendance will stick but I still care about everything that I listed, so it’s worth a shot. Pray for me if that’s your thing.