For more than 15 years, I didn't go to church (except for lots of visits in my professional capacity). When I was in my early 20s, the Episcopal church I attended regularly split. Factions formed, sides were taken, harsh words were spoken. A spiritual tug of war ensued and left the community in tatters. It was awful, traumatic -- the worst that church has to offer.
I love Jesus and all that he told us to do and be while he walked among us in the flesh. But I no longer trusted his followers to not behave appallingly. I'd had enough of Christians shooting their own. So I left.
In hindsight, that was pretty shortsighted. We are believers, but we are also human. We stumble, fall, and drag others down with us. We wallow in our own hypocrisy and look to fellow Christians rather than the One we should emulate as the only perfect example of how to be fully human and completely faithful.
After more than a decade of lurking in the narthex, a couple of years ago I tiptoed into the sanctuary of a small Episcopal parish in suburban Chicago and found safe harbor. I was surprised to learn that this parish had suffered a split several years earlier, too. But what remained were not sharp edges and bitterness from the acrimony that had shattered the community like a cheap mirror. Instead, I found the light of God's love refracted even more beautifully by the cracks and imperfections.
Last summer, my family relocated from Chicago to Southern California and had to leave our beloved church behind. But we found a more perfectly imperfect spiritual home here in Laguna Beach -- a faith community called Little Church by the Sea. Whatever its quaint moniker conjures in your mind -- a certain sweetness and humility; a groovy, laid-back, welcoming place where the pastors wear flip-flops and the worship team is a bluegrass band -- is right on.
Even though the denomination to which Little Church belongs is one that, on paper at least, is an uncomfortable fit for me in some ways, the genuine love of this local church has won my heart. We are blessed with a handful of lovely, humble pastors who share the shepherding duties, and although the pastorate of Little Church is still a boy's club, (my) hope springs eternal that that might someday change, perhaps even sooner than later.
Still, a while back, when I was perusing the Little Church website, I clicked on a link that read,"Women in Ministry," and it took me to an error message: "Page not found." Once upon a time, I would have been livid. Now, I find it kinda funny. Ironic. Quirky. Very us.
I have to bracket stuff like that. Every congregation I've ever encountered has something each member must choose to bracket, put aside and stay. Or not, and leave. And keep searching for safe harbor.
This past summer, I had a conversation with one of our pastors and his wife. She is an aging hippie -- a self-described liberal and decades-old subscriber to Sojourners. He is, well, not. When the subject turned to women in ministry, the pastor's wife, knowing that I had graduated from seminary and am an advocate of ordaining women to the pastorate, said, "How can you stand it? Why would you choose Little Church when they don't ordain women?"
Before I could get a word out, her husband answered for me. "Isn't it obvious?" he said, genuinely. "It's the love."
He was absolutely right. It is precisely the love. I would rather bracket the details and bask in the love of this community of saints than focus on what bothers me and miss out on the staggering blessings of their companionship. My family has found a safe and, yes, imperfect spiritual home in the most unlikely of places (at least for me). Being a part of Little Church has recalibrated how I see my life and how I understand my story -- the one God is writing. Like an actor in a film, I merely glimpse the daily rushes and sometimes wonder whether the narrative makes sense.
But I'm not the one writing the story. That job is God's alone. God knows the beginning, the end, and the vast middle, where we all dwell. Imperfectly. Held together in grace.
Cathleen Falsani is author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.