How Sufjan Stevens and Brene Brown Kept Me in Church

Chris —  October 17, 2013

In 2006, I was packing my car for a bittersweet move from Atlanta, Georgia to Texas. My friend Sam came to see me off. We had gotten off to a rough start because I worked for a church. That brought back some pretty tough memories for Sam. Finally, after months of ignoring each other at parties, he asked if we could be friends.

Over the next year, we would get together to down coffee, sling dumbells and pour out our hearts. We were both going through that overwhelming process of individuation that happens right after college. We found ourselves overwhelmed with the task of peeling back the layers of childhood drama, religious dogma and relational disappointment so we could decide what kind of men we were going to be.

Sam drove up to my overpacked car, shook my hand and then gave me a CD-R with the words “Come on Feel the Illinoise” written in blue ink.

“I’m done with church,” he said. “But Sufjan has become church for me.”

The next few years were awash in false starts and a constant sense of emergency. Jobs and relationships didn’t work out. Fear and loneliness became my replacements for dreams.

During that time, I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ blend of traditional Americana sounds and gut-wrenchingly honest storytelling. His raw yet winsome approach to faith could be heard in songs like Casimir Pulaski Day.

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

Sufjan seemed to be trying to reconcile his need for God with a church tradition that did not seem to line up with the difficulties of life. So was I.

In 2009, I finally landed in Austin, where I survived by living off the generosity of strangers. I wanted to find a church home, but was becoming more and more disillusioned with the religious subculture I encountered around Texas.

On the surface, it seemed to be a combination of machismo and cultural elitism. Church seemed to be a place for strong, upper middle class conservative men and their perfectly put-together wives. It was what you did before the football game on Sunday. It was a great place you met with others who shared your politics.

This was a problem, because, more than ever, I was aware of my own brokenness. I felt depressed, poor and scared. Not to mention, I was single, underwhelmed by football and grossed out by politics.

This definition of “church” was no place for a guy like me.

One Sunday I wandered into a church in East Austin where I heard the following:

You gave your body to the lonely
They took your clothes
You gave up a wife and a family
You gave your ghost

To be alone with me.

Over the last few years, the precise meaning of the crucifixion has increasingly become a point of contention. This church seemed to be using the words of Sufjan Stevens’ To be Alone With You to say “Life can be hard. It was hard for Jesus, too.”

The cross is about a lot of things. When we look at a battered, naked man suffocating to death, the most obvious take away should be that

God is vulnerable.

Since her TED Talks and books began to surface in 2010, Brene Brown’s qualitative studies of shame and vulnerability have been having life altering affects on the lives of people everywhere. According to Brown

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.

If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.

When interviewed, she says that learning about vulnerability drove her back to church. To Brown, it makes sense that Jesus is God because love and forgiveness is a messy business.

Let’s be clear about this: All churches are full of really screwed up people. What I found at my church in Austin, was openness towards broken people, and systems set up for safely displaying vulnerability.

Perhaps this is seen best during the time in our liturgy for community prayers. Week in and week out, men and women describe their hope and dreams, as well as fears and disappointments to a crowd of friends and strangers. The congregation replies in unison “thanks be to God” or “Lord, have mercy.” It is a simple act. It is also a system that creates a cultural expectation of vulnerability.

The trajectory of the church in America is sloping from a respected institution to a minority subculture. As a respected institution, churches could get away with “putting on a show.” Everyone had to dress nice and act respectably. Those who could not pull that off were not welcome.

The churches that will thrive as minorities are those who learn to display God’s grace. In a burned out, skeptical and hyperconnected culture, the church will have to learn to be honest.

This fall, a handful of us from this lovely church in East Austin chose to “dare greatly“. Taking the lessons we’ve learned on living this vulnerable life together, we are pioneering a new church community in another neighborhood. It won’t look exactly the same, but we will do our best to take the lesson that we have learned together:

God is vulnerable, so his people must be, as well.

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