My husband has been a pastor for as long as I’ve known him and ever since I graduated college, I’ve been involved in some sort of full time ministry. It’s our job to do religion well. Literally. We are professionals at this.
Which is why I don’t often tell people there was a period in our married lives, for about six months, when I didn’t go to church. (It doesn’t look good for a pastor’s wife to take issue with religious culture that puts money in her family’s bank account every two weeks.) That being said, it didn’t stop me from kissing my husband good bye for a consecutive six months of Sunday mornings, while I stayed home with our newborn son.
I used him as an excuse. The baby. The drive to the new church Rodney was on staff at was much farther away, and I was stickler for nap schedules and routine and a bit of a germaphobe when it came to church nurseries so it was easy to make the baby the reason why I skipped out.
But that wasn’t it. Not really. The baby’s arrival just happened to coincide with, not exactly a faith crisis, but a personal church crisis.
Church for as long as I had known it, had been a sort of sanctuary and safe place for me. But then, it suddenly wasn’t. The church Rodney and I envisioned being a part of forever, didn’t seem the same under the hood as it appeared on the outside. What felt a like a structurally sound future turned out to be a tower of blocks coming precariously close to collapsing on itself as one by one we discovered increasingly incriminating behavior and patterns.
I know bad church stories. And I know, relatively speaking, what we experienced wasn’t that bad. But it was bad enough. Bad enough to keep me home for six months of Sunday’s because my particular church experience led to a more general distrust of the Church as a whole.
So I didn’t go. Out of fear of being disappointed again. Out of cynicism thinking that all leaders would be the same. Out of hurt for what had been taken from us.
Until one Sunday in August, when I tentatively walked back in through the doors of a church, this time as a new mom, a new attender and a highly skeptical guest. I came in a little late, avoided eye contact with the volunteers strategically placed at ever turn, and snuck into the balcony right before music started. I felt like a fraud sitting there. Until little by little, I didn’t. It started that Sunday. But it didn’t end there.
Actually, I felt like I had fully assimilated back into church life and church culture about three months later. It was the annual Be Rich Sunday. A Sunday when our new church home and its network of city churches and partner churches around the country launched a month of generosity around the city, country and even the world. I was dubious at first. A movement called “Be Rich” at church? It seemed to emphasize everything negatively associated with Christianity. But this movement was different, we were told. 100% of the proceeds were being given away. 100%. The church had located and vetted non profits who were doing work we believed in in the community and all money raised would be allotted to these groups, helping the people who were on the ground already doing the work to achieve goals once thought impossible, now attainable due to the generosity of the Church.
Be Rich closed the circle a hurtful past church experience had opened up. It reminded me of what the Church could be, and ought to be. It brought to mind the impassioned plea Jesus had for his followers, to allow the energy and love that unites us be a force for good in the world that so badly needs it, so they might know him and the Father who sent him.
This past Sunday marked my ninth year of attending Be Rich Sunday. I don’t remember the date of the Sunday I went back to church after my hiatus, so in some ways, I think of Be Rich Sunday as a sort of anniversary to my homecoming. Because it’s the Sunday I remember revitalizing the way I saw the Church as a whole, even when the hurtful particulars of my personal church experience continued to nestle itself into my memory.
The Church is imperfect. Anyone who’s been in one knows that from first hand experience. Which is why Sundays like Be Rich are so important. The faults, failings, missteps and mistakes of the Church are many. We’ve all got a story where we experienced it. The humanity of this sacred institution is all too often glaringly obvious and painfully personal. But that isn’t all she is. Not by a long shot.
Be Rich reminds me of our greatest potential. (And some days we need that reminder more than others.) It reminds me that as hard as the world can be, as hard as the world can feel, there’s still hope. And how integral a part we are in enacting that hope. The world is counting on us. And now, as a mom to two boys, it’s personal. Their generation is counting on us. I need my boys to grow up knowing the Church isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean she’s worth giving up on. She’s an agent for good. A good that’s only as effective as the people who make her up.
So I’ll keep casting my vote with her. Cashing my chips in on her. Showing up and doing my part. Because if not me, than who?
It doesn’t lessen the hurt the Church can cause. It just means she’s beautiful in spite of it. I learned that nine years ago. And every November I remember again when I hear the words Paul wrote to Timothy, “…be rich in good works…generous and willing to share,” and then am sent out to the world to make it so.