Last Monday, my first small group ended. We’re splitting off to lead new small groups in our church, which was planned from the start, and I’m excited about that! I’m excited about the book I picked for my new group and about the taco place we’re going to meet. But I also am sad about the loss of this first group, and all change is a little death, so I’m getting a little sappy about it. Sorry.
Before this, I hadn’t been part of what I would consider a small group. There was a college Christian group that was not right for me and of course several Sunday School classes, but not a small group the way I always pictured it should be. Which I guess was basically hanging out with church people, but wearing jeans. I mean, I wear jeans at church. I did occasionally wear sweats to small group. But you get what I mean, maybe: This was my first group of adult Christians who met intentionally to spend time together and share our faith and our lives outside of the church building on Sunday morning.
I was a little nervous about joining such a group. Not because of anyone in it, all lovely people I already knew and liked, but because of me. I was a model youth group member in my day, but since then I’d gotten ornery. I had a lot of questions. I had a lot of ideas. I don’t know that I would have said I had “doubts” in the sense that I questioned my faith, but I had a lot of whatever you call it when you question your religion. (A distinction that was very important to me, which I thought was maybe kind of pretentious and/or excuse-making, which was part of my hesitance to join a group in which I would probably have to talk about those things!)
What if I brought all of that to this group and made it weird and had to leave? What if I got scared and didn’t bring those things with me and therefore didn’t get anything from or honestly bring anything to the group? What if it turned out no one else had things like that to bring?
In hindsight, I think the questions I should have been asking were about what would happen if I didn’t join a small group or otherwise find something to do with all that stuff. I’ve never felt like I was in danger of “losing my faith,” but my grip on it was pretty loose. There were so many things that seemed widely understood as necessary parts of being a Christian that I didn’t like and couldn’t own, that made me feel so sad and so tired if I thought about them too long. I had left several churches for several reasons and, even though we’d been very involved in our lovely church for several years, it still felt tenuous to me in some ways. I didn’t quite trust that I could be Real Catey around Church People, because Real Catey was maybe not as well-balanced and sure and sunny as Catey who sang about her solid, uncomplicated faith on Sunday mornings. Not that that Catey actually existed anyway, but how could anyone know that? And did I actually want people to know?
Anyway. Our small group started meeting, and I quickly found out that some of the best Church People I know felt some of those things, some of the wrongness and confusion and tiredness and even loneliness. We all had a familiar Bible story that had suddenly prompted a new question we couldn’t stop thinking about but didn’t think we could say out loud, either. We all had questions and things that made our eyebrows come together. Some of their things were the same as my things, and some weren’t. And we didn’t always agree! But that felt safe, too. And instead of continuing to carry around all my “wait, what?”s by myself, I brought them out and showed them to these people I loved who had their own things to show, and by acknowledging those things in the light of day, they became less scary.
We ate a rotating smorgasbord of chip dips and brownies and we got close fast and sometimes we made each other think about how big space is. We checked in on each other when we were sick and loaned each other books. We shared articles we’d read and TV shows we’d watched and pictures of animals and kids. One of them screened the comments on my Slate articles for a week so I wouldn’t have to do it myself.
We built a shelter for each other. (From an Irish proverb, “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.” Coincidentally, there’s a Jars of Clay song for that.)
It’s not that I no longer have any questions or any pain and am therefore ready to be a Small Group Leader. It’s that I saw that my questions could be discussion points, or stay questions but take on a solidness that let me look at and reckon with them, instead of being these ephemeral half-whispers in my head that I felt like I had to keep hidden. Revealing those parts of myself and being honest about the “loose grip” parts of my faith made my faith as a whole more solid. Not because I’m not still struggling, but because I know it’s not just me and, maybe more important, I really believe that the struggle is worth it. There’s something here worth struggling for. There always was, but there’s a difference between wrestling in the quiet of your own mind and dragging the fight outside of yourself and making it real and not carrying it on your own.
It can be a scary thing to hold out your fears and joys and obsessions and questions for other people to see them, and we probably all have lived experience that says it’s not always safe to do so. But I’ve gone from very wary of “church groups” to excited about leading my own small group because I’ve seen what it can be like when people show up every week to hold space for each other, to listen to each other and to really see each other, offering shelter and trusting that they’ve got it for you, too.
Besides, I accidentally got one of my groupmates into Veronica Mars right before season 4 came out and then couldn’t convince her to stop at the movie, and she still speaks to me, so, I mean! If that isn’t real love, I don’t know what is.