the breadth of the body

I mentioned in my last post that I had a lot of church a couple weekends ago. Three services, to be exact.

One was a liturgical service folded into a wedding in a gorgeous Methodist church in Atlanta. One was a Southern Baptist service at my parents’ church, the church I grew up in, the church that makes me squirm with discomfort because on one hand I disagree with so much, but on the other, that place was where I first learned to love Jesus, and that still matters. And the last was in a living room connected by Google hangouts to two other living rooms, the way my beloved little church operates now, and our pastor spoke on the resurrection stories and also mass incarceration.

And I stand in awe at the breadth of the Body.

It’s what both adds to and subtracts from my doubt, and leaves me sitting in the mystery of how so many people from so many places can come together and believe and worship the same God in so many different ways.

I’ve attended only one church for the majority of my life, from the time I was in utero until after I graduated high school. My parents are still members there, and I still go with them when I go home. That church shaped me, molded me as a child, then young adult. I sat in my then-pastor’s office as a very young girl with a list of questions that he patiently, gently answered. I was baptized by that same pastor. I attended VBS, then helped with it as a teenager. I lived for my youth group and the crazy games we played and the coffee house nights and Centrifuge and World Changers during our summers. And I weathered a major church trauma there, a very, very ugly split that felt at the time more like a civil war. (There was nothing civil about it.) My heart broke into shards, and I learned that not all church people have everyone’s best interests in mind.

When I went to college, I found another Baptist church to attend because that’s where I felt like I was supposed to go. Once a Baptist, always a Baptist, right?

Hardly.

It wasn’t until after I’d stopped going to church at all for four years that I realized that not all churches looked the same. I learned they could, in fact, be vastly different. I soon came to understand that it was that difference that I was craving, the assurance that not all churches have to be little carbon copies of each other.

For the longest time, I assumed there wasn’t an option. I was either Baptist, which I was decidedly not, or I was a rebellious, straying, former-Baptist who couldn’t make up her mind about what she believed, which I obviously had to be. There was so much shame wrapped up in leaving church that I think I seriously had to be out of church for as long as I was to get over it.

It’s taken me a very long time to untangle my mind and heart from the idea that there is one and only one way to believe, and that way is the Southern Baptist way, and if you stray away from that you are just flat-out wrong and will answer to it when you meet Jesus one day.

I’m so glad the Southern Baptist way is not the only way. The Southern Baptist way is good for Southern Baptists, but I am not one of them.

I’m a crazy liberal Methodist. My very best friend, also a Methodist, has been telling me for literally years that I am not a Baptist, that I am a Methodist, and like a good Baptist I told her for years that she must be mistaken.

She was not.

When I was still recovering from the panic and the guilt and the anger that comes with a faith crisis, God threw me the biggest care package I could’ve ever imagined in the form of a Methodist church, and my best friend got herself a great big I told you so moment.

I came to know Saint Junia in the oddest of ways. I follow SAFE Samford on Facebook, a LGBTQ-affirming group of Samford alums, faculty, and students. Dave, our pastor, who’d been an adjunct professor in Samford’s religion department for a while, had posted several things about the church. I figured if he was actively posting on that page, on purpose, it might be something I wanted to check out. I went to the website and saw they were having a pancake-and-waffle event at Dave’s house, which happened to be right down the street from where we’d just moved. I don’t even know what came over me – this was pretty bold even for my extroverted self – but I went to that breakfast-for-dinner event, completely solo, without knowing a single soul.

I cried the entire 2-minute drive home, because I never dreamed a church community could look like that.

It was small, and looked different then than it did a year later, and different still from how we look today, but I have never seen a group of people be the Body of Christ like these people. They are truly the salt of the earth, I am so blessed to call them my friends.

So I came back into the fold, slowly, skeptically, but so, so gratefully. I stumbled through liturgy I’d never heard before in plastic chairs in a Girls, Inc. building. I learned songs I’d never sung before in a jazz style that took a few weeks to get used to, but that I learned to love. I sat in wonder at a place where women can help serve communion, can be ordained into ministry, can preach! From the pulpit! Who has ever heard of such a thing???

And I cried. Oh, I cried, with relief, with joy, with love, with grief over the years that I’d been missing this.

