I visited a place where I felt so much “less weird” than I had ever felt in my life. It was an odd mixture of acceptance and challenge for growth. It was the real world, in the sense that everybody had baggage and “stuff” but willingly seemed to accept that fact for themselves and for one another. We were all hurting and in need.
It felt honest. For instance, if somebody was having a bad day not only was it permissible to let it show (anger, tears, sullen faces etc.) it was also ok to not have to fix everybody else’s bad day. No, platitudes or placating, just a simple “Sorry, you’re having a bad day,” “Sorry, life is hard right now,” or even better a nod and walk away. In my 45 years, I have never been in an environment so accepting and dizzyingly communal.
I think everybody should get to have an experience like this. It reminded me of how emotionally depraved we have become. So often we act as if communities should be homogenous. Enforcing conformity makes us feel normal. However, even in the most “welcoming” communities, there are collective rules of dress, actions, vocabulary. Sameness.
Many people think they have found that idyllic community, until the day bottom drops out of their lives. All the sudden people who were unsure how to love the injured, stampeded out of their lives, trampling the soul on the way to the nearest exit. Their lives no longer fit within the “Stepford” standards.
It reminds me of a missionary story from South East Asia. A new pastor was surveying their new place of ministry. He looked out a window and was pondering the beautiful lush grass that was growing in the yard. The only such lawn in miles. All the sudden a dog ran across the lawn. Curiously, the yard began to roll up and down like waves with the dogs every leap. The lawn was growing on the top of three stories of raw liquid sewage. As a general rule—we don’t want to acknowledge, let alone dig into, the sewage in one another’s lives; especially in the western world. We like the green grass.
My visit, though very, very difficult stands as an oasis of generosity in a desert of perceived judgment. On more than one occasion I was struck by the thought that this climate, this attitude of mutual investment and giving of gracious space should be what church community should feel like. But I’m not talking about the church. It was in a psychiatric institution where I most clearly saw grace in action in the midst of the darkness.
Here’s the thing. My friends from the hospital knew their ailments, addiction and depravity and were talking about it; working through it. They knew they are like everybody else, except for the fact that they were actively working to get healthy. They loved in spite of labels, some of which were worn right on our name tags; addict, victim, abuser, killer. From my experience people in churches don’t feel the same way. Wearing your depravity and need openly only warrants suspicion and pity, not welcome and inclusion. I fear that as a general rule my friends would not find the church a welcome place. I get it, but I resist it. We can do better than this.