Wednesday, November 6, 2013

on learning to love.

{photo by Steve Richey}

I have gone to the same church my entire life. 

Sure, there was college. An out-of-state internship. But most every Sunday for the past 27 years, I've attended the same small, conservative church. 

And it has been hard. 

There have been hurts. Church doctrine that doesn't match my own (or, doesn't match what I believe Scripture to say). Decisions that I haven't understood. Leadership that looks different from what I might have chosen.

We have stayed through every storm, even when it hurt. Even when it was hard. 

But changes are coming. 

Our minister -- a man who we love, respect, and trust -- is leaving. He is leaving, and we aren't sure what that might mean for us. We think quite seriously it might be time for us to move on. We're contemplating a move to Thomasville, and with the minister we love saying goodbye, we think it may be our time too. 

And so, now, each service takes on new meaning. There are so many things I struggle with in our church, in the religious traditions of our childhoods. But we are loved here. I look around, and I see people I have known and loved my entire life. Some a little odd. Many kind. Others not. This is a congregation full of young and old. White and black. Conservative and liberal. As a result, there are often growing pains and disgruntled murmurings. But there is also patience and forgiveness. 

I sing the hymns I have known for years, listen as the four-part harmonies are raised to Heaven. I hear people who can't carry a tune, see the couple that sings to each other, watch as people smile and frown, as babies cry and old men cough. 

Every Sunday, I drink grape juice and eat crackers that never seem like enough. Every Sunday, it seems, I begin to cry. Not so much over past hurts anymore, but over the realization that soon, we might be saying goodbye. 

No church is perfect. I know that. But I also know Jordan and I have struggled for a long time over the question of church, over where we belong and where we should worship. It's important to us, ingrained in us. It would be impossible for us not to go somewhere, and I understand that's foreign for a lot of people. But to us, it's as natural as breathing. 

So we will go somewhere. But we're not sure where. 

It could be this same dark, brick building, filled with familiar faces, hugs and handshakes. 

But I think it's more likely it will be somewhere new. And because of that, I cry a lot during church now. Because yes, I have been hurt here. But I also have learned how to love here. 

The Scripture I believe is full of hard, difficult teachings. Perhaps the hardest is the command to love, and nowhere have I learned more about love than in the church. 

My family -- my precious, quirky, dear-to-me family -- is easy for me to love. I think you'd love them too, if you met them. 

My friends -- my kindred spirits, my guiding posts, my listening ears -- are easy for me to love. Chances are, you'd love them too, if you got to know them. 

But church? Where people of all walks of life come to find healing and peace and purpose? Church can be full of people who are hard to love. People who have been hurt, so now they hurt others. People with staunch opinions and tried-and-true belief systems that are just so different from my own. 

Church is one of the only places where I am forced to love. 

Don't like a coworker? You can hide in your office. Avoid them at company lunches. 

Don't like a church member in a church of 250? You're guaranteed to run into them at the water fountain, in the bathroom, on the way to class, just a few seats down in the sanctuary. 

They are unavoidable, and it becomes too painful. Too painful to sit idly by. 

And that's when you can choose. Choose to become bitter and hard. Or choose to let the Spirit rise up in you to love. 

This church family I've called mine for 27 years? There are some lovely people here. People as dear to me as the family that raised me. But there are also the prickly ones, the grouchy ones, the difficult ones to bear. 

And it's from those -- from all of those, really -- I've learned love and forgiveness. 

I'm not sure where Jordan and I will go next. 2014 will be full of more decisions, more choices. 

But should we choose to leave, we will leave this place better people. (And, of course, my hope is that we will leave the church itself better than where we found it.) 

We will leave, I think, knowing how to really, truly love. 


Annie said...

I love this, Annie. I think nowhere else but in the church do we learn to act selflessly, love unconditionally, and contribute wholeheartedly to a community. And what's encouraging to me is even if you leave this church, you'll be taking the lessons you learned about selflessness and love and community and putting them to use among another people. And my prayer is that as you serve among those people that as you make friendships and build relationship and maybe even relearn these hard lessons of love and sacrifice, that your faith against theirs will be the iron that sharpens you both.

Ray Sherlock said...

My heart brakes while I read this. I am with you always even to the end of the age.

Erin said...

Leaving a church is such a hard thing to do. I no longer go to the church I grew up in, and while I love my new church and, in many ways, still feel connected to my old church and get to see those people often, I still miss it. I think one of the hardest things for me is to realize that my children will one day be raised in our new church and not have the same memories of church I have, and while this is fine it is also a strange thing to think about.

Najee said...

Thank you for being willing to share this part of your heart. I've been in the same church since 1997, and my roots here are deep and heavy.

I know that wherever God leads you, He has already gone before you and you need not fear. =)

Carie said...

I was just stopping by to catch up on your blog since I've been in India and this post hit me like a ton of bricks. I am in the exact same situation right now. Every service leaves me in tears; I know it's time to move on, but how do I leave family, those I love? Our Father grants wisdom and peace to those who seek it and I pray that for you, and me, in our searches. Life and Peace, Annie.