The church of my childhood was an important part of my formation as a person of faith and my fist understandings of the messy, beautiful life of the Church. Author Glennon Doyle has created a word that I feel is a perfect description of congregational life. The word is brutiful. It is a combination of the words brutal and beautiful.
The church I grew up in was the church my parents started attending when they were still dating. When my mom and dad joined the church, it was a new Congregational church which first met at the elementary school down the street from my mom's childhood home. Eventually, my mom convinced my grandparents to attend (even though they were not regular church goers) and join the church.
By the time this new church start had secured land and began to draft the architectural plans for the church building, my grandfather had said yes to being the church president. My grandfather and father helped with the actual design and completion of the church building. My parents were married in that church. My parents signed the paperwork when the church officially became a United Church of Christ church. That UCC church was the church where my brother, sister and I were baptized, attended Sunday School and youth group, and were confirmed.
The church of my childhood was a place that nourished and nurtured me. It was where I discovered and claimed my call into ministry. Yet, it was also the place where I experienced deep pain, disappointment and disillusionment. It was there I discovered that good people, even with good intentions, can do and say hurtful things. I learned change and transition can produce much anxiety and anxious people can make rash and poor decisions. I also wrestled with the crushing reality that pastors are people too. Yet, when pastors make mistakes, often their mistakes and choices can cause people to mistrust not only pastors, but also the institutional church.
I wish I could say my home church is unique, but it is not. Every church I've served as a local church pastor had a brutiful life together. Now as a Conference Minister, I can confidently say that every church I encounter also has a brutiful life together. There are moments of great beauty in which the presence of God's Spirit is seen, felt and experienced in meaningful ways. Yet, there are also brutal moments in which human situations and circumstances cast a shadow over the presence of the Divine in heart-breaking ways.
Honestly, I believe every church has had and will have a brutiful life together as a congregation and as a people of God. Why? Because the church is no different than any other human endeavor, at our core, we are a very human, messy, and imperfect institution.
The Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, the founding pastor of House of Sinners and Saints, writes in her book Pastrix talks about how she would talk openly to new church members especially about the messiness of the church. "This community will disappoint them. It's a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I'll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they'll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don't meet their expectations, they won't get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community's failure, and that's just too beautiful and too real to miss."
The brutiful life of the church can be a place of deep disappointment. Perhaps more so than in other places, because we mistakenly think for some reason the messiness of humanity will not show up. We expect things to be different. Yet, I think Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber is right.
In the church, we will experience inevitable moments of disappointment. And it is easy in those moments to give in to the flight response of anxiety, fear, disillusionment, and disappointment. However, to do so, we would leave before the rest of the story, God's story, is revealed.
God's story for us can be a story of a resilient people who trust in the power and faithfulness of God to carry them in ALL seasons of their life together. It can be a story in which the grace of God will surprise you and, at times, astounds us. I believe the continuing story of Church, regardless of the times of disappointment, is just "too beautiful and too real to miss." I hope you do too.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister