How do I make sense of that fact that I feel at home in the Church, yet feel so outside it at the same time?
I did not grow up a Christian. And for much of my life I have found it hard to identify as a Christian. When I came to faith I found it hard to see myself as part of this strange culture, this strange group of people, called the Church. Baptism was just the beginning.
My journey into the Church was a difficult one. I lost friends, friends who found what I am doing baffling, and friends who felt betrayed – at times I have felt with my queer friends that I have joined the enemy, I’ve become one of ‘them’.
And my relationship with my family has been harder too. At times I have not felt like a belonged as they and I have struggled to come to terms with my new identity, the things I have given up, and the hopes they have lost and fears that have arisen as I have begun to ‘work’ for the Church as well.
My connection to many aspects of my past has become complicated… stretched… and even at times separated.
Becoming a Christian as an adult, especially as a queer person, is rather like moving to another country, one whose culture is markedly different from your own, and which often looks on your home culture with contempt. Coming to faith in the Church for me was rather like coming home from an exile – it felt right – but at certain times of the year, especially Christmas, I am reminded how in many ways I am in a new exile, from the culture of my past.
I have found a home in the Church, but I’ve lost many homes and happy places to which return is difficult. And that can make me angry, really angry with the Church and with God. I have gained so much, but I have also lost.
I wonder which feels harder, being taken into exile or being returned from it. It is rare in the biblical narrative that a person experiences both. The Israelites taken into Egypt were not the ones who came back: those returned from Babylon were not personally taken captive.
I am reminded of Ezra and Nehemiah. Exiles return, to find their return home a struggle. They have left their culture behind, and the people they find living in Jerusalem are not as they think their home should be. Their return turns violent: it leads to the self-engineered isolation of the returning people, and the judicial murder of those who threaten their new synthetic identity. The only way these new residents can cope is to clear out the existing culture and isolate themselves, as they construct their new world – such is their sense of displacement.
My sense of displacement seems to arise, like theirs, from a return from a familiar exile. My exile was and remains, like theirs, a deep part of me – and it was a happy one. I was not cupbearer to the king, but I was at home with those I loved. But now I am uprooted, sent away to a place I am assured is my proper home. I do not know the people, I do not know or like many of their ways, and I am overwhelmed by the sense that this home, its furniture, architecture and inhabitants, are not all as they should be.
And I get angry.
Just like the returning peoples in Ezra and Nehemiah, I am tempted to hate what I find in the Church, or even to fear it. I see much of it as evil, and it very well might be, but that does not change the good will of the one who has brought me to this strange new home. Unlike the returning peoples in Ezra and Nehemiah, I cannot destroy or overpower the people I find, even if I wanted to, cannot build my own ‘proper’ temple in which to be with God as I know Him.
I must learn humility.
I must remember that I am an ‘improper’ stranger in an ‘improper’ home, because only God is ‘proper’ here: only God is truly ‘at home’ here. ‘To you we cry, exiled children of Eve’ was completely right: if we think we are ‘inside’ the Church we fool ourselves. And if we think others are truly ‘inside’ it either, we make a fool of ourselves entirely.
But, however much an outsider I often feel, I can never say that I am truly ‘outside’ the Church, either. Here is the remarkable paradox which I am coming to know. I know I do not belong in Christ’s Body, can never truly belong: especially if I seek to belong by my own will or merit. And no one else can either. Nor can I assign them to the Body based on my assessment of them. If Christ should be so foolish as to include them, show them mercy, as well as me, what then is that to me? There’s no point being angry with the people I find in the Church.
I feel outside the Body, and that is painful, but perhaps this pain is a gift, a precious gift. Those of us not brought up as Christians are more aware of the paradox of belonging and not belonging in the Church. The crux of that paradox, I believe, is most truly the locus of grace.
Holman Hunt paints a picture of Christ knocking on a door: but in that picture grace is not Christ knocking, waiting for me to open. Nor does grace open the door and come through to reach us, forcing its way. Grace is not the violent intruder or the passive donor. Rather, grace is the door itself, the crux, the transgressive midpoint of sweetest paradox, reminding us of our belonging in ourselves and our not belonging in Christ, our not belonging in ourselves and our belonging – gifted, unmerited and uncontrolled – in Christ.
Grace sits precisely between our being in Christ and our being outside of Him, our belonging in the Church and our un-belonging from it.
At Christmas I feel the pain of my loss of belonging and the pain of knowing that I have a new home. The pain in my heart is the pain of knowing grace. The pain of that crucial point of paradox, tearing my love between belonging and un-belonging, between Christ and my self.
If we claim we have no un-belonging then we deceive ourselves. But if in our anger we forget that, in Christ, we do belong, that is no less a loss to us.
To God in whom my being rests, and from whom I am so far, be praise, glory, honour, blessing and every good.