Everyone has a story. We have each been wounded in one way or another in the course of our lives. It’s just the way of the world and we either learn to heal the wounds – or not. Sometimes (more often than it should be) it’s the church that has done the damage. Often it’s simply a matter of people behaving badly: the old guard at church who say hurtful things to newcomers, for example.
One of my stories is how I almost flunked Confirmation. In my day, you went to classes for three years, every Wednesday night. You memorized the catechism, took sermon notes in church, and got graded on everything from class attendance to participation in Luther League, the Sunday night youth group. We even got report cards! I consistently got As on everything – except Luther League. I refused to go; it was too much for this shy, gawky, socially inept 13-year-old. So for 3 straight years: F in Luther League (say that fast and you’ll know how I felt about it). At the end of the 3 years, a small group of us ‘failures’ were required to take extra classes in order to be confirmed along with everyone else. Our names were read out loud, mine along with all the kids (all the bad boys) who hadn’t done their homework, memorized their catechism or paid attention in class. It may seem like a silly thing, but at the time it was a shaming experience, and it took many years to understand the cruelty of that system and the lack of any kind of pastoral care from the clergy involved.
That’s one story. I have others, some that still have sore spots, too tender to share openly. There are many, many stories out there – and a lot of them involve actions of the institutional church. I don’t need to go into them here; we know the stories. We’ve read them, heard them, lived them. The question is: how do you heal wounds inflicted by the church?
There’s no easy answer to that question. I’m not going to minimize the pain and suffering that so many have experienced. All I know today is the fact that, in spite of some very hurtful actions by both individuals and the institution, I have received grace upon grace through the church. I have been part of a community, have received love, forgiveness, challenge, healing, spiritual direction and growth. I have seen again and again how Martin Luther’s description of us as ‘simultaneously saints and sinners’ is most certainly true. We have a great capacity to inflict wounds on one another, but there is an even greater capacity to heal. Call it God or whatever you will, but there is a greater power at work in the universe for good beyond our pettiness, short-sightedness and destructive behaviors.
Tomorrow, the congregation I serve will rejoin the denomination which expelled it years ago. To say that the wounds of that expulsion have disappeared or no longer have some spots that are still sore would be wrong. Wounds must be acknowledged and treated with tenderness. But we must also acknowledge and be open to the healing work that is happening within us.
Then we truly become, as Henri Nouwen described, ‘wounded healers,’ using our stories for the good of others. That is what we’ll celebrate tomorrow. That is the hope that we hold out to others as well. That is the church at its best.