As I observed the people around me in the restaurant Sunday afternoon, I felt annoyed. I didn’t like these people — and I don’t figure they would really like me.
If I described the things I didn’t like about these folks, you would probably feel as though I was being petty. Maybe even judgmental. They didn’t look like me, talk like me, or act like me. Everything about them rubbed me the wrong way.
I feel this way a lot lately. I suspect most Americans feel the same. In our own varied ways, most of us are asking, “How could this be possible in my country?”
Conservatives might look at gay marriage and marijuana legalization and an apparent flood of immigrants in their cities — and wonder what went wrong for the world they believe in. Progressives might look at neo-Nazis marching and “voter suppression” in elections and a flood of hatred for immigrants — and wonder what went wrong for the world they believe in.
In a world where the words and actions of people who disagree with us are slammed into our faces by 24-hour news media, most of us have a vague sense that something’s wrong. Some react by saying, “I want my country back,” but what they’re really saying is what we all feel. We all long for a place that feels like home.
I often say that I feel like a “stranger in a strange land,” which was the title of a Robert Heinlein novel. I feel much like the protagonist of the novel. Michael Valentine was a human, but he had been raised among aliens before returning to Earth as a young man. He had absolutely no understanding of the people he had to live among.
When I look back at my life, I see that the only places where I’ve ever really felt at home were among church families and in high school. I think a lot of people experience some nostalgia about high school for the same reasons I do. Even though my life was far from perfect then — and I would never want to return there — I knew where I stood. I knew what was expected of me. I knew how to fit into my social groups. All of that added up to a sense of belonging. I was still conscious of being different from most, but I felt accepted.
All of this was even more true among church groups. When I was in high school, my church group was more home than the place where I slept. I was there every time the doors opened. I had leadership positions. I sang in the youth choir. I had parts in all sorts of things which put me in front of these hundreds of people. I didn’t personally know all of those people, but I still had a place among them. I liked some people. I loved others. I didn’t care for some. But they felt something like an extended family. It felt like community. It felt like home.
I feel less at home among these sort of conservative evangelical church members today because I’ve changed and they’ve changed. They’ve tended to become strongly political in ways which I strongly disapprove of. And where I once shared the sense of certainty about some fundamentals of theology — things I later discovered were fairly modern additions to theology, not ancient understandings of the text — I now have disagreements with their certainty. I have more questions and far fewer answers. I retain a bedrock belief in a God I’ve experienced, but I no longer share their certainty about a lot of specifics.
Because of those changes, I don’t feel at home in the same congregations anymore.
As I thought about all this Sunday afternoon, I suddenly realized that my understanding of local church congregations has changed over the years. I once saw a local church’s purpose as saving souls through evangelism, which mostly meant preaching and teaching and door-to-door campaigns and supporting missionaries.
I have started to see that a church which mimics the New Testament model is less a multi-level marketing scheme and more of a simple community where people live together in love and support.
What is it that makes the people of Amish communities so generally happy with their lives? It’s not the ridiculous clothes they have to wear and it’s not being forced to ride in buggies rather than cars. In fact, I’ve concluded that the specifics of their way of life is almost irrelevant to their happiness and well-being. I think they’re happy because they live in communities in which they know who they are and where they fit in the community. They have a strong sense of a place where they feel at home.
I’m not saying that I want to become Amish. (In fact, I’d make a terrible member of an Amish community.) I’m simply suggesting that what we need is to be able to make community with people who are like us — people among whom we feel at home.
I don’t want to force other people to be like me. I don’t want to stop my friends who use all sorts of recreational drugs and live a “party life” which seems alien and disgusting to me. I don’t want to force everyone to read what I read and think about the things I think about. I don’t want to force others to speak as I prefer or teach their children what I believe they ought to be taught.
I simply want a place of community where I can feel at home. I want a place where other people voluntarily speak and act in ways that are familiar and reasonable to me.
Because of modern media and coercive politics, most people seem to believe that life is one long struggle to force others to be like them. There’s no reason to keep fighting this ridiculous battle. We all need to quit trying to force others to be like us — and we need to find voluntary community with others who are like us. (We also need to quit paying attention to coercive politics and quit swimming in the cess pool of modern news media.)
For me, a church is the right sort of environment. It’s trickier now to choose one that fits my beliefs, because the modern Christian world seems to be slowly splitting into those who are foot soldiers for the evangelical political right and those who are foot soldiers for the progressive political left.
I will not be part of either of those groups.
I just want to find community with decent people who are seeking God and who want to find love and life and fellowship with one another.
If I’m evangelical about anything these days, it’s the simple notion that we all have the right and responsibility to live as we choose and to associate with those of our choosing. But that also means we must leave other people alone to live as they choose and to associate with those of their choosing.
I need a place to call home right now. I need people who are thoughtful, intelligent, loving and open-minded to be community for me. I need this sort of community for myself, but I also need such a community for my future children, so they can grow up among a loving extended family — not grow up with random other children and media personalities shaping their lives instead.
I’m probably not ever going to like those people I saw in the restaurant this afternoon. They were foul-mouthed and ignorant. They weren’t educated and they seemed happy to be what they are. They’re comfortable within their own kind of people. I suppose they feel a sense of community with each other.
That’s not what I want, but thinking about them makes me realize how much I need a community of my own. I’ll have to either find one or build it and attract the people I need.
We all need to find or build this place of community for ourselves — instead of trying to change others through politics or shouting each other down on social media.
Note: The picture above is one I shot of Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Leeds, Ala., just before sunset in July 2018. The church is about a mile from my house.