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  • Writer's pictureSusan Powell

The Church That Is

This is a story of conflict and community, of division and belonging. It is my story.

When I was eleven my little church came apart at the seams. People who left (I didn't know why) left holes in my heart. Five years went by and my family had moved across the country and joined another church. But then we were the ones who left. It wasn't my choice and it broke my heart, but it shaped me, too: I dreamed of being the one who stays.

Churches abound, and it's so often more about division than multiplication. I get it, but I don't like it. There is no solution on earth (though I have opinions and theories that I'll keep to myself). I've watched churches split. I've watched proud people stomp off. I've watched good people step away and I've watched them be driven out. I have my own personal collection of stories, but I'm still here. Here because from where I sit I see people who love Jesus and believe in the Holy Spirit, and gathering just makes sense.

Me? I just wish we could all get along. Ask me what denomination I belong to and I'll admit to being in the Catholic Church now, but I'll also definitely tell you that I am Belligerently Ecumenical. In fact, I know from vivid experience that I can still assent with integrity to all the membership vows of the denomination I grew up in, even though I'm thoroughly Catholic now. But that is a story for another day.

Twice as an adult I've been in congregations where my training as a musician has complicated my experience as a worshiper. One night when my husband and I realized that our private groaning was getting the better of us, we recalled the admonition of a beloved former pastor, quoting Bonhoeffer: "Love the church that is, not your ideal of what the church should be." So we started coming home from those Sunday evening services where we sang Psalms forced into rhyming strophic meter and mismatched to their tunes, and instead of rehearsing how much we missed something else, we got to work. At the end of our experiment (penance, you might call it) we loved our little church a good deal more and we'd created a collection of a dozen new tunes, carefully custom-made for the texts we had groaned over. We couldn't change the long tradition of metrical rhyming Psalmody in this old Scottish denomination, but we could love them where we found them, and in the process we grew. And maybe they did too.

A few years later we were involved in a church plant with an entirely different style of music. The amateur leaders were good at what they did and I wasn't there to lead. Mostly, I appreciated the songs for what they were: a new folk idiom, artsy and richly prayerful, often recasting old texts for a new crowd. I got into it. But one day I was finally fed up with a song in our standard repertoire. My training felt like a little devil inside my head listing all the things that were wrong with it: meter, tessitura, melodic contour--none of it made sense for congregational song. It was a swing and a miss in my book. It was a good text, though, and I thought I could help, so I went home and wrote something new: styled to fit in, but more singable.

No one ever sang that tune, and a year later I wasn't even at that church anymore. It's not because I left. I was "managed out," and I didn't even know it. I was baffled and heartbroken and ashamed, and it was years before I realized I was one of many and it wasn't my fault. The man sent to plant that congregation wasn't equipped for the work. He cast glorious visions while discarding people in his care: the ones who were too complicated, the ones he couldn't control. The narratives he created around everything hurt everyone but him. Not that he wasn't hurting, too. "Hurt people hurt people," and since that time I have learned a lot about the tragic commonness of broken communities like this: power, secrecy, confusion, isolation, complicity, control. Church can be a harmful place.

In the intervening years I've discovered a whole fellowship of those who love Jesus even though they can't feel safe in a church. And while I've found a place that feels safe (enough) (to me), those wanderers are my people more than anybody. Last fall when I came across that tune I gave it a name from the hymn's last stanza: "Banished Ones." I've chosen to include it in the launch of Join My Song to introduce myself, not only as a hymn composer, but as a muddled pilgrim with complicated stories, singing in the wilderness with Jesus' people.

Being the one who stays has looked different from how I imagined it would, but I've done it when it's been my choice. More than anything, I've made it a determined practice to look over the boundary lines we draw between each other; to recognize the image of God and the light of Christ and the variety of gifts in each community; to stay in the room and say "I challenge your categories."

It is Christ's to make and keep his church. It is ours to embrace each other on his behalf. I've seen the whole range: stodgy and sober Presbyterians, earnest evangelical Baptists, mainline Methodists, fiery little urban Black churches, dusty and opinionated Lutherans, grungy Orthodox, trendy Anglicans, devout (and not so devout) Catholics, high-brow Episcopalians and their rural midwestern cousins. I've seen branded praise teams singing to thousands under a light show, singer-songwriters leading from a barstool with a banjo, tired and under-appreciated pastor's wives plunking out hymns at the piano. All of them, doing their best to know and proclaim the gospel. None of them any closer to God's heart than the others. This is the church that is.

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