There are a few places from my childhood that I associate with feeling at peace. My house (except when my older sisters screamed at one another over clothes), the beach at our family cabin, and church.
I can’t explain why but from a very young age, I’ve always felt loved by a loving God. Being at church as a child reinforced this conviction. The physical building, the rituals, the music, and the people all sang the same chorus. “You are never alone. You are loved.”
I still feel a sense of comfort when I sit in church. Just this past Christmas Eve, the familiar decorations in the sanctuary, the reading of the Christmas story by the fifth graders, and the lighting of the Advent candles sang to me once again. However, this year as I sat in the pew, another chorus in my mind competed for attention. It didn’t sound like unconditional love.
While this alternate refrain wasn’t new to me, its volume was higher. I suspect that an experience my daughter had a few years ago and a piece of recent Seattle news contributed to its amplication.
In high school, my oldest was very involved in the youth group at a church – one that we, as a family, did not attend. In particular, she participated in the group’s annual home-building mission trips to Mexico. This community mattered to her and helped her to see the world as larger than her own teenage angst.
During her senior year, church leadership enacted a policy that prohibited adult youth leaders from directly affirming LGBTQIA+ students. The decision had fall out. The youth pastor and several volunteers left. Many students, my daughter included, stopped attending as well.
While I felt for her, and for the real grief she experienced from losing important connections, I deeply worried about the students most personally impacted. For them, the chorus had abruptly changed … you are alone and you are not unconditionally loved. I imagined shame and the potentially life threatening consequences of it.
Fast forward to this summer. The once largest Presbyterian church in Seattle shut down. Six years prior, the church had attempted to break away from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in part because its leaders disagreed with denomination’s decision to revise the definition of marriage to accommodate unions between same sex couples. Ultimately, the church remained Presbyterian and a new pastor was hired.
But the battle had fallout. Legal expenses grew and church attendance shrunk. When the church finally closed its doors in July, various community outreach programs – many focused on serving the city’s growing homeless population – ended as well.
What’s happening to the church, a place that has comforted me at various times in my life? And what’s my connection to it? I feel religiously unmoored which is very unsettling – especially in middle age with parents and other loved ones passing away.
As I ponder all of this, a song called “The Side of Grace” runs through my mind. It was written by a dear friend and former teaching colleague, Anne Marie Russell. You can listen to it here.
If I’m wrong, well I’d rather be found standing on the side of grace. And if I march on the other side, let it be for the sake of love. Things may ultimately be more black and white than these eyes of mine can see, And if I err let it be on the side of grace.
Let it be towards grace.
This I know: I choose to stand on the side of grace. Every time. And doing so demands that I find and support places where the chorus always and only reminds those that gather that they matter. That they are fiercely loved by a loving God.