By Debra-Lynn Swearingen
We were lost sheep for a season. There is nothing like church shopping to make you certain you are shepherd-less. Especially if you are susceptible to being a part of the growing sad, mad, church alumni. In some churches we were greeted heartily, some put us through a grueling Q&A session, and some we passed through without notice. We knew little of what we were looking for, and more of what we weren’t willing to endure. We were unsure of how right doctrine and social-fit unite, but we wanted both. We were longing to belong. We just didn’t know what that meant. This was not a new quest for me. I’ve taken a few spins in the church’s revolving door. Unwelcome coming in and unwelcome going out.
Perhaps you know the look. It was first cast my way as a child. The congregants eyed our visiting lost and confused family. I saw their sideways glances under disapproving eyebrows. Our attendance was short-lived. It was for the best. Collectively, my family would have never been a viable entry on the church’s roster. We had nothing to offer, and certainly did not possess what they said we should have. We left the way we came in. Shame-wrecked. No, small-town Pentecostal Jesus was not for us and we did not belong.
As a young adult with a decision for Jesus behind me, and the promise of a changed life ahead, I found some reprieve. Although, tiring of youthful pursuits and settling into grown-up goals is a process that even pagans find, I credited it toward getting right with God. I was baptized and gave a testimony that thrilled the bootstrap crowd. What they didn’t tell me is that it’s a one-way story— broken to better. It’s all backslappin’ until one falters. One always will, and I did, and my family along with me.
Sadly, my children know the look too. Although they were freely permitted the cracker and the juice, their baptisms were frowned upon. Because they were young, there were murmurs of false professions of faith. The eyes of progressive sanctification came to rest on them, looking for the elusive fruits of the Spirit. No one can withstand the scrutiny of a law-driven church and her school. My naturally compliant child received accolades, but quickly learned the law says, “do this”, and it is never done. He was driven to exhaustion and suffered silently. My other child, unruly, but only by comparison, received consistent reprimand. Contrition never came, no matter whom we allowed to spank or humiliate him. It unraveled from there for a host of reasons, and we were essential sent away. We knew for certain Evangelical growing-in-sanctification Jesus was not for us and we did not belong.
Then God, in His great mercy, brought us into the historic Christian faith. And O’— this Jesus that Lutherans confess! This grace that says, “Believe in this, and everything is already done”! This Jesus that has given us a flesh-and-blood shepherd to accompany us on our earthly pilgrimage, and to comfort us on the shores of death: a pastor that points us to the font, and confesses and absolves us, and fills our ears with His word, and places Christ’s body and blood into our mouths. Giving us forgiveness, life and salvation. Yes, this Jesus is FOR US and we belong!
And belonging is something totally different that I thought, something totally different than I was taught. It has nothing to do with fitting in, making friends, or loving the youth group (although all that’s nice). It has nothing to do with hierarchy and core membership— where one’s obedience and commitment grants a greater stake and claim. We are all forgiven sinners rejoicing with and mourning for one another in joy and sorrow. We are family because we make confession, receive absolution, hear God’s word, and receive His gifts together. The font is our font, the pulpit is our pulpit, the table is our table, and the shepherd is our shepherd. We are part of a flock. No more longing to belong.
Photo Credit to Debra Lynn Swearingen. Provided by the author.