~ make yourself at my home, tell me where you been ~ Flo Rida
Many months ago, I registered for a conference led by Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey at a beautiful conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My wonderful congregation affords me a week for continuing education each year, and I knew that I wanted to spend three of those days with two authors that have formed my own faith in the last few years.
Their gentle invitation was something like: If you are a doubter who believes or a believer who doubts, if you have been hurt by the church or just can’t make sense of some things, if you are deconstructing unhealthy faith patterns or reconstructing healthy ones, come to the mountains with us and explore what it means to be living out an evolving faith. Thus was born the conference called Evolving Faith 2018.
I’ve been looking forward to this for months. I’ve been reading the books written by many of the presenters (click that link above and see the list of speakers). Some of my sweetest-friends-who-are-also-my-colleagues were going to be there, too!
So, it caught me off guard two days before the event when I got very nervous, and my normally positive self – who loves to gather with people and learn new things – started to feel a bit of…dread? Was it dread? If so, then why?
I asked my daughter to talk through some of my odd feelings as I packed my suitcase. And in the end, I discovered that I was feeling…
You see, the organizers of this event created a Facebook page where those who were registered for the event could get to know each other, find roommates for housing, etc. So, for months, I had been getting to know some of the folks who would be gathering on the mountain with me.
One person posted this question: Anyone else nervous about coming because you carry so much pain about church you aren’t sure you can handle hearing people talk about it?
Dozens of people responded with their own expressions of fear. And if dozens of people commented on the thread, were there actually hundreds of anxious, worried, hurting people coming to the mountain afraid that the truth will be too loud or sharp or icy?
I cannot overstate how kind all these people are. Seriously. They were offering to carpool with each other, be roommates with strangers, share expenses, and all other manner of favors and encouragement. 900 people with only this conference in common became a community of vulnerability out there in cyberspace – and soon we would inhabit the same physical space, we would be the incarnation of the thing we longed for: real community.
So, to learn how much pain people were bringing with them made me feel a lot of feels. A. Lot.
Firstly, they were all coming to North Carolina. They were flying from Canada and all over the United States (one woman came from Somaliland!) to come to our home. It made me feel like a bit of a hostess. You can tell me that’s ridiculous because I was not on the planning team, nor do I work at the retreat center. You can say that, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was feeling it. And Flo Rida was singing, “Welcome to my house…” in my ears whether it was reasonable or not.
Secondly, and way more importantly, I am currently a pastor, a leader in the Church (specifically, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Many of the people traveling toward “my house” when this sense of responsibility was settling over me had been hurt – really hurt – by people who had been leaders in the Church. I’m a member of this cohort of clergy that crosses denominational lines, and I benefit from the respect generally afforded clergy. I cannot point over there to some other group of people who have (and often abuse) authority over the spiritual spaces where people gather to worship, study, and pray. I’m IN that group. Clergy are “my people” and my people have steamrolled over far too many precious lives. And those steamrolled lives…steamroll over others. The generational reach of our manipulation and spiritual abuse cannot be measured.
When I was packed and ready to leave the next day, I laid in bed feeling heartsick.
The next morning, I went to my local store that only stocks goods made in North Carolina. I got small bags of Blister Fried Bertie County peanuts, small bottles of lotions made and bottled in Raleigh, muscadine flavored hard candies and peppermint puff candies made in Lexington, Chapel Hill toffee, and Moravian cookies from Winston-Salem. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with them. I mean, there were maybe 50 items in my bag, and there were over a thousand people registered for the event. But, I packed them into my backpack because…I guess because I needed to do something.
As I drove to Montreat, I tried to figure out why I had bought all that stuff and what in the world I was going to do with it. And I decided that I would simply walk up to a stranger and say, “I’m a pastor in North Carolina, and I’m glad you are here. Here’s a little gift made in North Carolina.” It promised to be awkward, and I guess it was.
Today, I had several of those short conversations as I handed out little gifts. The recipients were kind and funny, and there in Anderson Auditorium, with the incarnational gifts of eye contact, laughter, awkward stumbling sentences, and the physical gifts of candies, peanuts, cookies, and lotion, Spirit had her way with me.
My dread was gone.
My responsibility had become hospitality.
Evolving faith is the best kind of faith.