Safe

fence tree yard

In several unrelated settings recently, I’ve heard people describe (with immense gratitude) their spiritual community as “safe.” This struck me as odd and beautiful. Odd because one rarely hears safe attached to church. It is true of course that too often church is the last place we encounter unflinching acceptance that invites us to express eviscerating doubt, paralyzing fear or the numbing loneliness that a sermon and song could never fix (an inexplicable predicament when our prayers and worship are shaped by the Psalter, the most uncensored religious text I could imagine) — but none of that’s exactly what I mean. I simply mean that safe is rarely a religious word. It’s simply not part of the eclessial lexicon. Maybe it should be.

In each of these conversations, the person had encountered something generous, something spacious and healing in the rhythms, posture and tenderness of their spiritual circle. Best I could understand, they found room to breathe, room to be themselves, even if the selves they are right now seems to have little to offer and arrives as a Grade A mess. They knew the joy of the slow knowledge (over time) that their community possessed the strength and the patience to bear their full selves, that they would be honored and would receive tenderness and would never be shamed. There was room to be playful and to fail and to have a long stretch where their head’s just not right and they are not “productive” members. They’ve been told that their mere presence is enough, that it’s a gift – and they’ve slowly begun to believe it. So safe might be odd, but it’s also so, so beautiful.

Many of us live in fear of being exposed. Exposed for not being as smart as people think we might be or expect us to be. We fear what would happen if someone saw us in the true muck, at our absolute worst. We fear (particularly in church settings) what will happen if we ‘fess up to the shadow themes in our story or let loose with the questions that haunt us. We play the charade because we lack courage, and perhaps we lack courage because no one else has courage. Perhaps we are all afraid together. Perhaps none of us feel safe. Perhaps we are all alone, in the same big room.

So when someone tells me they have found a safe place, I perk up. I want to belong to a safe community. I want to be a safe person for others.

17 Replies to “Safe”

  1. Upon reading this, Winn, something large formed in my throat and made it hard for me to swallow. Something wet burned at the corners of my eyes.
    I won’t bore you with the details, but let me just say that safety like this has been a long time coming for me within the four walls of the church. You have articulated it perfectly, my friend. Thank you so very much.

  2. A friend once told me, “you are safe here,” and I wasn’t even sure what that meant, but I realized I never felt safe anywhere before. It has taken me a long time to trust safe people because I didn’t know there was such a thing – that my words would actually not be turned against me. I’m still afraid of churches, but maybe some day that will be a safe place for me, too. For now, I’m thankful for a few safe friends that love me as I am. Thank you for this beautiful post, Winn.

  3. The reason I call my lovely church “safe” is because I have been in churches where I have been UNsafe. Spiritual abuse confronted me shockingly in one church and in another church there was such an emphasis on spiritual ‘highs’ and a lack of solid bible teaching- all froth and no meat’n’veg- so finding my present church which is so gentle, where the Holy Spirit is very welcome, where I am loved unconditionally- is SAFE, and just wonderful.
    Thanks for writing about this because being SAFE in church is incredibly important when you have been abused in any way.

  4. Oh, so true, Winn. Thank you for writing this out – it seems to be hard to find for way too many people and that is so sad. Church should be the safest place possible – as welcoming and accepting as home.

  5. Interesting.
    I attend a very small, very old congregation.
    The pastor doesn’t give riveting sermons and the songs are often off tempo and off key, but there’s love.
    I know that the people care about one another and me.
    Last Sunday, I smiled as our pastor helped Bessie from her car and got her seated in the pew. He quietly returned a few moments later with a glass of water for her, just caring for her. I don’t know that anyone else saw, or noticed, but I did. And Jesus did.
    Yes, I’d say it’s a safe place. And it is sad that that’s so rare.

  6. Hi Winn, I remember coming across this post back when you originally wrote it, but I guess I didn’t comment at the time! Anyway, a thought process I was having today jogged my memory, so I sought out this post because I wanted to read it again. And it rings just as true for me today, especially this:

    “…that their community possessed the strength and the patience to bear their full selves, that they would be honored and would receive tenderness and would never be shamed. There was room to be playful and to fail and to have a long stretch where their head’s just not right and they are not “productive” members. They’ve been told that their mere presence is enough, that it’s a gift…”

    I’m in a period of seemingly being an ‘unproductive’ member (though I’m ‘on a break’ from formalised church at the moment), and the most painful part for me is that, now that I have stepped out of that role of leadership or service, it is like I have ceased to exist for some people. Because I’m in a stretch where my head is probably NOT right, as you say, all I can see around me is wilderness. I never feel like my presence IS enough (I never felt it was enough even when I was leading – I had to be DOING to be valuable), that being a part of the body is all I ever need to be. To continue the metaphor, I’ve felt like an appendix. Not really useful for all that much, and if perceived to be too inflammatory, well – it’s not a huge effort to lop me off, or for me to fade away unnoticed.

    So, I long for the type of community you are describing. Thank you for giving me something to set my sights on!

    Bree.

    1. Bree, I believe that being ‘unproductive’ (at least in the ways we normally view such things) is a mighty holy to do. God himself rested, and the land, Scriptures tells us, must lie fallow from time to time. I am sorry for the hurt that happens when we recognize that others don’t know what to do with us when we’re not helpful to the bottom line. I suspect that these days, though they may be like a trek in the desert, will give you a sturdiness in your soul, a deeper sense of your belovedness, a truer sense of who you are – and (perhaps just as important) who you are not.

      Oh and be sure to take this extended time for bursts of joy, maybe even a little tomfoolery. That’s your assignment, if I might be so bold as to offer one.

      1. Thank you for this reply to Bree as it helps me too. Wow, what wisdom here. Love the reminder that God rested on the seventh day and this reminder, “I suspect that these days, though they may be like a trek in the desert, will give you a sturdiness in your soul, a deeper sense of your belovedness, a truer sense of who you are – and (perhaps just as important) who you are not.” Wonderful sentence. Thank you.

      2. Hi Winn, I am coming back to this some 16 months after your reply to my original comment. I mustn’t have subscribed to comments 🙂 Thank you, it was well-timed that I remembered this post and returned to it for comfort and understanding today. Agree with Katie regarding the reminder… “a sturdiness in your soul, etc.” Just perfectly timed for me today, when I am feeling a sadness about what I have left behind, about friendships lost (or forgotten) but also a hope for what is ahead. Thanks again.

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