Jessica Wilson is a raw and honest voice to a generation of deconstructionists looking for ways to remain connected to the community of Christ-followers. With a background in social work, Jessica offers us deep and relevant insight as to how we can still show up as the church even in the midst of it’s brokenness.
I first met Jessica at a small church in Portland, OR and we have remained good friends since. She is a busy mom of two boys, has a Masters Degree in Social Work and is a talented editor for other publications on the side. It is a blessing to have Jessica at the table with us today.
Guest Blog By Jessica Wilson
For some time now I have been in a very complicated and emotionally-fraught relationship with my mother the church.
In my youth she was a caretaker, teacher, and the frequent preparer of my daily bread. When, in the course of raising me, she occasionally revealed some of her more oppressive tendencies, my child’s heart read them as cute little quirks. When I felt her stings, I characterized the wounds as inadvertent and likely the result of my own disobedience. My perspective was reasonably small. All I knew of the church was my own experience organized around the insight of a white, privileged, obedient child. My most consistent understanding of her was that she was fundamentally good, protective of her children, and abiding in love.
Today, I have the honor and despair of an expanded view. With eyes to see beyond myself in a more global perspective, I am confronted repeatedly with what Rachel Held Evans called “the unholy trinity of patriarchy, white supremacy, & religious nationalism.” I see that the church has not been a loving parent to all, but rather often more self-interested and clutching her pearls instead of her children. And when her members pursue rights for the disenfranchised or confrontation of complicity with racial injustice, the church can be found responding with excommunication or silencing through political power. Sound tough? Well, we get to be eyes-wide-open with ourselves. The church I claim as my own has inflicted gaping wounds on God’s world and my own heart.
Despite the burden of this knowing, I have often been surprised by a lingering wish to have anew my naive adoration for the church. I fantasize that my disappointment is my own imagining and harsh judgement, rather than insight. Though she has proved time and again she is not who she claims, I still search for her universal righteousness. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and every chance to become who I know she was designed to be.
I hold signs in the street, begging for the end of systemic racist murders of black men, women, and children. I look to the right or the left, somehow believing that she’ll be next to me in full indignation with her eyes bent towards justice. But she isn’t there.
I see time and time again that my body and soul are good enough to supply the labor to build the church upon, but not to lead it. Something about the curve of my hips has led her to mark in her creeds that my mind is untrustworthy and submission to my authority would be unnatural. The fact that she tells me I am beautiful, special, and gifted while she does this leaves me reeling.
I pass by an oversized billboard spewing xenophobia with its shadow cast over a large church building, and I wonder, “Does she rise up and advocate with the municipalities to tear this division down?”. Or is she the one with a box full of letters out here weekly, shifting words and punctuation in just the right way to stoke fear, hatred, and anger? I ask the question, but my knowledge of history mocks me for it.
I practice calling the genderless and triune God “she” or “they”, but the dismay the church throws at me proves what I have always known: she has internalized the idea there is something inherently less in me and my pronouns to the point that likening us is an affront to our shared Creator. How deeply I have to dig my heels into the ground and center myself to not believe the same.
You see, evidence indicates I have been in quite the unhealthy relationship. And where I struggle is …
why am I still here?
Looking through the psalms of lament, I am struck by how the writers wrestle with the God that they are currently experiencing from their position, and a counter-truth that they deeply hold despite it being personally unfelt. They recall story after story of their ancestor’s God-breathed liberation, though they have seen no such salvation in their own lifetime (see Psalms 44, 80 and 85). The oppressed cry out for God to see their pain, simultaneously holding God as the inflictor and rescuer (at times in the same stanza). While it’s not their reality, they still trust it could be true for them someday.
This elasticity required to hold what feels contradictory as instead dual…this feels like a familiar resilience to me.
Because the church has been both the source of my affliction and my life-giver, I’ve been left cradling my shattered trust and still deeply needing her. I find myself holding my disappointment in one hand and my longing in the other. How can I still desire to join myself to the hands and feet of God when she has been so unsafe to so many?
There remains this strange phenomenon where the church is so broken and yet I belong with her.
