The phrase “left behind” brings to mind for most people the apocalyptic religious fiction series, apparently scaring people into adhering to Christian doctrine “or else.” But for me, it raises strong feelings about what sucks the most about being a part of organized religion.
If there’s one word that defines the relevance of a community of faith, it’s just that: community. Sure, we can practice faith alone on a mountaintop or study it in a book, but as my wife, Amy says, a book can’t visit you in the hospital, and a mountain can’t hug you back.
There’s a basic human need for community that started in primitive times when we, not being the fastest, fiercest or strongest species, had to depend on one another for survival. Since then, community has remained an essential part of our social fabric, and certainly not just in religion. But in that context, community not only provides love and support, but at its best, it also stretches and challenges us to become more as part of the whole than we are on our own.
The hard part, especially when you commit to the community over the long term, is that you set yourself up to be left, over and again. For some, communities of faith – and, I expect, other communities too – are there simply to serve them, to accommodate them like a pair of shoes. If the fit becomes less than ideal, or if something new and exciting comes along, they split.
For some, dealing with the inevitable conflict that comes from being a tightly-knit, interdependent group is worse than starting fresh. So again, they walk. It’s kind of like being committed to a relationship where you’re always the one getting dumped, and never the other way around.
Of course, this sort of vulnerability is a part of any relationship. It’s just that the traditional values of sticking with one particular group, simply because or out of a sense of moral obligation, has changed with the increasingly dynamic nature of our culture.
We see it everywhere; people stay in jobs for less time than in the past, but we also get laid off more suddenly. So why do we owe a company our lifelong fidelity if they will turn on us at the next economic downturn? And sure, marriage is a nice idea, but we’ve seen enough divorce and infidelity to compromise any sense of permanence the institution held before. So it may work for us right now, but there’s always an exit clause, right?
In a perfect world, communities of faith would be the welcome exception to this cultural norm. When we made a covenant to one another and to the Divine to stick it out, that’s what we mean – for better or worse. But I think before we can expect others to follow in this spirit, the institutions themselves have much healing and re-creation to do from within.
It’s not religion’s job to accommodate, and to ensure comfort and “customer satisfaction” for all comers. However, it is incumbent upon all who call themselves sanctuaries to offer the hope, healing, nurturing and love that allows each of us to feel we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Over time, this mantra may become practice so that it’s something in which we can trust again. Until then, we may just have to stick together, behaving as if we get what we need from one another. Hopefully, by committing to one another, we can live into the community we imagine we might someday be.