Church, at its best, is a call and response between friends, a sense of belonging. That’s how Tish puts it in Chapter 9. But it can also be in community that we hurt each other. I spent a good portion of my life in an Adventist community where who I was allowed to be was often, well, squished. Smushed. Corseted and quieted. If I had questions—perhaps I just needed to listen more. If I was unsure—muster up more faith. If I needed a safe place to express pain—perhaps I wasn’t long-suffering enough. Angry? God forbid. There was little room for anger in that space. I learned that in order to be accepted, I needed to match the pleasant and subdued exteriors of the congregation around me. It didn’t take many years for me to leave those confines and swear off of church forever.
As I matured and had more agency over with whom and where I spent my time, I found myself drawn to vulnerability. To this day, people who are freely and honestly themselves, raw and open and broken and strong and brazen and beautiful and unabashed, are my favorite people in the whole world. They are willing to share themselves, their stories, their feelings, their questions, their insecurities, and yes, their frustrations and anger.
I can sigh and pound my fist in their presence, frustrated at the inequalities and unnecessary pain in the world, and they do not make me feel that I am out of order or out of place. I can admit faults, mistakes, and flaws. We talk about pain, about our state of being “the walking wounded” (122).
They do not turn away from my experiences, my thoughts, my questions, or my feelings, because their vulnerability has already made space for mine, their softness creating a space for me to cushion both myself and others. Their call is that of the quiet instrument and lone voice, singing to my aching heartstrings—sometimes a perfect harmony, and other times, someone making eye contact and listening, or a gutteral “mmm hmm” from the pew next to me, or tears coursing down cheeks. I can honestly respond to this call however I need to. This is what it means to be together.
They are in my church pews, across the lunch table, on the other end of my phone line, at the tips of my texts, on the corkboard wall of my life: they are my people. This kind of vulnerable community makes space for me to expand, to grow, to heal. To call out. To respond.
For a long time, I existed in a community that felt like a lid slammed down on my bubbling pot of frustration and unsurety. It suffocated and quelled—and caused me to boil over. I yearned to get out and to inhale even the slightest air of acceptance. The church, I think, for many of us, has been a place where we were deeply hurt. I still feel a catch in my throat sometimes, remembering things that were said to me and my family in the name of God and community. The church has been a disappointment. It has failed us—well, we have failed each other, disappointed each other, hurt each other. We have neglected to address “the questionings of the bewildered. . . [our] inconsistencies and perversions and [our] want of perfection” (123).
Tish points out that recognizing this shortcoming is crucial to becoming better. We must first see what we have done and who we have become, before we can improve. Recognize where we have accepted inequality. Name our acceptance of injustices. Admit when we’ve screwed up. We must concede fault, and then look to Christ, pattern ourselves after him, and, in the circle of other like-believers, do better.
Nowadays, my church community has become inextricably woven into my hope, for myself, for my community, and for the greater world around us. Today as I pulled up to my house, my church neighbors were smoothing out gopher mounds in my lawn and hacking at the weeds in my lawn that I (admittedly) haven’t even tried to tackle. Sabbath mornings, it’s the musicians and Sabbath school teachers and cooks and coffee brewers and greeters and speakers who get to church earlier than the rest so that we have coffee to sip, a hand to shake, and music to immerse ourselves in, teachers to encourage and edify us. It’s in the boxes of food we hand out every week. This month, it was church friends who pampered us with a Sabbath lunch we could not afford on our own. Earlier this week, it was a family space filled with stories and art and food and the acceptance and embrace I have come to associate with being a part of the community of God. We are literally and figuratively nourished, and then we turn and nourish others.
To quote Tish, “we belong to each other” (127). We belong to each other, in our vulnerability, in our choked-up throats and in our full-throated harmonies, in our potlucks and our pain, in our bad days and in our perfect moments, in our strengths and in our weaknesses. We belong to each other. In the call and response of our congregations, we find “a place where we can be gloriously and devastatingly human. We find a place where we can fail and repent and grow and receive grace and be made new . . . we can learn to live together, weak and human, in the goodness and transformation of God” (124). And we do it together.