When my daughter Riley was a baby, she had a respiratory infection and required a nebulizer to provide the breathing treatments she needed. The nurse at our pediatrician’s office informed me that the company who provided the machine would ask for it back but that we’d already paid for it and therefore should keep it. That tip has proved invaluable for our family because we’ve used it repeatedly over the years, especially me with my asthma.
Recently, my nine-year-old son Alex needed a breathing treatment, so I put the mask on his face with the strap around the back of his head and turned on the nebulizer so the steam and medicine could soothe him. I assumed everything would be fine, but I didn’t realize that Alex had never used the nebulizer until he called out, “Am I supposed to breathe?” Apparently, he’d spent the first few seconds holding his breath instead of breathing in as intended. “Yes, breathe,” I said. “It’s supposed to make breathing easier.”
Sometimes, I think we forget that God wants us to breathe easier in life and that he provides tools to help us, including church. The idea of church feels constricting to many. We may have had bad experiences in the past in which people in the church treated us poorly to put it mildly. When my mom was a little girl, she tried to go to a church with her cousin, but being uninformed and poor, they wore pants to the worship service. That was back in the day when one wore a pretty Sunday dress to church, and so they were turned away.
Many have encountered this type of experience, but it’s compounded exponentially because they’ve been rejected not because of their clothes but because of who they are. The hurt and shame imposed by church can leave deep scars. No wonder some people think all churches are places with restrictive rules that only condemn – that make them feel like they have masks strapped to their faces that require them to hold their breath, not be themselves.
Of course, not all churches are the same. Churches exist that are accepting, affirming, and open to all. And while those churches may take effort to find, they are worth the search. The church is supposed to be a place in which we can find support and care and most importantly, God’s love. The community of people that we find in church can surround us when we hurt, sit with us when we doubt, and uphold us when we falter. God intended for churches to help us breathe easier, not make life harder.
When I first joined the Presbyterian Church (USA) twenty years ago, I asked my pastor Rev. Kelly Allen about a controversial issue in the world of religion and why my new denomination held such different views on this topic than the churches I’d attended previously. Kelly was a brilliant pastor, and I’m sure she explained how we needed to view this subject in terms of the context and history of scripture. In fact, I know we did a series of lessons on this topic at a later point in time. But on that day, she responded to my query with a simple statement about her approach to God and people that will always stay with me. She said, “I choose to err on the side of grace.” If only we all viewed others through the lens of grace and welcome. To love people so that they feel God’s love.
Let us not give up on church if we’ve become disillusioned. Instead, let us seek God and in so doing, pray to find a community that embodies God’s authentic love for all people.