September’s post comes to us from my good friend and ex-NazToo admin, Pastor Patrick Taylor. Patrick is an ordained minister pastoring Ebenezer Church of the Nazarene in Aiken, SC, where he also teaches Sacred Studies at Mead Hall Episcopal School. A proponent of Christian Pacifism, he enjoys working with Nazarenes United for Peace, and relieves stress by focusing on his hobbies of stand-up comedy and his growing collection of bonsai trees.
Seeing your childhood home empty is an emotional experience. Faced with the lack of anything, you are suddenly aware of everything that occupied that space all at once: every picture that hung on the wall, every conversation shared, every holiday celebrated. Every game played, every friend made, every early morning and late night. Even the most insignificant moments can strangely be so vividly visualized, all living and dying in an instant, cruelly leaving you both painfully aware of its deep meaning for you, and your grief for the loss of it all.
You’ve grown and done so much, protected and shaped by this place in particular, your place, and now it is as if the only thing left for this place and its moments to do is to fade from memory, little by little, year by year, until it is gone.
I first penned those words when my parents moved out of the house in which I grew up, not two years ago. Today, I experience a similar melancholy walking through the empty church where my local body would gather for worship on Sundays before words like lockdown, pandemic, and death rate became part of our liturgy.
To me, the empty church stands as a palpable metaphor for the feeling of homelessness so many of her children feel these days, and not due to the pandemic. (Though, if you ever have the chance to pastor through a pandemic, go ahead and take a hard pass on that.)
I hardly need to recite the many and painful reasons why many evangelical Jesus-followers feel homeless these days. Political polarization, increasing Christian nationalism, wildly different ideas of worship and liturgy, and a myriad of social issues have fueled the spiritual crises for many.
Now, if our newfound homelessness simply meant emancipation from an unhealthy relationship, or a newfound freedom, perhaps it would be good news- a “clean break,” a fresh start, or a mutual break-up. But the terror of our homelessness is compounded in the realization that we are ruined: Christ has ruined us, and we will never be “free.” Christ refuses to leave us alone.
Of my home, Flannery O’Connor has said that, “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” In grieving the death of what once was our idea of our spiritual “home”, we have become Christ-haunted, hounded by the spectre of the savior in our questioning, wandering homelessness. Salty as we may be, we cannot help but look back towards something in that city on a hill that raised us, even as we flee the destruction that pushed us out.
The Spirit of God is not the only thing we are haunted by. Ironically, in our homelessness, we become haunted houses full of spirits. Peter Rollins paints this image when he says, “we are all haunted houses. Haunted by the memory of those we love and those who have loved us. People that we have hurt, and people who have left us scarred or in pain.” Homeless I may be, but I find I cannot truly let go of the faith that the church has given to me, nor can I abandon the people who show up in both my fond memories and my nightmares.
People like me experiencing this spiritual homelessness articulate feeling they are not understood, either by the church where we used to be at home, or by the world, for whom “faith” is a relic at best and a delusion at worst- not that I can begrudge them that view of faith, as we have often presented it. And so we exist in this kind of homeless “in-between.”
I’ve taken to imagining this homeless relationship with the “church” as a kind of frayed string pulled in two directions, holding on by a thread. The tension in my heart and life constantly experiences this gap:
Between church and world.
Between assurance and unbelief.
Between fury and gratitude.
Between hope and despair.
Between heaven and hell.
And I am aware of all of them at once, and know they all exist in me.
And sometimes it’s too much.
But sometimes… just maybe… that space between is where real Christian faith becomes possible. Maybe that’s where Jesus has existed all along. Outside of our comfort, the Christian faith takes courage even for privileged Americans. It requires us to face the imperfection of ourselves and to dare all over again to believe that Christ can and does save us even still- and if us, then perhaps the empty church, too?
Sam Wells says, “We’re still God’s creation, we’re still God’s beloved, so we’re worth saving; but we’re still cowardly, cruel and crooked, so the saving costs God everything. Jesus is the violin string stretched out between heaven and earth. And the music played on that string is what we call the gospel.”
I admit this image appeals to my fondness for Kierkegaard, who offers this view of beauty in suffering: “What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music… and men crowd about the poet and say to him: “Sing for us soon again”; that is as much to say: May new sufferings torment your soul.”
The hope of our wandering and even our suffering, I believe, is this: Perhaps in our journey, as we pray and seek God, we are given moments where our eyes are opened, and we realize that we are not accompanied by God’s ghost at all, but by the resurrected body of Christ who meets us on the road, walking with us, towards wherever we may be going. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head either, after all. And maybe in our homelessness, walking away from what seems to us now an empty tomb, we can dare to believe the absurd news: the body of Christ is alive. The Church is on the move.
Some of us are haunted for sure. Our pain, worries, trauma, and failures are real. The ghost of churches past comes to visit us some nights. But as we allow ourselves to face those things that haunt us, says Peter Rollins, those poltergeists become holy ghosts.
And so to my “homeless” siblings, May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through, ghosts and all. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.