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.