I was sitting with her, and she had tears in her eyes. Mad tears. Sad tears. Scared tears. I told her that I hoped to see her that next Sunday, and that it was okay if she felt like it might be weird for her to be off of her normal routine.
She looked up and asked, “Am I allowed to come to church?”
This is a heart-breaking question, isn’t it? That question comes out of a deep hurt, a long-standing story, a questioning opinion about church and what it’s for.
Church is for sinners.
This weekend I was talking to a friend of mine who told me he had grown up in church his whole life. It was in a small town, and the church was very serious, very strict, very moral. He knew right from wrong and was groomed to be a preacher. He spoke and read and sang every Sunday up front.
So it was tough on him when he was doing all of those things – and sleeping with his girlfriend on Saturday night all through high school. He felt like a fraud. He felt like a liar. He felt like a heathen and a pagan. He felt like he was the only one who had secrets.
So when he graduated he got out. He bunkered down – away from church. Away from the gospel, not towards it. Away from Jesus and his people.
Thankfully, he didn’t stay there. He eventually was brought back into a new idea, a new community, and he was hearing that there was a new day for people like him – like me – who could be invited to grace.
It’s ironic though that he was sinning so much and didn’t feel welcome. I wonder if he would have been kicked out if they had known. Regardless, the message wasn’t one of welcome, even though there was someone who was there who broke all the rules.
It’s got to be true each and every week that we welcome into church the vilest of sinners – us. We welcome those broken with sexual sin (far past, recent, ongoing, done to them, they did to others, not-yet done, same sex attraction, homosexuality, heterosexuality, etc), criminal past and a host of other sins – greed, envy, lust, power, hatred, selfishness, bitterness, deception, self-loathing, control, harsh words, and on and on and on.
It’s got to be true because those people are there – in fact, they are the preachers, deacons, elders and their wives. But do we welcome them? Are we welcoming sinners? Maybe my other friend could have gotten some help along the way if he’d known that there could be a struggle.
I’m not exactly welcoming sin, but we have to bring our sin and the story behind it in order to confess it, repent of it, and be healed. Jesus is forgiving stuff after all. He’s not just an idea or a concept, but he’s really atoning for real things in this real world and in our real lives.
I told this woman that she in fact was welcome. I told her that sinners were always welcome. I asked if she would not numb herself out like usual, which is far too common. That she would not go through the motions and fake it. But that she would try – perhaps for the first time – to be present. That may mean she was more uncomfortable, not less. That she’d be all of herself and bring all of that.
And that if she wanted to believe and trust, however much she could – if she wanted to cry and rage and regret, however full that felt – and if she wanted to come in resurrection instead of death, in hope instead of trapped, in some honesty instead of lies, in light instead of darkness, in the idea of maybe even joy instead of so much pain – and that she didn’t even have to do any of that perfectly because that was impossible to do all perfectly – that she could and should come and sit and even rest instead of work on herself and her life and her morality and her self-esteem and her womanhood and her motherhood and her faith and her every other exhausting thing every second.
That she could come and sit and listen and cry and sing and confess and pray and respond and we can keep doing that for a long, long time because Jesus is enough and the church is for people just like that.