And I do need her, because I thought for a while that God and I could be okay on our own, and we just weren’t. I would read the words of Christ and the stories of his legacy, but the takeaways eluded me. I needed the church and her wisdom to point me to truth in the scriptures. I pondered the great responsibilities of raising my babies to do divine good in the world and the weight felt so damn heavy. I ached for grandparents in the faith to sweep them into their arms when we walked through a familiar door and carry the load of their discipleship with me. I sang hymns of faith and praise, but my voice was trembling and flimsy. It was harder to believe the words and look forward to heaven when I was alone.
And I worry that if I part from her, I will miss it when she finally becomes the love of God for all humankind.
So my soul wonders, What does it look like to remain in the church, both out of a desperate need to be with her and close enough to beg her to heal what she has broken? The only answer I have is it looks careful. It looks precious, thoughtful, and flexible. It looks like me building on my pain, all I have learned, and a community of like people to be sure that my resilience doesn’t die out before God comes to finally make the church what she could never make herself.
I cannot pretend to peddle expertise on how each person can do this. Each resilience method must be specifically formed by experience and what the moment demands, as well as open to adaptation as the tides shift. But perhaps something in my methods, just as my story, will unlock something in you. So I humbly offer a few of my literal what’s-saving-my-life-right-now (nod to Jen Hatmaker) strategies for your consideration.
De- and then re-construction has been an act of owning my own faith, of trusting its rootedness enough to doubt and pull it apart in the hope I would still believe afterward. Engaging deconstruction with the church brought me the same goodness, and the ongoing work has let me continue to take part in the family that wounds, but in a more compassionate and aware way that enables me to pursue redemption instead of complicity
Boundaries are an act of self-love as well as a display of love for others through allyship. Therefore, certain ongoing harms to self or others can appropriately earn a boundary. There have been times I have needed to pull back for a season, or pull away from a particular offender, to stay for the long haul. These boundaries can be emotional or physical. For me, boundaries have been a way of honoring pain by interrupting it for a time of regrowth and implementation of new strategies.
Naming what IS is a grounding exercise I practice with desperation. When I can say, “That’s fill-in-the-blank-ism” out loud, it takes the crazy-making out of it and allows me to remind myself in the next breath, “That’s of man, not of God.” It also limits the action, person, or speech to its proper importance and scope in my heart.
“This is one group of people; there are others who believe differently.”
“This statement or sermon comes from pain, not truth.”
“God is a holy being who is love in total; the church is not yet that.”
Being the church
Whether by myself, with my own family, or in a small group of close friends, I often engage in study, service, or worship in lieu of waiting for the direction of an overseeing church. To trust that the bigger church can be God’s love to the world, I need to see small glimpses of it in action, and the beautiful results. This reminds me that it really was God’s plan for us, the mess-makers, to be the conduit for love to the broken-hearted. This reminds me that it is still possible to grow in fullness of life with others who share my longing for a future restoration.
Sue Monk Kidd’s novel Book of Longings finds the main character, Ana wife of Jesus, receiving a word that her “largeness” is both from God and loved by God. She is told it does not strike fear in God, nor should she fear it. The church often cautioned me not to trust myself, that I was inclined toward wrongness instead of rightness. But scripture calls me (and you) free, powerful, fearless, strong, masterfully made, bold, loved, and redeemed. Choosing to root myself instead in the truths of divine identity has taken away the power of the church to control her message over my life.
I would love to know, those who gather at this table, what resilience-building tools and spiritual disciplines keep you in the family of God?
Please share with a sister who is playing the long-game of sticking with the family, and with all who carry mourning and hope together.
A little note from Colette
Hey friends, I am so glad that you have joined us for the Ordinary Time series! This series will give us the opportunity to hear from a variety of voices, from different backgrounds, holding their own strong convictions around faith all the while calling us to the same thing: perseverance. I give my guests freedom to express their faith freely and any specific convictions they may hold. This is bigger table theology working itself out on this blog. We may not all agree concerning specific areas of scripture but one thing I know we can, Jesus is Lord!