Grace for the Demolition

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“I’ve gone to church all my life, but so much of it doesn’t feel right anymore.”

I drove west on the once rural road that stretches across the frontage of my home. The threat of progress had been brewing for a while, this time in the form of uprooted trees, eminent domain, and the luxury of left turn lanes and a glorious concrete median. But just because you know something is coming doesn’t mean you’re prepared.  Rising over the ridge toward 156th street I saw it.  Dozens, then—over a period of days—hundreds of trees uprooted, left in shredded piles. The walnut row the corner property, the old maple, surely a centenarian, all gone. Replaced by a new line of power poles and the alien skyline of excavators and dirt movers.

A few days later I braved a walk down the road, hoping that a more intimate view might adjust my interior to the changing landscape of my neighborhood.  I have only recently, in the waning months of my 4th decade, begun to enjoy nature or even see it at all.  I suspect, I have always felt it in my body, which is where so much of our unspoken truth really lies. 

As I walked, my body roared in resistance to the carnage I saw.  Up close was not better.  My chest tightened and my breaths shortened, the naked vulnerability and the inhuman barrenness cut through me. I had never shed a tear for a tree before until just then.

The expansion of our frontage road—and the demolition it required—have been more than rumors since before we purchased our home.  The fact that things were going to change, the past was going to be uprooted, normal was going to be relocated was well known to us, and yet the reality of it still jarred me down to my cells for a period of weeks. 

I’m no stranger to demolition, at least of the more personal kind.  I seem to be most alive, most aware, in situations that are deconstructing, old worlds that have gone sour, little micro-civilizations that have forgotten their reason to exist.  I have come to find a certain restfulness in the liminal way—that position between two harbors where shorelines have slipped beyond view.  But even with all of this familiarity, deconstruction is jarring for us all. We need grace for the demolition.

Church, Crumbling?

Nearly everywhere you look today are signs of the deconstruction of the American church experience. Figureheads of major movements exposed, denominations under fire, power structures caving in on themselves. Books have been written (with more to come) on this sociology experiment, but it is not the macro of it all that stirs within me now.  The human impact of old trees being pulled out by their roots is what stirs me now.

Nearly every person I talk to is in some form of deconstruction: in their theology, their experience of church, in their sense of what it means to follow Jesus faithfully in this time and place.  And that is all that we have: this time and place.  Forever enticed by the wasn’t-it-better-whens and wouldn’t-it-be-great-ifs we grasp for a handhold on the face of a cliff everyday feels more precarious.

What do I mean by deconstruction? You may experience as an internal shift in things you once “knew” for sure, but now, aren’t so sure. Methods of worship or forms of personal faith that once lit up your life, now seem dry or even distasteful. At its peak, deconstruction is a sense that all the foundations of one’s view of the world are so moved that there is no floor. When we are honest with ourselves a sense of spiritual freefall is pervasive, one that no quick fixes of church attendance, Bible study, or even prayer seem to abate.

Shame is a silencer. It takes the questions central to transformation and pushes them deep within.

For most, this sensation is often accompanied by a deep sense of shame.  The inability to find peace and joy in the tenants and practices of the megachurch, the short answers, the memes that seem to satiate everyone else triggers the belief that we, the deconstructing, have done something to deserve the swirl of the freefall. Somehow by lack of faith or pride we got too big for our britches and will eventually find our way home to the simple answers that made so much sense not that long ago.

Shame is a silencer. It takes the questions central to transformation and pushes them deep within.  Instead of facing the unknown with curiosity, we weaponize doubt against ourselves. A buried question festers like an ingrown hair, poisoning and inflaming all around it.  We are swollen with haunted questions we too often dare not speak.

This journey of deconstruction is not entirely internal.  It is triggered by real shifts in the cultural soup that people of faith live in today. These shifts demand thoughtful engagement, not hiddenness. Shame is not welcome here:

  • Multiple highly regarded and powerful creators of the current evangelical movement have been exposed for deception, power-mongering, and—in some cases—sexually predatorial activity. For better or worse, this has undermined the credibility of not just the individuals but the movements they led into being.

  • Large swaths of the evangelical movement have not just aligned themselves with the Trump presidency for policy reasons, but venerated it, seemingly without regard for the ethical and moral questions President Trump’s behavior raises.  This has, for some, undermined the authority of the religious right and all of its church affiliations, exposing potential hypocrisies disenfranchising younger generations who grew up in church but find distasteful the current alliances between politics and religion.

