Safe People–Safe Places
I've been in a lot of churches in my life. A lot. A lot.
Conservative churches, edgy churches, house churches, ethnic churches, liberal churches, churches in other countries, healthy churches, bickering churches, awkward churches. The combination of playing 140 shows in a "Christian" band, doing promotions for a Bible College, and preaching a few sermons here and there will get you in a lot of churches. Having been in such a range of groups I feel Ecumenical on a good day and jaded/paranoid/cynical/judgmental on a bad one.
Saturday was bad and thus paranoid. A friend asked me to play keyboard at a church for a special event—the sort of thing that I would not attend unless someone was paying me to do so. I knew what it was. I knew what it would do to me. I went anyway. And my expectations were not disappointed. I won't go into details on the group—I'm not here to pass judgement on the people putting on the event. But about twenty minutes in I might as well have been upside down and stuck in a cave somewhere. Claustrophobia. I shut down and avoided people until we packed up.
I've been throwing myself intentionally (perhaps stupidly) into these situations lately. A few weeks ago, while at a writer's retreat I told a fellow from a pretty conservative church that I was afraid of him—afraid of being myself, afraid of being looked down on. That of course had little to do with what he was actually like, but rather what I figured he thought. Turns out, he was not at all like the younger me. That was healing. It was with this same mentality that I said yes to playing keys—this one just didn't work out as well. While I left the conversation with the conservative fellow at the writer's retreat feeling enlivened by connection with a different but same follower of Jesus, I left the church service feeling (to put it in child friendly terms) like a not very good Christian.
But like the first day after getting over the flu, the inescapable pain reveals how great it is to be alive and healthy. Sunday morning the church I mingle with met across the street from our normal gathering place, opting instead for having breakfast at The Window, a place that works with getting people in hard times back on their feet, or giving them food even if hard times are a permanent position. We're meeting there for the entirety of advent sharing breakfast there together and with whoever wants to come. I was practically giddy as I walked there—still reeling from a spiritually paranoid hangover, but giddy nonetheless. I needed a safe place to vent, to be loved and listened to, to be encouraged by those different-but-same followers of Jesus. I needed to know that I wasn't a complete screw up—or even if I was I was loved.
This isn't a rah rah my church is the best. Though it is great. We are fairly dysfunctional in ways I won't elaborate here. And in many of those churches I've been in over the years there have been safe people too, sometimes a lot of safe people. But in this instance the population of safe people happens to be a very high percentage. Often different than me for sure, but that's not as important as it used to be—in fact, some of the safest most thoughtful conversations I've had about faith (or lack thereof) have been with friends who are agnostics and atheists (Wait—they aren't all hateful rage machines bent on destroying faith?).
And what makes a safe person? It's hard to nail down entirely, but a good place to start is that safe people are genuinely care about you more than their idea of what you should be. Some people argue that if I really cared about others I would try to change such and such in them—maybe. But some of my most trusted friends know me well enough to know how to give me a swift kick in the hind parts when necessary. And they can do so precisely because I already know they are a safe place—we have gone through hell together and will likely go through it together again.