I'm having a new experience. Some might call it a crisis. That word is so overused in our culture, though. Everywhere you look there's a crisis. Our democracy is in crisis. We have a climate crisis. A crisis at the border. The covid-19 crisis. Supply chain crisis. Housing crisis. Gas crisis. Inflation crisis. Schools in crisis. Roe v. Wade is in crisis.
I think people use that word for dramatic effect. If something or someone is in crisis that means it's really bad. Demands immediate action. "Crisis" is clickbait. But my situation is not at all like that. My situation is more akin to the original meaning of crisis way back in its Latin roots, where it meant "sieve." A sifting, like panning for gold.
My family recently had a difficult experience with our church where we've been very involved for the past 20 years. It's heartbreaking because we love the people and have invested a great deal of our energy and have so many beautiful memories there. But it became clear it was time for us to go.
It was not sudden. In fact, the covid crisis provided cover, a little time to try to figure out what to do without making a big break. For months of Sundays we watched our pastor friend in another state from the comfort of our home. We would wear our pjs, cook a big breakfast, sing hymns and contemporary songs around the piano, and then settle into our living room with Bibles and notebooks. Dogs were allowed. We had good family discussions. It was kind of nice.
But with the vaccine came the opportunity to leave the couch and venture back into the community. We always knew couch church was not a permanent solution for us. We need other people.
A different option presented itself in the form of an invitation from two of our 9-year-old's best friends. So a couple of Sundays ago we got dressed and drove to a beautiful old building in the middle of my hometown. I have lived all but 15 of my 49 years in Ozark and never attended anything at that church but weddings and funerals. The early service was not in the beautiful old building. It was in the Family Life Center. Think: basketball gym.
The experience of walking in feels disarming. The building swallowed us. People were friendly enough, but we didn't immediately see many we knew. The seven of us stood there like a family of deer in headlights, suddenly stripped of our long-cultivated abilities to speak, comprehend, or find a place to sit. Thank God a precious older man who shepherds everyone in town showed up and rescued us. He ushered us to seats. I could breathe again.
The sound of music soothed our souls like a soft blanket. Besides the warmth and inclusiveness, it was also artistic. This set a nice tone for us because my kids and I are musicians and I am sorry to say somewhat judgy about music. Other than a few anomalous events, this was the first time in many years I have sat in the congregation and not at the piano.
It felt so strange not to be needed or responsible for the worship experience of others. Just to be. It dawned on me that in my life I rarely do just be. And never have I ever, that I can remember, just been at church.
A lady got up and spoke to the children before herding them like cats to children's church. There was a prayer time. The pastor, jolly and positive, stood up in Birkenstocks and socks and lit the first Advent candle--the candle of hope.
As I watched the flame flicker and dance, the pastor talked about the in-between place--this space of time Christians traditionally think of between the birth of Christ and his Second Coming. He said Advent begins with a frank and honest assessment of what the world is like in this intermezzo, and we must face the darkness.
However, our posture in the world is not one of fear and gloom, but hope. We believe the kingdom of heaven is unfolding in us through good times, bad times, and the interim. We do our part to help bring it about.
I thought about this ancient ritual and how, regardless of what one believes about the Bible or Advent, we all experience in-between places. Times in our lives that are neither here nor there. Like the overlap in a Venn diagram, that gray area where everything and nothing make sense. It's a place of tension, a space that demands you hold two contradictory truths in your hands at the same time.
I literally embody that liminal space right now. I'll be 50 in January, neither old nor young. I double majored in English and biology. I'm the mother of adults as well as daughters who are still kids. I'm a country girl who likes the city. A homebody who enjoys travel. On the line between introvert and extrovert. Comfortable with neither political party. Proud of and embarrassed by my state. A lifelong believer who constantly doubts her faith.
I hate abortion and the inequality of women. I like to shoot guns but mourn school shootings. I am against illegal immigration while relatively sure there is no limit to the illegal things I would do if my children were starving. I'm Southern but don't drink sweet tea. I disapprove of the industrial food system but love affordable bacon. I dislike shots and masks but despise covid more. I'm a redneck hillbilly academic. A walking oxymoron.
When things are simultaneously black and white--and most things are, regardless of who says otherwise--the world can look cloudy. I am convinced it is good and right to orient ourselves around the light that cuts through the gray areas: hope.
Hope is more than just a wish. Hope entails action. Like a light, it brings clarity. It doesn't remove the tension between ideas or competing wants and needs. It doesn't change our place in time. But it shows us a way through the fog.
Hope does not underscore differences. It brings focus, helps us see where our similarities overlap. It motivates us to seek out opportunities in which we might find some good, do some good, be a part of something good, even in the gray. In a spiritual sense, hope is something that furthers the heavenly ideas of love, joy, grace, and peace on Earth.
A crisis such as mine over church is a sieve. I think many of our state's crises could be too, if we will use them as one. A time to sift through our lives, our laws, our core beliefs, our purpose, and filter out what needs to go. Keep what is essential. Hope is essential.
I'm hopeful Arkansans can rediscover our mutual values--ways to work together for good. Hopeful the most polarizing issues don't have to divide us. There are plenty of things we have in common to concentrate on.
I'm hopeful I'll survive middle age, and a half-empty nest. I feel a new hope stirring about church. That even though I am afraid, conflicted, vulnerable, and critical, maybe I can be sifted. Shaken down to only what needs to remain; what in me could possibly contribute to the good.
The essential elements of my faith are still there. Maybe even in this space of uncertainty, there is hope I can find where I belong.
Gwen Faulkenberry is editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong (https://arstrong.org). Email her at email@example.com.