  • Non-denominational/evangelical church has largely homogenized around a narrow theology, and consumer-driven structure where marketing, self-help philosophy, and transactionalism have become the primary forums for Christianity in many communities. This hyper-uniformity leaves many feeling at best unispired and at worst repelled by an Americanized gospel which they cannot reconcile with the Bible.

  • The power of the internet has given mainstream American Christians access to a far wider view on theology and church culture.  Where once the average church goer might never darken the door of another denomination, today people of faith are learning that the Bible stories they know so well are seen very differently by people from different ethnic and religious experiences.

  • This access to a broader theological perspective, drawing from not just recent scholarship but also long-standing traditions outside the American evangelical mainstream, has upended the standing belief that the interpretation of the Bible and the application of its teachings to your life are simple, boilerplate affairs.  This movement, where the Bible is a source of wrestling rather than certainty, may have the largest and most long-lasting effects of any of the above.

  • As Bible- wrestlers from diverse perspectives are given greater and greater voice, the stories of those often silenced are being told, bringing into the conversation people and perspectives that were not so long ago assumed to be solidly unchristian, not the least of which being LGBTQ-affirming Christianity.

It is easy—from a certain perspective—to look at all of this and see evidence of a church coming apart at the seams.  And for so many people, the faith they once knew feels all too torn with it.  Many no longer attend regular church services, have ceased to talk about their faith publicly, and are slowly abandoning spiritual practices for fear of what they might unearth in the process. The pain of this for those going through it can’t be overstated.  If you read me regularly, it is likely you ARE one of those people, and are holding on to whatever you can wherever you can.

To decide that you need of a bigger God, a more loving God, a more inclusive God, a less-easily caricatured God than the one you knew before is bravery.

For those who feel no sense of this deconstruction, for those who feel just as sure as they always have and wonder what is wrong with the rest of us that we are so easily dumbfounded, I simply ask that you live and act with great grace. The sure-footedness of confidence can be a great gift, but it is a weapon when it becomes certainty.

For those of you living in the up-turned soul of demolition, don’t be afraid. To decide that you need of a bigger God, a more loving God, a more inclusive God, a less-easily caricatured God than the one you knew before is bravery.  But it is not the last courage you will need. 

Some recognizable voices have referred to this period of entering into deconstruction as going into the wilderness.  They speak of the loneliness of it, and how they had to face it on their own.  I don’t believe this must be true.  Certainly not anymore.

More than One Courage

The great mass of Jesus people who no longer feel like they have a fit anywhere cannot—by definition—be alone. We are, in fact, a community of travelers, making a way through the desert together, if we are willing to lean in and see each other and tell our stories.  When we stop pretending we are as sure as think we should be, when we are honest about the questions we have not yet answered, the fears we have not yet silenced, the hope we long for, the small-living we’ve succumbed to in its absence… when all of these things appear in our relationships with honesty, isolation and its accomplice shame are banished.

Your first courage is to leave the shores you once knew—to enter the liminal space. Your second courage is to share your journey with other travelers, despising the shame, and enter into to shared sojourn. The church, when it is at its best, is a place for travelers.  People who, by definition, are not all at the same place and may even be facing different directions, but are navigating by a similar north star.

As I finish this essay, I look out on the road where the trees are now gone.  When I let my eye travel across the landscape I notice all that those barriers would have once hidden:

Small new growth popping up everywhere.

Neighbors playing across the street.

Miles and miles of sky.

We do not have to love the triggers of our deconstruction, but there is grace breaking through the ground.  Grace for the demolition.  When we see each other, we will see that new thing breaking through.

Here’s the thing friends, if you feel even the slightest bit alone in your faith journey, if you feel that the questions that you are asking are not allowed, or the doubts you have disqualify you, or the discontent you feel when you darken the door of the church has triggered shame, I want to hear from you. I believe that there are so many of us asking these questions. I believe that God is doing more than launching podcasts, conferences and book tours (all good things) to address these issues. I believe that real communities of faith can and will emerge where we become fellow journeyers, walking in liminal space SIDE BY SIDE.

I want to hear from you. I want to hear your stories, your questions. I want to stay in the conversation with you. You can send me an email or subscribe to this conversation at thirtsixwords or do both. But let’s do this together.