Some of my friends quit church long ago, disappointed and/or hurt by a hierarchy of patriarchy, a system designed specifically to suppress the voices of all but the men in power. Just this past week I heard a woman with a doctorate declare that the way to reach the Black community is through the pastor, and the way to the pastor is through “the mother board”. In other words, women in the church run things, but they have to pretend that the pastor does in order to honor the long-established patriarchy that is the church.
Sometimes I think the true gift of aging is that I no longer care about following the rules of a system I no longer believe in. The truth, however, is that I never really did follow the rules. It was what annoyed the pastors who most needed such a system to prop up their fragile egos. (Pastors are often the first politicians we are introduced to).
Thankfully for me, the pastors in my life who have needed such a system have been few. I have been a fortunate girl. The pastors in my life have, for the most part, been goodhearted people. People who encourage critical thought. People who don’t seek to use their positions as an implement of power. Truly servant-leaders. Men who don’t think God’s ordained place for women is underfoot. People who seek to elevate the voices of others, no matter their gender, race, or social-economic standing.
They are not the type of pastors who call for civil war when their positions of power feel threatened. If you have such a pastor, you should run far, far away, quick as Gump, before you end up in a heap of trouble you never imagined.
If your pastor should have an “us” and “them” approach to life, if your pastor encourages you to think less of “them” and more of “us”, you ought to find the nearest exit and make like lightning outta that place. God doesn’t play favorites, and anybody who tells you otherwise is just out to manipulate you for their own selfish ambitions.
There is a woman in our church, a striking, statuesque woman. When she sings the worship hymns, there is a shine that envelops her. It’s like watching somebody in a bubble of glitter. She opens her hands, lifts her chin, and sings, not loudly, not in an attention-seeking way, but in quiet gratitude.
Sometimes watching others worship feels like an invasion of their privacy. Other times it feels like a faith-building activity, something out of Hebrews 12 – “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”. When my kids were at home, attending church with us on Sunday mornings, watching my children worship the Creator they had come to know as the source of all love, all goodness, all beauty, was one of my most cherished moments in the week.
Lately, we’ve had a friend join us for worship. He has been out of the church for many, many years, although, he never abandoned the God who he knew loved him wholeheartedly. He is gay, this friend of ours, and, regrettably for much of his adult life, the church has not welcomed him. It wasn’t that he wanted to quit church. It was that he felt he had no other option: How many of us would continue to put ourselves in a place where we’d surely face constant rejection, and too often, outright condemnation? He has been joining us for church because I assured him that ours was a place of hospitality, where all are welcomed.
My friend did not know that the woman worshiping across the pew from us grew up in this particular church. The church’s old-timers have known her for most of her life, back to when she was a little boy attending with his parents. She is in church nearly every week. Or at least every week I’m there.
I am not gay. I am not trans. And yet, there are times when I have felt the condemnation of some due to my utter lack of conformity to church culture. I can only imagine what it must be like for a trans or for my gay friend to feel at home in a church. Back when I was working on the stories for Will Jesus Buy Me a Doublewide? (Zondervan) I spent time with Hugh Hollowell in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hugh, a pastor, was the first to help me understand how difficult community could be for a trans person. He told me about the suicide rates among trans, the violence they face, and how often trans people become homeless because of the constant rejection they face from family and loved ones, and from society at large. Honestly, before I spent time with Hugh, I was one of those Believers who thought that trans folks were plain awful people. Attention-seekers.
The truth was I didn’t have a clue.
The little amount of time I spent with Hugh and the homeless helped me understand what happens when we, the Church, throw people out of the boat. When we adhere to an “us” and “them” theology. When we see the world as a place to be feared, and people as things to be rejected.
Years ago I read a book by the Rev. Peter Marshall. Marshall was the Chaplain of the Senate, a Scotsman who did not mince words or prayers. This particular prayer of his seems as relevant as it did when he prayed it decades ago:
“Help us, O God, to treat every human heart as if it were breaking, and to consider the feeling of others as we do our own. Help us to be gentle that we may learn to love one another. Give us the grace so to live this day.”
Last week I wore a shirt that read All my favorite people are broken.
What does your shirt mean? a fellow stopped and asked me.
Oh, it’s just the title of a song I love, I responded, even though I knew it was more than just that. I hoped that someone I encountered that day saw themselves in that script.
And if they did, I hoped that they felt loved, accepted, and valued.
Just as they are.