I am re-reading Rachel Held Evans’ excellent memoir Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church which quotes Walter Brueggemann at the beginning of Chapter Nine:
Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.
We are just a couple days past Easter Sunday and it was undoubtedly a happy time. Families were together. Church-sanctioned gluttony was encouraged. There might have been bonnets. There definitely were bunny ears. Bright colors ruled the day except for white lilies adorning thousands of sanctuaries. We sang happy songs. And it was church-legal to say Alleluia again.
I for one enjoyed a drink with an edible flower floating in it. Nothing says happy like a flower in your drink.
But Real Church deals with unhappy things. Pain and suffering don’t go away when we cross the threshold into the sanctuary but our pain and suffering are shared with other broken people who seek forgiveness and healing. Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen.
I have a friend who was invited to leave her church small group when she tearfully shared that she and her husband were getting a divorce. She was told that her marriage problems “could be contagious.” Comfortable = Happy. And it was uncomfortable having an unhappy person in their midst.
“I’m a Christian because Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition – that we’re not okay.”
Unfortunately, too many churches I know and love are not safe communities for sharing that we are not okay. We keep shameful secrets to ourselves for fear someone will judge us or gossip about us or banish us. We’d prefer to pretend that church is the happiest place in town where all the little girls wear lacy socks and all the little boys say, “Yes, Ma’am.” Too many of us know that church can be vicious when things are not pretty.
When I was a child, the happiest place in town was Addison’s Play World which was actually in Durham, the town next door. It was North Carolina’s version of FAO Schwarz. Who could be unhappy there?
Actually, most people. I remember leaving after our annual family visit each December filled with regret that I would never in fact receive the over-the-top gifts I saw there. Pink child-sized grand pianos and trampolines and child-sized convertibles that drove like real cars. It was all so beautiful and magical. But it made me feel greedy inside. And a little sad.
And there were always sobbing children in the aisles begging for toys.
I’m not sure what the happiest place in town is these days, but it will never be a church building – at least if that church building is a tool for authentic ministry. Healthy congregations welcome and love people who struggle with everything from their faith to their addictions to their utility bills. Effective congregations welcome the homeless, the refugee, the grieving. Congregations offer relief and – certainly – there are happy results on many days. But Real Church confronts evil and imperfection with love and that’s really hard.
True happiness comes when we are the people God created us to be. Not greedy or grabby or judge-y. It’s so much more than fake smiles and cursory handshakes during the Passing of the Peace.
There is deep joy when we take care of each other and love each other. When people we barely know are praying with and for us, when they visit us and bring dinner, when they hold us while we weep, when they sit with us when we fail – this surely makes life a little better.
Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.*
*Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday. Please pray for Rachel as she – at this writing – is in Intensive Care after complications from an infection. Updates on her health are here. There’s a GoFundMe account to help pay medical expenses here. And please pray for her and her family.
Image from the newly re-opened FAO Schwarz in NYC last fall.