This is Part 2 in a three-part series about what's shaped my ideas of community, and though it didn't start out as a personal history it quickly descended into one, so i let it write itself. the final piece is posted over on our heartloose blog, and if you want to skip all the navel-gazing and jump right into the dream, go on and head right over.
We moved to Chicago when I was seven, so Dad could manage Bible Truth Publishers, and my social circles shifted hugely. No local family other than my siblings and parents, a much larger meeting, and a growing awareness of politics and unspoken rules … still with a lot of love, but the rules had very obviously changed and the stakes were higher. I became much more self-consciousness as my Dad's role at work (in the same building in which the meeting met) made my Mom extra careful to be a good role model, and a cautious steward of the combination of my Dad's salary and donations that kept our household running. I felt for the first time that I had a role to fulfill, and that I was being watched … and sometimes judged.
There were no kids on my block at first except the neighbor's grandkids who visited once in awhile, no backyard wanderings, and only a few friends at the grade school behind us. That was where I first learned I was Other. Different in a way that meant I had to draw lines. Social events I had to decline, due to church conflicts or questionable content. Questions I struggled – and learned – to answer. “Why is your church different?” “Why do you wear skirts all the time?” “Why can't you join the track team?” The only slightly disguised “Do you think you're better than us?” lurking under the surface. My eternal conflict over the answer. The “Our church is just a little bit more right than yours” bit, leaving me with the bittersweet aftertaste of “I'm better” under my tongue. (Very familiar tannins)
The next fifteen years or so centered around the “Am I better?” question, tied very closely to its cousin “Do I belong?” Of course teenage angst and self-discovery was a big part of that, but it was hugely influenced by what I was surrounded with, and what was expected of me. It was both comforting and crazifying to have answers handed to me on a regular basis. What to believe, how to behave, how to satisfy expectations, and how to please God (a very tangled web). The avenues for other opinions and thoughts were few and far between. I wasn't kept in a box or denied access to friends or other people, but there simply wasn't much room for it in my life. My closest friends were almost all at meeting. My summer jobs were at BTP. My weekends were spent with church friends or at conferences. Extracurriular activities once I hit high school were limited to ones that didn't interfere with weekends or meeting nights.
My life was full of friends and family and love, secure in the Knowing and the Belonging at meeting, and ragged at the edges. I couldn't reconcile the lines I had to draw with the feelings in my heart. Wanting to erase the lines. Wanting to see what friend's churches were like, they loved God too didn't they? Wanting to dress more normally. I craved jeans, but not the so-tight-you-need-a-friend-to-help-tug-them-on-after-gym-class kind of the 80s … just … jeans. Trying on makeup. Joining the track team. Trying out for the school play.
I judged those feelings hard though … as disloyal, wrong, Worldly … things that I had to do in the name of the One Right Place. It wasn't called that, we were Brethren who Gathered to the Name of the Lord, but in effect it was what I had to defend. There was no question that I was expected to stay in the meeting, marry within the meeting, and bring up my children in the meeting. I truly wanted all that more than anything, but as I approached my 20s I struggled increasingly with the complexities of what that meant I had to choose, deny, defend, and believe. I couldn't quite see how the things we believed and the things some other churches believed were different enough to mean we couldn't worship together sometimes.
Then came The Division of '91 … as ripping to my heart and soul as if I'd lived through the Civil War. I was utterly and completely devastated, having friends and family scattered on both sides of the line. What started as a small and rather insignificant disagreement in one assembly in Canada ended up with bloody stumps and embedded bullets and anger and immense sorrow on two sides of the resulting chasm. A canyon that I straddled in my heart, and tried to with my legs. I never believed it was necessary, or Christ-like, or of God. Just that it was a man-made mess forced upon flock after flock of sheep, to the loss of every single one.
