Angst and Grace

This past week I’ve been really inspired by Rachel Held Evans’ latest book, Searching For Sunday. In it, she examines the sacraments of the church under a lens of social justice and critical thought and describes her journey away from and back to church. She details her “break-up” of sorts with evangelical culture, the pain and betrayal she felt in the months that followed, and the sense of new life she has discovered in the sacraments and ancient traditions of the church. As a bit of a church nerd myself, I have found great joy and a deep appreciation for Rachel’s wisdom. From her sections on baptism and confirmation to communion and the anointing of the sick, I wanted to shout, “YES! She gets it. This is what I have been experiencing all along!” from the rooftop time and time again.

One of my housemates and I were in charge of leading our monthly Urban Servant Corps faith reflection last week, and both being future pastors and both sharing a completely nerdy love of the sacrament of Holy Communion, we drew from much of the communion section of Searching for Sunday. (We also spent a lot of time referencing Sara Mile’s book Take This Bread, which I would highly recommend.) We rejoiced together with Rachel’s and Sara’s understandings of an open table as an act of social justice, with their eloquent descriptions of the history of communion a feast and celebration deeply rooted in community, and at the beauty God using something as ordinary and bread and wine as a tactile reminder of God’s infinite grace and forgiveness. We talked about the messiness of community (which is something all of us volunteers know a little too well at this point) and pointed to communion as a beautiful unifying, equalizing factor in the midst of the messiness, the disagreements, and mistakes we make in our life together. We talked about how sometimes the act of sharing communion with others pushes us to stretch ourselves. Sometimes it means putting aside our theological, political, and social differences to instead shift our attention toward the God who calls us all by name. As part of our faith reflection, I eagerly shared one of my (many) favorite quotes from Searching for Sunday:

“I would be lying if I said I relished this ‘sweaty, intimate, flesh-and-blood embrace’ without   reservation. Sure, I’m happy to pass the bread to someone like Sara Miles or the neighbor who     mows our lawn when we’re out of town. But Sarah Palin? Glenn Beck? Those gatekeeper types I  was talking about? Not so much. On a given Sunday morning I might spot six or seven people who have wronged or hurt me, people whose politics, theology, or personalities drive me crazy. The church is positively crawling with people who don’t deserve to be here… starting with me (151). ”

Sounds great, right? I thought so too. And then it all happened to me.

To make a long story short, suffice it to say that this morning I ended up at a fairly conservative non-denominational church service. As a self-proclaimed progressive, feminist Lutheran, I don’t often frequent worshipping communities who proclaim a more conservative, evangelical theology. I love liturgy, I like the comfort of my own tradition, and to be blatantly honest, I like being in the presence of people who think like I do. (Who doesn’t?) However, this morning I was (halfheartedly) determined to go into the service with an open mind, but then I looked at sermon notes provided on the back of the bulletin and every good intention I had flew out the window. Words like “gay,” “sin,” “impurity,” and “biblical truth” jumped out with glaring intensity. Instantly I got defensive and angry, and I proceeded to spend the rest of the service critiquing every word that came out of the pastor’s mouth, every praise song displayed on the jumbo screen, and every “amen!” shouted from the congregation.  I felt like my faith had been transformed into to an exclusionary list of rules, that the Scriptures which I hold so dear had been simplified into a black and white list of who’s in and who’s out, and the God I worship turned into an angry old white man in the sky. I left the service nearly in tears, angry at the pastor for preaching words of hate, angry at American evangelical for culture for turning this messy, complicated, beautiful Christian faith into a list of rules, and angry at the congregation for so quickly and willingly accepting it all as “Truth.” I got home, instantly grabbed a pint of ice cream, flopped on my bed, and called up my fellow progressive, feminist, critically thinking friends to rage and rant about all that I had experienced.

And then in the middle of my rant, one of my trusty, sassy, and occasionally cynical friends pulled out her own copy of Searching for Sunday and shared with me a passage that had left her thinking this past week:

“Cynicism is a powerful anesthetic we use to numb ourselves to pain, but which also, by its nature, numbs us to truth and joy. Grief is healthy. Even anger can be healthy. But numbing ourselves with cynicism in an effort to avoid feeling those things is not.

When I write off all evangelicals as hateful and ignorant, I am numbing myself with cynicism. When I jeer at their foibles, I am numbing myself with cynicism. When I roll my eyes and fold my arms and say, ‘Well, I know God can’t be present over there,’ I am numbing myself with cynicism.

And I am missing out. I am missing out on a God who surprises us by showing up where we don’t think God belongs. I am missing out on a God whose grace I need just as desperately, just as innately as the lady who dropped her child sponsorship in a protest against gay marriage. Cynicism may help us create simpler storylines with good guys and bad guys, but it doesn’t make us any better at telling the truth, which is that most of us are a frightening mix of good and evil, sinner and saint (222).”

Turns out I too at times need a healthy dose of humility. Especially when I think I have God figured out, when I convince myself that my own tradition can somehow encompass all that God is, and when despite all of my talk about all being welcome, I start to think that my theology and worldview make me superior and more worthy of God’s grace. Community is messy. The Body of Christ is messy. But, as Rachel says, “The church is God saying: ‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine’ (153).”

I think we all have much to learn from this messiness, from our frustrations, from our different theological and political perspectives. Like it or not (and sometimes I really don’t like it), we are a family, and all too often families hurt each other, even deeply. Thankfully, this ancient and ever unfolding story of the Christian faith does not depend on us coming to agreement and thankfully, we have a God so much bigger than our feeble attempts at making ourselves the most worthy.

So, here’s to finding ways to stumble upon God’s grace together as one beautifully imperfect Body of Christ. We’re going to need each other pretty desperately along the way.