Dear you, dear me, dear beloved and pursued bride,
When my friend Devonne asked me four years ago now about my thoughts on why young people are disengaging from church, it had never occurred to me that I might one day leave, too. I was faithfully attending -- plugged in, as the church folks say, and dreaming of one day working in church beside my husband. It was a dream we would see come to fruition, but even then, I didn't realize that sometimes what we think we want the most turns out to be a stepping stone -- the gateway to an even better destination; the kindness of God in a gentle reminder that His ways are not our ways.
A handful of months ago, we made the scary decision to take a break from church, which has never not been the fixed point that our lives orbit. After painful endings to both of our jobs in ministry, we stumbled somewhat aimlessly into a couple of different places before finally choosing to step away and take a breather.
It hasn't been easy, and because the story is not mine alone, I will avoid putting words in anyone else's mouth.
I've felt a bit like a spiritual vagabond -- a sensation that has only been compounded by watching my brothers and sisters react to headlines and current events in the roller coaster (dumpster fire?) that has been 2017. Where I once felt safe and at home, I now feel suffocated and like I have to walk on eggshells. It became clearer and clearer that the Church is aiming for the wrong goals.
We're missing Jesus.
In our contrived attempts to hang on to the status quo, in our ever frantic strategies to bring people in so that we can pad our spreadsheets with numbers no one else will see. In our finger pointing and the battle cries we raise against the very culture we contribute to every single day of our lives. In our hardened decisions on who is in and who is out. In our hurried efforts to keep things clean while people in our communities, God's own image bearers, are bleeding out and wondering if there really is any hope -- wondering about this Jesus that they've heard about but never actually seen because we're missing him.
He came to his own, but they did not want him.
So when an adolescent Jesus snuck away from his earthly parents during the Passover feast, they found him in church.
Didn't you know that I had to be about my Father's business?
It feels wild and more than a little bit achy to admit that I have learned more about what the Father's business looks like since I stepped away from church than I had in my years of striving to make church happen. Truthfully, it isn't so complicated after all -- but is anything really ever as complicated as we try to make it?
He's still a gardener at heart.
Jarrid Wilson writes, "if the church wants to be the hope of the world, it needs to step into places where people find themselves hopeless."
You know, like the office where your neighbors are applying for medicare and food stamps.
The halfway house.
The group home filled with kids labeled "troubled."
The AIDS ward.
The jail cell.
The shelter housing homeless veterans.
The inner city schools.
The abortion clinic.
The hotel that bills by the hour.
The psychiatric treatment facility.
Our own Facebook feeds.
The other side of the tracks.
The other end of our own church pew.
They're the people we look past and take the long way around to avoid because, no matter how hard they've tried, they can't manage to wash the dirt and the blood out of their clothes.
Ask any gardener, and they'll tell you not to be afraid of stepping into spaces that look hopeless. They'll tell you about tilling up the ground and leaning into the seasons and how the earth will teach us to live in sacred rhythms. Life to death, death to resurrection. It's always happening right in front of our eyes, if only we'd pay attention.
If you're missing Jesus, dare I suggest that he's where he's always been -- bringing light to the darkness, including the darkness in our own hearts, if we let him. But make no mistake, this love -- it's not the tidy kind. It's bloody and dirty and gritty, like spending a fortune -- like spending a life to buy you back, even on the days where you never asked to be saved.
If you're missing Jesus, dare I suggest that he's where he's always been -- hanging out with the lonely, the less than, the outcasts, and speaking blessing over the hungry and thirsty, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and those who mourn.
It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick -- the ones who know, probably from experience, that no ten-point growth strategy including a coffee bar and fog machines will heal all this wretched ache passed down from the power-hungry Empire.
No, only Jesus can do that. He tore down every barrier to get to us, allowed his flesh to be ripped open to remind us of our birthmark -- the identity we received before anyone else had a chance to call us too liberal, too gay, too dirty, too lazy, too ugly, too slutty, too poor, too foreign.
Take the world and give me the Jesus who leaves behind the 99 to search for the one, the Jesus whose garment I can grab hold of and be healed, the Jesus who laughed with children and admonished those who sought to hold them back, the Jesus who chose to build his kingdom by breaking bread with cheats and whores and backstabbers, the Jesus who used foolishness to shame the wise, the Jesus who paid no mind to cultural norms when he revealed himself to the Samaritan woman at the well, the Jesus who invited his friend to step out of the boat and walk across the glassy surface of the water, the Jesus who said "Father, forgive them," the Jesus who crushes the snake. Give me the Jesus who makes dead things come to life again.
Give me the Jesus who knows the way out of the grave.
Brothers, sisters, bride -- we can't afford to wait. We can't wait until someone else stands up to champion the cause of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We cannot sit on our hands and resign that the world is beyond repair and that we might as well wait until Jesus comes back to make all things right once again.
As busted up and cynical as I often feel, I don't understand how we can have such a hopeless view of the Imago Dei.
Are we as believers not the physical body of Christ, to whom all authority on heaven and earth was given? Did he not tell us that we would do even greater things? We have the responsibility to take what we have been given and multiply it, rather than hoarding it in fear. Scarcity isn't something that the citizens of heaven worry about.
We are chosen, and we are chosen for each other. We are blessed, and we are blessed for each other. We are broken, and we are broken for each other. We are poured out, and we are poured out for each other until the world is dripping with the holiness of an unrelenting, reckless love.
I long to see this generation of believers rise up and walk in their blood bought identity as children of God with power and love and sound mind. Truthfully, I don't believe that Jesus would ask us to pray your kingdom come, your will be done if he wasn't willing to unleash his kingdom here. But it must start in our own hearts, as our ideas about power and justice and success and righteousness give way to make room for an upside down kingdom that flings the doors wide open to welcome the downtrodden and the lowly.
I still believe that it can happen -- I believe that it will happen, because his words don't return void. We're invited to play a part in the redemption. It might not look like what we think it should. But oh, to fall in wild love with a God who isn't bound by our expectations.
Indeed, it might show up without any flashing lights or fancy donut stations or invite cards or message outlines in the bulletins.
Instead, it might show up looking like broken bread, like vulnerability, like flickering candles, like singing hymns, like moments too holy for our iPhones to capture.
It might even show up looking like a baby.