I raged internally, cried nearly as many buckets as my parents, talked, argued, and stopped defending the meeting in my heart. I couldn't defend it anymore. I couldn't find God in what was done in His name. More Right or not, if the love isn't there it's useless. I'm well aware that divisions happen in nearly every church, and that they're the result of pride and power and failure, but this one was in My Home, and My Heart, and My Family, and My Soul. It nearly killed me.
It was my first community shattering, and I HATED it. It clearly showed some fatal flaws like pride and power-seeking, but most importantly an aching need to be Right. I know, because I have it too. But I now believe it's a weakness that I need God to help me let go of. I'm not talking pursuing Truth, which I hope I'll never stop seeking, but that's ultimately between me and God. Period.
I need community and fellowship like I need air, and the iron-sharpening-iron that comes from digging and wondering and reading and seeking and sparring with ideas and looking for answers, and it's vital, invigorating, and healthy. That may look and smell like a church, but it isn't limited to a building or a time of the week. I need it to Live. To breathe. To grow. And wherever I find someone who wants to dig, I'll do my best to dig alongside, turn up new treasures, and find as much common ground as I can. To love our neighbors as ourselves, together. To love God with our whole hearts and souls and bodies, together. To serve each other, look out for each other, question each other, and share a common goal or two … that's community, to me. A shared certainty that we don't have all the answers, and that love wins.
So yeah, 1991 kind of ran a router through my heart and left it in shreds. My certainty that the Meeting Was More Right fell by the wayside, but while I defaulted for the most part onto one side of the mess I wasn't one bit settled. I defied the chasm in my heart, couldn't stop loving and wondering about those I didn't see anymore, and felt incredibly betrayed. By my brethren, by my church, by the failure of the few that set the whole mess off in the first place with a need to be Right, Special, and Better. By everything and everyone I'd defended and stood for and believed in. I still loved them (almost) all, missed them fiercely, and saw them as family. Difficult family.
So while I still went to meeting and did more or less what was expected of me, I started pushing at the boundaries. Wearing pants to meeting. Keeping wine in the fridge. Seeking others who questioned as much as I did … hungering for a community that was loyal and devoted, and not as messy. Not going to hurt me so much. Not going to judge me as frequently, or expect so much conformity and arbitrary rule following.
I started hanging out with a group of friends (still in the meeting for the most part) that asked more questions, posed new ideas, and didn't see a problem with picking up a bible to chew the fat with hands still shaking from an hour of playing Street Fighter at the arcade. I started to find a freshness in the bible that I'd never seen, and a rather heady amount of freedom in my choices. The community was delightful, the fellowship sweet, and the sweat redolent as we fought and worked and dug together. I finally found a devotion that matched what I had with my Grambie, but with peers this time. Delicious, addictive, and somewhat unsettling. The new lack of certainty and foundation and surety was hard. I missed the Knowing and the Rightness. I had a need for it still embedded in my soul, and I don't think I was the only one.
Predictably, the group grew more exclusive, more sure of itself, and prone to power struggles and a pride in its own specialness. Somewhere in the middle of all that I got engaged to Michael, something I was finally sure of.
The inevitable cracking of this bunch of friends came in the form of Doug, Michael's best friend, losing his life to a game of russian roulette. He was to be our best man in our wedding just seven weeks later, and the grief was visceral and engulfing and numbing. I don't remember most of the time between his funeral and our wedding, and many chunks of our first year of marriage are blurry. His death illuminated, somehow though, that the things I'd judged as wrong in the meeting, and tried to distance myself from, were fully in my own heart all along. And in the group. Wanting to be special, righter, and exclusive.
Douglas arrived right just as the fog was starting to lift, and we became more focused on trying to navigate marriage and parenting than we did on attending meeting. Those years are kind of blurry too, as I was tackling life with a grief-buried husband, a newish marriage, and a baby I had little idea of how to deal with (we're both youngests, and I'd never even changed a diaper). We'd distanced ourselves from everything meeting except Sunday morning, and there were no other babies yet in our fractured but still-loving-each-other group of friends. My community was sparse, full of testosterone, and lonely.