And I learned. I learned new and different contexts to scripture passages that I’d never known before. I learned to read the Bible in ways I’d never thought of. I learned liturgy, and so quickly I learned to love it. There’s power in a message spoken as one voice, there’s truth in words repeated the same way for centuries. There’s no debate in liturgy, no politics to argue over, nobody gets left out. It’s the spoken truth of the Gospel and it’s been life-changing, hearing and speaking and memorizing those words.

 

Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.

 

Liturgy gives so much solace to my wandering, weary soul.

Thanks be to God.

I had a full-circle moment at my cousin’s wedding as we were turning through the pages of our orders of worship. I looked down the pew, and my sweet Baptist family was whispering amongst themselves, trying to figure out how the heck you take Communion by intinction. “Just watch April,” my mom finally decided in a murmur to my dad.

Watch April. Watch April do the spiritual thing. Watch April take the body and the blood. Follow her lead, because she knows how to do it here, and we’re not quite sure.

It was this incredible feeling of acceptance, of comfort, of being at home in a place that was a far cry from our house churches in Alabama. I read along with the liturgy that my heart has come to know so well. I recited the Apostles Creed and believed it. And I thought of the words that Brooke wrote on the first page of the order of worship, which I appreciated more that she will ever know.

Whatever your beliefs may be, you are welcome. Whatever your doubts may be, you are welcome.

And I stand in awe at the breadth of the Body.

My Baptist parents took Communion by intinction, dipped the bread in the cup, kneeling on the kneelers at the altar, served probably for the first time by a woman, definitely for the first time by a bride.

And I smiled at my cousin serving the body and the minister serving the blood, and said Amen.

o me of little faith

I don’t have a particularly good memory (to which my husband can attest, as I ask him where I left my keys approximately eighty times a day), but there are a handful of moments from my childhood and growing-up years that still feel as visceral to me as they did all those years ago.

One such memory happened when I was small, I don’t even know how old, older than 5 but younger than 10. I was in my bed at night and the strangest feeling of sheer fear washed over me. I remember running my hand over my wall, feeling the sturdy surface underneath my hand, the tiny bumps of drywall and paint under my fingers. How do I know this is real? I brought my hand back in front of my face, and I stared at it in the dark. How do I know that any of this is real at all? What is this wall even made of? And what is that made of? And what am I made of? How is it possible that anything exists at all?

Pretty meta for a little kid.

It freaked me out so badly that I couldn’t calm myself down, and I got up and ran downstairs and told my mom and dad what was going on, and I don’t remember what their exact response was, but I’m pretty sure they prayed with me and put me back to bed with the assurance that yes, in fact, I am real, and so are they and so is our house and so is God.

I wish it could always be that easy.

I’m a doubting Thomas
I took a promise
But I do not feel safe
O me of little faith

I am not very good at faith. I am not very good at doubt, either. I’m trying very hard to be better at both.

Two Sundays ago, I attended my second of three church services that weekend. It was at my parents’ church, a Southern Baptist church that I called home for over half of my life. There was a guest pastor speaking as theirs was out of town, and he preached on choosing joy in times of struggle, choosing the certain over the uncertain. Sure, but what if it’s not certain? my cantankerous heart argued in the pew.

He touched on that possibility at the end of the sermon. “If you doubt,” he said, “you should doubt your doubt, because God is big enough for you.” (This is as close to a direct quote as my brain will allow more than a week out from hearing it.)

And I got mad. Because if ONLY it were that easy.

I’m a doubting Thomas
I can’t keep my promises
Cause I don’t know what’s safe
O me of little faith

There is this culture and belief in lots of churches, at least in my experience, that doubt must be eradicated. That doubt is (one of) the (many) enemy(ies). That doubt is a rebellion that must be quashed, for fear of losing hold on everything we as the church hold dear.

I think instead that sometimes that the church holds things too tightly, and loses them in return.

The thing about doubt is that it’s not a rebellious act. (Or wasn’t for me, at least. Obviously I can speak only to my own experiences, as someone who grew up in an Evangelical community and was in church for more than eighteen years every time the doors were open.)

My “crisis of faith,” as I like to fondly call it, was the hardest, longest, most gut-wrenching period of grieving I’ve ever been through. More difficult grief than losing either of my grandparents. I say I’m not good at doubt because for four years, I couldn’t even think about it without bursting into tears.

