My 20th high school reunion was last weekend. Several hundred people gathered in Columbia, Missouri to celebrate and remember their time at Rock Bridge and Hickman High High Schools. I received the invitation along with an email from a Facebook friend who encouraged me to go, but I never intended to go. I don't think much about high school. I keep in touch with high school friends only via Facebook. Rather than thinking about high school, I seek to keep those memories locked in a box that is rarely opened.
High school was a painful experience for me. It seemed as though there were two choices during high school - I could try hard to keep up with the Jones - the kids who had great clothes, drove fancy cars and gathered at the local swim club or country club for fun. I could try to keep up with a select group of people who were always invited to the parties even though I rarely made the list. I could put myself in a place of pain and disappointment. Or, I could coast on the sidelines and engage my time and energy in other places. I chose the later.
High school was a painful experience for me. I was surrounded by people who I grew up with from the second grade - the same people who picked on me while riding the yellow school bus while never picking me for their teams in gym class. I was in class with the same individuals who had teased me for most of my life for being the kid who weighed the most. I grew up with the people who always reminded me of how I was out while they were in.
I now have several Facebook friends from Columbia. I take delight in discovering where we are in life, becoming familiar with where our life journeys have led us. I have so enjoyed seeing pictures on Facebook this week from the reunion. I keep wondering how much people have changed. Had I traveled to Missouri last weekend, would I still feel like an outsider? Would anyone have worked any differently to make me feel included? Would I have arrived in a way reminiscent of my prom night - with only one friend and a date from the outside because no one on the inside really seemed to make a genuine connection?
What really changes in life? Are people and institutions open for change or are we all the same?
I was visiting one of our church members this week who resides in a retirement home where I have gotten to know the chief administrator. On my way to visit our member, I stopped to say 'hello' when I noticed the administrator's office door was open. We caught up on life and talked about the member I was going to see. She then asked me about the church, and I shared what was happening. I then asked her about her church.
"I don't go to church," she said. "I'm a relapsed Catholic who has not been to church in years." She then continued, "But I have heard that there are a few churches open to people like me. A lot of my friends tell me to go to the Unitarian church." I responded by telling her how she was welcome at our church. I shared how our church was different - how we had intentionally made a decision to welcome all people - especially LGBT people. She looked at me in disbelief and then said, "Well maybe I'll make it down there one day."
There are hundreds of people all around us just like this woman - "hurt-churched" people. There are countless individuals who have been told that they are outsiders from those who are inside the church. There are people who have been told that they are of sacred worth but not fully accepted unless they change. Our church buildings are less than half full while thousands of people walk by on their way to something else because the church has told them that they are not fully welcome - sometimes with words and oftentimes with actions. We have thrown a party each Sunday morning at 11:00 but have so often invited only the people who are like us - the people who live like us, dress like us, love like us. Oh how much the church has in common with painful high school days!
There are churches that are changing. There are communities of faith that are saying they are not going to continue with church life as we know it but instead make bold steps to change - to welcome people no matter what and to fill old wine skins with new wine. I have tasted some of this new wine. I love savoring its sweetness. But I am reminded all the time that we must go to great lengths in order to show people the change. Putting words on our sign might work for some people - but the best messages are the ones told by our lives.
I'm open for change. I'm part of a church that has changed and is changing in bold, daring, beautiful ways. I hope people believe me when I tell them of this change.
Perhaps I should have gone back to see what changes 20 years can bring.
There's always 2020.