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How the church can be a safe place again

He struggles across the horizon, against the wind whipping and snow blowing, against all the bitterness of the world and I wonder how I too, can spring with such resilient joy in the face of such adversity.

I trudge on, calling his name, this dog of mine, but the words are lost in the lonely howl of winter’s play.

The trees are thicker now. ┬áThe chaotic tumble of branches reach down upon the narrow trail I’m following and then there’s a fallen log across my path, so I kick my snowshoes off, climb over, sit, catching my breath, this plume of white exhaled, inhaled, exhaled.

Safe - Snowy Treescape

How do you keep breathing when the weight of the darkness presses hard against your chest?

I replay the scene from the dinner table, mashed potatoes piled high, the smooth carve of knife meeting ham, the bread, broken together, this holy communion of friends meeting after church. And how the conversation soared, took on a flight of its own until someone said, laughing, “Guess who I met the other day?”

And we all know her, the lady with four jackets, multi-colored, scrawny, like she doesn’t get enough to eat and how she carries on talking to herself, one second an FBI agent, the next an airline pilot.

“She’s absolutely crazy,” someone says and the laughter tumbles onto the table, this ugly hate and someone carries on about how “cuckoo” she is and then someone asks serious, “Don’t you think she just needs a good laying on of hands? Someone to pray over her? To cast the demons out?”

I cannot breathe, the weight of all the ugly misunderstood weighing down and my face flushes hot in embarrassment as I recall standing in line at Walgreens, waiting for pill bottles filled to stop the voices inside my head. I want to announce it, loud, “She’s schizophrenic, maybe bipolar. We don’t know what she’s lived through to be who she is today. It’s a chemical imbalance, not a demonic presence.” I want to say it, but I don’t because Southern Gal squeezes my hand, then, under the table and┬ásometimes that’s all it takes: just one person knowing what you’re going through and you have the strength to stay silent or speak up or do all kinds of brave things.

Because when, when… oh when, did the church become this? When did the church, this one place that should be the safest refuge on earth, become a place with no room for the broken and imperfect? When did “oneness of spirit” become “oneness of attitudes, culture, and traditions”? When did we start exposing the broken people as unfixable, unlovable and when did we start casting the first stone against them, these dear people with stories different than our own? When, oh when?

So here I am, walking through the woods, even in a storm because sometimes the weight of all the hurting in the church rests heavy on my chest. I see the depressed, the overweight, the socially awkward, the labels – thousands of names we throw on people that are different from the rest, and we choose to judge instead of love. I’m so ashamed of how we treat the very people Jesus came to save, how we treat the “least of these” He spoke of so passionately.

Here also, alone in the great outdoors, if I’m perfectly honest, no one can hurt me.

I see a tuft of fur ahead, this bounce of a tail against the flurry of snow and I follow Ervin off the path, see a well-worn trail not yet covered by snow. It is an animal trail, hollowed out from use and there are dog prints, too, smaller than Ervin’s fresh ones, and I think about the coyotes in the area.

“How do you bind up the slow bleeding of your one broken heart and still believe wounded warriors win, still believe that there is no remission of sins or the crossing of finish lines without things getting downright bloody, still believe scars and wounds and broken places might become you and become who you are?” says Ann Voskamp in The Broken Way.

The trail narrows, curves around trees fallen and ancient, rotting fence posts and the wind pushes hard against my face, throwing the stinging sleet in my eyes and then it’s over. We are in a clearing, a small, hollowed out space of refuge and above me. The ice has collected on fine branches like a chandelier, this dance of light reflected and projected. And the snow filters soft, down from the trees around, and it sparkles in the air, falling, like God Himself is sitting at a piano welcoming me home. My knees hit the ground, and Ervin, clutched in my embrace, licks my face, licks away the tears from all the cold in this world.

Safe - Pristine Snowscape

“How do you live with your one broken heart?” It echoes in the sudden silence.

A rabbit peeks at us from beneath the bushes. It sniffs the air, pausing there, letting me see it, and it see me. and I think maybe this is how you live with your one broken heart: you let others see you and you see them. You find that one other broken person and you bear them up, love them, live this one life right alongside them. You find, like in this haven, your own tiny church of misfits and the broken lonely.

“Forgive me,” I pray. “Forgive me for all those I’ve hurt in my hurried intolerance. Help me to see the heart of others how You see their hearts.”

Night is falling, the darkness pressing in but I don’t want to leave this space.

Safe - Moonlit Night

“Help me to love even the ones throwing the stones.” I whisper this last one, like a silent, desperate plea.

“My body was broken for you, for them… my side was pierced, my hands split wide open. I died a broken man, and no man shall come to the Father except through me. No man shall enter the kingdom of heaven unless he first enters into the brokenness of who I am, of who he is…”

I walk home, then, take off my snowshoes on the porch, step inside and Southern Gal, she stands at the sink washing the last of the dishes.

“How do you love others who are different than yourself?” I ask.

“People are complex. But Jesus is simple.”

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Photos courtesy of James Kade

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