I belong to this community online. It is a crazy bunch. Brought together to launch a book, we 500 women (496 to be exact) have launched so much more in the last year. We’ve welcomed babies and fiances. We’ve grieved together at miscarriages and loss of parents. We’ve helped buy a car for a foster kid who wanted to go to college, stocked an apartment for a woman fleeing her unsafe home, and given advice on everything from resumes to mission work to sex lives. I personally traveled 3 days in a car just to meet some of them. We are a force, people.

Do you know what keeps women in this community? The sense that it is a safe place. Nearly every day, someone posts those exact words—“Since I know this is my safe place . . .”  Since they know. They know it’s a forum for their deepest hurts, their greatest dreams, and their toughest frustrations. They know that, though others may bring in disagreement, they will never dump judgment. It works for this reason alone—496 women feel safe. When has that ever been the case in any community you’ve ever seen?

I know—online communities are easier than face-to-face flesh-and-blood ones. In real life, you have to deal head on with the messy. Online, you can choose not to post the first thing that comes to mind, whereas in person, well, sometimes the stupid just comes out before you can stop it. You can see the eye rolls that get suppressed on Facebook. You can’t avoid the one person who is always so needy that she drains the life out of you.

385f9-img_5020But church is not supposed to be like that. Church is supposed to be that safe place. It’s meant to be a haven where we treat one another as if we were all patients in the same ward, all trying to learn to walk again. We cheer one another on, and we share stories of mutual need, and the steadier among us hold the weaker up until they can return the favor.

We seem to have lost our way a bit on that one.

Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father. Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters. (1 Timothy 5.1-2)

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4.32)

And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. (1 John 4.21)

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Colossians 3.12)

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor. (Romans 12.10)

How many have instead been wounded by unspoken (and unrealistic) expectations? How many have been outcast because they disagreed on issues that should be peripheral but somehow became major fault lines? How many have chosen to take offense rather than give preference (and forgiveness) to one another?

There are good reasons people don’t want to join our family.

It would be like an entire extended family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner and sitting down at separate tables. You’re wearing red, not blue. You go sit over there. You’re eating ham and not turkey. Sorry—not welcome here. You listen to Christmas carols before tomorrow. You have to go to that table over there. And you? You who actually eat tofurkey? You are out of here. Completely. Out. Side.

It’s nonsense. But it’s nonsense too many of us perpetuate every Sunday. And that doesn’t feel like a safe place.

Am I suggesting we close ranks and refuse to ever criticize any other church or church member? No, I’m not. I don’t think hypocrisy fools anyone. It certainly doesn’t help us. I believe honest, kind, public disagreement tells others that we know how to fight right. We are real. We care deeply about certain issues of theology and practice, and we will fight for them because we care, but we care more about treating one another with respect. We care more about the relationship than about being right.

33422_445689050125_6454112_nIt’s a scary world out there. People already feel there are no safe places. Think about how valuable the church could be if we became what we were meant to be—that sanctuary, in the original sense of the word, that God intended.

We can be. We must.

What does a safe family look like?

–In a safe family, things said to family stay with family. They are not gossiped about in prayer group. They are not mentioned on Facebook. They are not vaguely but obviously referenced in conversation. If a person is vulnerable enough to share, that sharing is respected in a safe family. It is valued as the treasure it is, given with priceless trust.

–In a safe family, inadequacies, failures, and fears that are bared with family stay with family. They are not treated as trivia. They are not quickly “fixed” with glib advice. They are given the respect they deserve as jewels offered with more courage than we can imagine.

–In a safe family, hopes and dreams are encouraged. They are not ridiculed as dubiously improbable. Thy are not minimized to make the dreamer more “realistic.” They are blessed and cheered and helped along with insightful advice. If the unfortunate happens and they fail, they are applauded because they tried.

In a safe family, forgiveness happens right away. Offense is not quickly taken, because we assume the best of one another. We have patience with one another’s pace of discipleship. We listen to opinions with respect, not waiting to stick in our opposing thrust. We ensure that no one is sidelined who wants to be in the game. We do not determine anyone’s merit to sit at the table and contribute meaningfully by their age, gender, physical ability, pay grade, or anything else that never seemed to matter to Jesus.

17b9e-window4There is no magic way to make this happen. We just do it. We go first. We choose to take the words of Scripture seriously and to make them our heartbeat, even if we are the only ones for a while. Others will follow.

It may hurt when you choose to forgive and no one else does. It may sting when you choose to bite back the harsh words and the other person does not. It may wound when you put someone else first and she takes advantage of that. It may bruise when you choose compassion for someone who then betrays you, and instead of giving you a high-five others say “I told you so.”

Not it may—it will. It will hurt.

But someone will notice. Someone will follow. Someone will look inside at what you’re trying to do and think, I want to be a part of that kind of family. That’s a safe place.

And you will have created a sanctuary, right there in church.

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