By Laura Taylor
Over Queens Birthday, I held an ‘orphans’ dinner for anyone stranded here for the long weekend. When putting the word out I completely relinquished control of the guest list, and we ended up with 30 people crammed into my flat. It got meeeessy - cousins, flatmates and neighbours all bumping knees and glasses - but something magic happened. I watched as people arrived and did a double take as it dawned on them this was a mostly unfamiliar room of...others.
“Imagine if church became a place where everyone is safe, but nobody is comfortable” - Rachel Held Evans
The concept of being uncomfortable is something I have been becoming familiar with, at least over the past five years. I started my first job as the only pākehā in my team at an indigenous broadcaster. I then walked in as an ill-informed and equally sheltered church girl to manage the marketing for arguably the world's most liberal media company. I grappled with the immense imbalance between the able-bodied and disabled societal experience when my boyfriend at the time became a wheelchair user. I kept getting uprooted and then placed into communities and scenarios that in all honesty I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for myself. And while they sure as hell didn’t keep me comfortable, each time I found myself leaving with a new layer of empathy and understanding.
It is often in places of discomfort when, as C.S. Lewis superbly describes “our little happinesses start to resemble broken toys” that the veil is lifted. On his years spent at a disabled facility, Daybreak, Henri Nouwen wrote “when I think of my own pain, inner unrest and turmoil, I think not of how God brought me to sheltered place isolated from pain. On the contrary, nowhere can I better see hardship than among people who have suffered. I have been surrounded by people in great and inevitable need. And still, nowhere have I celebrated so much or so richly. When we celebrate together, we do not marshal degrees, prizes or promotions but rather that the gift of life has revealed itself in the midst of all the losses”.
Divinity meets humanity
I grew up with a pretty warped idea of love, it was always just quite out of my grasp (anxious/avoidant attachers you feel me). I longed to fall in love and finally ‘feel home’, but when the opportunity presented itself, it felt like a show-home; one I couldn’t quite believe I deserved. So I would hold it lightly, scared that if I clung to it, if I wanted it too much, it would shatter, all broken glass and splintered door frames. And when ultimately the walls that had housed me and the warmth that had healed me splattered and burst before my eyes, combusting quickly in the flash-fire of two people clumsily trying to work out whether or not they could share this space, it would confirm that message - you aren’t good enough.
Which was the narrative I told myself for most of my adolescent life, and the more I talk to people, seems to be the shared experience of many young people in the church. Which really is just nuts considering the bible is littered with stories of Prodigal love, of divinity meeting humanity. God seems to constantly show up in the broken/uncomfortable/insert-dissonant-adjective-here to be with the very people who have a definitive lack. Everyone’s favourite German, Jürgen Moltmann writes on this “in a civilisation that glorifies success and happiness and is blind to the sufferings of others, people’s eyes can be opened to the truth if they remember that at the centre of the christian faith stands an unsuccessful, tormented Christ, dying in forsakenness.”
Amongst the difference, amidst the brokenness, when we long to deeply, truly know the other, that is when we start to discern just how deeply and truly we too are known. I couldn’t know His grace until I fell from it, I couldn’t realise His strength until I was floored by my own inability, I hadn’t experienced the freedom of forgiveness until I was deeply hurt.
As Rachel Held Evans puts perfectly - “He shows us how to enter into a way of life in which the broken and sick pieces are held together in a way of love, in which strangers literally touch each other and in doing so make a community spacious enough for everyone”. It’s time to grow the heck up and start listening to our other. Let go of the accommodating narratives that keep us comfortable, flag the ‘my-perfect-wife-in-the-front-row-and-two-kids’ daydream and instead be honest that if we haven't experienced brokenness yet, we probably will soon, so let’s just wrap our arms around each other and really try this love thing.
And it’s not easy, opening yourself up to love another really hurts. That’s the risk of asking to be known. It’s admitting that you care, and that it would cost you something to lose this person. It is fighting through awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes outright humiliating conversations when letting go would honestly just be easier. Again Henri writes “loving someone means allowing the other person to respond in ways you have no control over. For the great mystery of love is that while it can be received it can also be rejected, every time you love you enter into the risk of love”.
It is a self-giving, sacrificial, deeply vulnerable gift. But I’m convinced it is at the same time a work of art and the most natural thing we could ever do. It is the calling and desire of our heart and to mourn the loss of it, does not mean it was never there, or won’t be again. We don’t float in and out of love as much as God doesn’t float in and out of the sky to dabble here and there. Love is always here, love is in our blood and our bones cry out to give it.
Loving the other
I go to a homegroup and I often think about how on paper, it’s completely nuts. Amongst others, we have the husband who makes hilariously inappropriate comments, the beautiful mum who is full of wisdom, the dearly-loved dad who a few weeks ago asked what ‘lol’ means (wait not lots of love?!) thrown in with a couple of students and burnt-out millenials who gather biweekly around a coffee table and a plate of Mint Slices joined together by one common purpose - to truly love one another. It’s not smooth, there are mismatched beliefs and uncomfortable moments but over the past four years we have carried one another through real crap. At some point, and I couldn’t tell you when, we stopped seeing age and stage and became a family. And it is the most pure and beautiful thing I have ever been a part of.
What if the next step, for all of us, is both as simple and mind-bendingly complex as loving the other. In whatever space, romantic, familial, friend, we all just commit to being out here, walking each other home with grit and willingness and most of all propelled by grace. That’s the kind of church we all could get on board with.
“We created something precious, together, in the midst of very dark times. Is that not what love is all about?” - Jared Noel