When the Church Gets It Right

by Abigail Conley

It’s the week of church meetings of a different sort. The United Methodists are meeting to figure out their relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. The Roman Catholics are meeting over their sexual abuse scandals. I never know if people who aren’t clergy are as aware of these sorts of meetings. They always blow up my social media and then some.

I don’t discredit the importance of these meetings. I can only begin to imagine the pain wrapped up in the meetings. Like many people, I have my own share of church-inflicted trauma. There are styles of prayer that will make me physically ill because they remind me of a different sort of church. There are songs and styles of preaching that do the same.  I mostly keep away from them now, though some trigger pops up unexpectedly every now and then.

And yet, I remember this: it was the church that taught me to trust people.

Strangely, wonderfully, hopefully, transformingly: the church taught me to trust people. I say people because I still don’t know what to do with the institution, and that’s another conversation entirely. But if I begin to count the people who cared for me and honored the covenants I was born into, there is no end.

I think first of Ruth, seemingly ancient in my mind. Her hair was always done in a French twist, which fascinated me as my family sat behind her in church. I remember talking with her, which means she bothered to talk to me as a child. I remember the feel of her hand on mine as it grasped the back of the pew. The endless patience I recall from elementary school had to be there all of my life, including when I played with Cheerios to make it through worship as a toddler.

Truth be told, it’s probably my fault that the children’s sermon at my childhood church was short lived. The pastor didn’t really know what he was doing when he started that particular addition to worship and I gave lots of unhelpful answers and so it only lasted a few weeks. That same pastor, though, gladly fulfilled my requests of him at church potlucks: black pop only and help removing the devil from my deviled egg. He shook my hand at the door, too.

Maybe it seems weird to name those simple things as honoring covenant, but to me they are. People cared about me, took care of me, and made space for me because we were church. The breadth and depth is astonishing now.

Randy both taught my Sunday school class and let me rollerskate down the hallway with his daughters. Kenny and Sheila had long ago lost control of their house when the third kid was born, and so they hosted all of the kids in the church for sleepovers. We played crocodile on their king-sized waterbed—an absurd game of someone lying in the middle trying to knock everyone else off the edge—and ate blueberry pancakes in the morning. We piled on wagons for hayrides and Kenny misjudged bridges so we had to get off and walk. Still, they kept us safe along the way.

It was this strange world of people who were different than family and different than just being together in a small town. I say that because these people were still there long after I left a small town, just there, choosing to be church.

The church where I was ordained took care of me as a seminary student long before they ordained me. Elizabeth, in charge of the children’s Easter egg hunt, pressed $20 for gas into my hand because she knew it was a long trip to the church in a time when gas prices were very high. They asked if I needed help buying tires for my car and packed up extra pizza to take home. When I had the youth van rental charged to my credit card, a reimbursement check was waiting for me when I got back from the event. They gave me every reason to believe them, to trust them, day in and day out.

And I think of the other things they got right. They loved the gay kid in a church that wasn’t ready for any conversations about becoming Open and Affirming. They made space for the adult with Down syndrome. Occasionally, there was the hot mess at a board meeting because, well, that whole wrangling with institution thing. But each and every person taught me trust, simply by existing together as church.

I skipped over the people in college, the church I attended as a teenager, the churches I have served after ordination. Each adds its own flair to the larger picture: these are people who live into covenant in ways that would not be possible except for the Spirit among them. And I trust them—indeed, with my very life in the vocation of pastor.

Many of us find ourselves tied to the church in spite of a million things. Some days, I’m one of them. More often, I am overwhelmed, dazzled even, by these church people who faithfully work to reflect the Christ they serve. I am humbled by the gift of trust they gave to me, and I hope to share with others. It is my deepest hope that, with God’s help, the lasting memory will be all the times the church got it right.

Be the change you wish to see.

by Sandra Chapin

How many of us feel that there are things in the world we’d like to see changed? I celebrate those who speak truth to power, those who hold up a mirror or focus a spotlight on actions that do harm, that limit opportunities for some of us to live full and dignified lives – who are routinely dismissed as having little, if anything, of value to contribute. Other harm to people on a global scale is ongoing as decisions are made, or avoided, in regard to climate. Our kinship with animals and plants is cast aside.

The scope of social justice issues is wide. I include the need for an attitude adjustment in our everyday interactions. I promote tenderness and gentleness. I’ll try not to be too icky sweet about it.

Let’s start with cute pet videos online. Recently Spence showed me a video on his phone of a cat reclining in a drowsy position and a human hand entering the scene holding a small teddy bear. The bear is nudged against the kitty who responds by reaching out its paws to grasp the bear in a hug that melts the heart. Awww. It’s just so sweet! Not icky. Even the stoic among us who disdain showing emotion would surely smile on the inside.

I am not a cat owner (is there such a thing as a cat owner?) but…

Most people would be moved by the simplicity of the act, the relationship of animal and human with a common ground of nurture and comfort. Cat and human (and teddy) are engaged in this tender and gentle moment. My take-away is to pose a question: Am I missing similar human-to-creature encounters? Not to be touching wild things, but to be aware of eye-contact as a gentle exchange of regard. To appreciate the lean and luminous lizard. For the lizard to appreciate not getting squashed by me – as if I could move that fast.

Sharing the earth with lizards and lions.

My next story is about a couple (humans) of mature years who I see often at Panera Bread. I go there to pretend I’m at a Parisian cafe composing some great work. They have a different agenda. They get coffee and sit at their favorite table and then proceed to work on a cross-word puzzle. I never see them speak, yet with heads together each takes a turn at the puzzle, even sharing the pencil. I can’t tell what the rules are. What pattern do they follow? Do they move in sequence – across, down – or scan for a category of expertise? Does he start a word and she complete it? Silently for more than an hour they sit in this back and forth manner. Seamlessly. Lovingly.

I am not in a coupled relationship but…

Watching them makes me calm. And curious. What is it like to be part of a pair that (I assume) has been evolving for years and years? I know couples who do not demonstrate such tenderness, at least not in front of others. Couples whose interaction hint at problems unresolved and a staying together more about habit than respect.

Over time I have struck up an acquaintance with this couple. They are as sweet as they appear. Not given to excessive conversation. That’s not why they come to Panera. Seeing their choreography with the puzzle I believe they have not had a cross word between them. That’s the lens I choose when I look at them. Real human to human contact can be prickly, and I remind myself that friendships need to be tended. Like my coffee at the cafe, better when sweetened and stirred. When we hold a person gently in our heart, it is easier to hold more and more. 

Speaking truth to power. The Bible is full of it. Consider the prophet Nathan confronting King David with a story of a poor man and his beloved pet lamb, and a rich man who wanted lamb for dinner but not one from his own flock. (2 Samuel 12:1-9) Nathan’s words brought David to his knees.

Actions communicate truth. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. They were confused and protested. Servants or slaves performed this lowly chore, not a person held in high esteem. (John 13:1-15) Was Jesus confronting the power of privilege which can erode relationships and unravel a community?

In speech. In action. In attitude. Be the change you wish to see.