My husband and I sit in their living room; four hands each with a glass of scotch. We raise them up and my pastor toasts. “To your new life in San Francisco: your relationships there, your marriage, the hope of God’s goodness.”
Christine is sitting on the floor folding her kids’ clothes. Her husband Cliff has been asking us questions: “Who do you want to be in fifteen years? What are your dreams for your marriage, for your ministry, your life?”
Chris and I take turns answering. I tell a story. My husband speaks in theory. In the end we reach the same space, the same dream.
We have to hurry. The babysitter has plans for 10:30 and it’s 10:10. They want to pray for us. Cliff finds a vial of oil, marks our foreheads with the sign of the cross.
And we run to our car. “This will be your last Sunday?” Christine calls from the driveway.
“Yes, our last Sunday,” we say.
* * *
I want to write this for you. You, the one who sits with your face in your hands and begs yourself out the door into the church on Sundays. You, who questions hierarchy and recognizes the broken tendencies of leaders. You who wonders how the church can ever be its true self, how Jesus’ dream for God’s people could end up so flimsy. I want to write a story for you about what is possible.
I want to tell a story of the pastors I believed, then feared, those whose real lives seemed fraught with empty relationships, those who spoke words from the pulpit that felt closer to manipulation than truth. I want to tell how my hope cracked under the pressure of my dreams for them. My world told me they were super heroes. Under their capes, it turned out they were broken like me.
I want to write a story about those years I scoffed and rolled my eyes, longing for answers, assuring myself I was alone in the struggle. I want to write about the conversations my husband and I had back then, the tears: “What is church supposed to even be? Is it hopeless?”
We’d sit in the cold house in Syracuse, the space we could hardly heat and wonder, “Is there a way back to the book of Acts? Is there a way to Church as it was always meant to be?”
Around and around we went in our heads. Back to the scripture we went. Back to my doubt and distrust I plunged.
And yet, in the middle of all the questioning, we were offered grace. We sat under teachers who taught words like Shalom. Teachers who took us with them into shattered lives and places and showed us the Church in all its beauty, in all its possibility.
I want to tell you a story about those teachers and every move we’ve made. Through Syracuse and Philadelphia. Through Young Life and the Episcopal Church. Through the affluent suburbs of the East coast to the urban intellectualism of Northern California. I want to tell you the pastors are there.
They are in small churches and growing churches. Some raise their arms in worship. Some cross themselves. Some do both, one right after the other. The pastors I’ve found don’t dress like hippies to impress us and they don’t dress like yuppies to impress us. In fact, the ones I’ve found distrust their own longing for impressing any one. So they dress like priests instead.
* * *
Christine and Cliff’s four children are asleep. We sit in the kitchen, the space where their kids run and read and slouch in chairs. There are long strips of brown butcher paper taped like scrolls to the walls, holding marker-scratched poetry: WH Auden and Walt Whitman. There are quoted hymns and verses written beside the toilet.
Cliff makes us cappuccinos and spreads before us fresh fruit and dark chocolate and cupcakes. They are normal and they are humble and they don’t have an agenda. We have nothing to give them: one year in Cliff’s congregation and we leave on Sunday. They are intentional tonight. When they ask us what we dream for our family when we’re fifty, they care about our answer.
That’s what I want to tell you. I want you to know that they exist. There have been four of them in our lives. Pastors who loved us, who welcomed us. Pastors who distrusted programs and neon signs declaring the latest church fad. Pastors who sat in living rooms with us and asked us hard, good questions and listened. Pastors who weren’t striving to reach fame or bigger numbers, but who held out the bread and wine to the congregation and said: “Come, all you who are weary.”
Christine says, “If it’s real, it has to be real all the way through.” She points her finger through the air. “If it breaks down, if Jesus is not who he says he is, none of this is worth it.”
I’d just said how grateful I was for the space they had created within our church community: humility, genuine compassion, kindness. I’d said I’d never forget how she followed me out of the sanctuary our first morning at Christ Church, my embarrassing exit with crying six month old. She’d found me and sat beside me, said, “We love crying babies here…”
And she had meant it.
“True all the way through,” she says in her living room, t-shirts crumpled on her lap.
And they bless us and send us out into night.