I tried really hard to stop believing in God. I tried and tried and tried because I truly felt like faith, at least the faith I’d grown up with, and my very strong moral and social compass and code were mutually exclusive.

But God, being the mercifully stubborn entity that God is, wouldn’t leave, and I was left to wrestle like Jacob with what God means and who God is and what I believed.

Let me tell you what that feels like: it feels like drowning in your own muck. It feels like the world has gone topsy-turvy, like you don’t know which way is up, like you’re clawing and reaching and stretching for something to hold tight to, but there’s not much there to grasp. It feels like a constant earthquake beneath your feet, the very foundations on which you based your life for years crumbling under you, the widening crack threatening to swallow you up.

You wonder if you’re going straight to hell because of it. The next minute, you wonder if there even is a hell.

Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die

For years, I juggled the strange, uncomfortable paradox of holding one set of convictions so strongly that I couldn’t bring myself to believe in anything that contradicted them, and being convicted by beliefs I no longer held, pinning me down and shaming me for turning my back on them.

The shame that cloaks itself heavy on your shoulders comes and goes, but stays more often than not. You worry about what people think, what judgment you’ll face if someone finds out. You hear people your parents’ age talk of lost sheep, of the grief their children are bringing to them due to wandering away from the faith, and you can’t help but wonder, “What do you think of me, then?”

It’s been a long struggle, and some days it feels like it’s over and some days it feels like it’s not.

 Please give me time to decipher the signs
Please forgive me for time that I’ve wasted

There’s been a lot of talk lately on Millennials and the church and why they leave and what they stay for. And as an almost-not-Millennial (I was born in 1985, and apparently Gen Xers ended in 1984), I can hardly speak for everyone, but I can certainly speak for myself.

I go to a tiny church plant made up of people with very big hearts who do very big things. Our tiny church, Saint Junia United Methodist Church, was created specifically to “become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things.” (That’s our vision statement. Don’t you love my church already?)

One of the hundreds of defining moments for me, one of the moments that made me say, “Oh, hi God. Thanks for that,” was a statement made by my pastor one Easter Sunday. He said, holding up a Bible in front of God and everyone, on the day we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, “Ten percent of the time, I believe a hundred and twenty percent of what’s in here, of what we teach. I’m all in. Eighty percent of the time I believe about eighty percent of it. And the other ten percent of the time I’m not sure I believe any of it at all.”

Honesty. Frank, unadulterated honesty. That’s what Millennials want. That’s what this Millennial wants, at least. I’ll take a sometimes-doubting pastor over one who tells me to doubt my doubt any day. I go to church in a place that gives everyone, even our pastor, space to question. To wonder. To doubt. But that space also gives us space to grow, instead of squeezing so tight we feel like running. I don’t have to run away from Saint Junia, or from myself. I don’t even have to run away from God – I can look God in the face, here, and ask the questions I want to and side-eye questionable religious practices and learn to believe even in the face of doubt.

These days, instead of being terrified of my doubt, unwilling to acknowledge it, I’ve learned to sit in the room with it and let it be. There are still days when it’s big and scary and roars in my face and shakes the ground under my feet, but most times it sits quietly in a chair and raises its hand politely when it wants to speak. It’s learned to present itself as healthy skepticism at times, which has been beneficial. It’s taught me things about my faith, about God, about myself. I’m learning to walk forward in spite of it, and some days it walks with me and some days it stays behind.

Either way is fine.

I’m a doubting Thomas
I’ll take your promise
Though I know nothin’s safe
O me of little faith

*Song lyrics from Doubting Thomas by Nickel Creek

the good road

I went to the most beautiful wedding this weekend.

My sweet cousin Brooke, the baby of all of us, married Trenton, who’s so obviously the love of her life, in a full-on liturgical service in a gorgeous church in Atlanta.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again, we proclaimed together as a congregation after they’d pledged their love and their whole selves to each other, and then we knelt at the altar as the bride and groom graciously and humbly served us bread and wine with the ministers there.

What a lovely way to begin a marriage.

After, at the reception, I had a moment while they were dancing their first dance, their faces shining with freshly-wedded bliss, the song that Trenton wrote for his proposal to Brooke playing precious over the sound system. I don’t know what to call it, perspective or wisdom or experience or what, but it was this feeling of knowing, a feeling of what was to come.

It’s not that I can see into the future, particularly theirs; I have no fortune teller’s eyes. I make no claims as an expert on marital satisfaction, but martial satisfaction isn’t what it was about. It’s just in that moment, I felt so strongly the breadth and depth and height of what marriage is, what the future of a life lived together looks like. How the blissed-out wedding faces fade into something much more neutral, wedding dresses traded in for well-worn and well-washed sweats, magical moments coming less and less frequently over the years.

And yet.

The spark doesn’t ever completely leave. The magic still peeks its head out once in a while, and the mundane, which is so beautiful and so perfect in and of itself, fades into the background as you glimpse the past, that moment when you fell in love, the person you fell in love with. The heels slip on and the baubles come out and the ties are tightened and the flowers are bought and you feel the love of your youth as you gaze at the beauty of them. Or maybe it’s not even that complicated or fancy, maybe it’s the music of a song that sends you whirling back years into an old, cheap apartment and he’s dancing and you’ve never remembered feeling so happy in your life.

It’ll be nine years married for us this year, Mark and I, and I am so thankful for what our life looks like. I’m sitting on my porch right now, writing this while swinging in a very old swing, looking out over a planter-full of pink-headed begonias onto our pretty little  street in our beloved neighborhood that we’ve called home for three years now. I’m living exactly the life I want to live right now, and I’m so grateful – how many people can truly say that?

It’s not always been so easy, though, and sometimes I forget. Years before now, we’ve struggled through days of miserable jobs, of small paychecks, of dingy apartments, of depression. Two whole years that I barely remember because I was working nights and living on negligible sleep. Fight after fight when I wondered (and sometimes wonder still) How in the hell does your brain even work?? Years of figuring out how to speak each others’ entirely different languages.

There’s something to be said, though, about having a partner to share the trenches with. There are days I don’t know what I’d do without Mark – the time he called my parents to warn them of an imminent tornado, and dropped everything to drive to Ooltewah after their neighborhood was hit. The evening he drove me to the emergency room just so I could get a bag of IV fluids so I might have a chance of singing at my best friend’s wedding two days later.

There are days I’m sure he feels the same about me – the week I stayed with his mom after she came home from the hospital post-stem cell transplant, all those nights of proofing grad school papers I barely understood.

It’s not always pretty, marriage. It’s not a package wrapped neatly in a nice bow, and honestly the beauty of a wedding isn’t always so reflective of what marriage actually looks like. It’s work. It’s sacrifice, it’s giving of yourself, it’s talking when you don’t want to talk and shutting up when you don’t want to do that, either. It’s broken dishwashers and busted hot water heaters and leaky roofs and dogs who like to run away and figuring out how to sleep through some intense snoring and getting annoyed because maybe some of us talk too loudly when we’re on the phone, but then again some people don’t like to eat stale food and someone needs to learn how to use a bag clip, thankyouverymuch.

But it’s also receiving. It’s being given the most wonderful gifts of love and security and home, it’s a smile and a hug every day when you come home, it’s laughing over the most ridiculous things until your stomach physically hurts. It’s the way you can know the nooks and crannies of another body almost as well or even better than you know your own. It’s the joy of accomplishing a task with someone else, a garden planted or a wall built or a room painted. It’s tiny things, like a movie night at home or ice cream shared on a glorious summer afternoon, and it’s momentous things, like the purchasing of a home or the birth of a child.

It’s a lot to be encompassed into one big feeling, which is why it threatened to spill out of my chest while Brooke and Trenton were dancing, his clear tenor intoning My Love, filling the room with music and his guests’ eyes with tears. It was overwhelmingly strong, that moment I had watching them dance into their new beginning, onto that well-trodden road that I’ve been down, that others around me, including my parents and Mark’s, have been down farther still.

It’s a good road to walk.

I hope that sometime Brooke and Trenton read these words and are excited, thrilled about the ride. I hope their marriage is filled with love and trust and understanding and loyalty with a good bit of humor thrown in. I hope they love being married as much as Mark and I do.

And most of all, I hope they find beauty in the mess of each other, and that together, they’re made even more perfectly whole.

Happy Marriage, my sweet cousin! What a beautiful journey you’ve just begun.