Beliefnet
Year of Sundays

The first reason to love The Bridge? They make sure 150 hungry Portlanders get a fresh, healthy bag of groceries every Sunday.

Let me just start with a disclosure: if you’re looking for a post where I snark on the hypocrisy of your average Christian church, look elsewhere because I have absolutely nothing bad to say about The Bridge. It isn’t because I have friends who recommended it or because of the beautiful warm welcome we “blasphemous bloggers” received there. (Thanks Liz!)

It’s because The Bridge means it when they say they welcome EVERYONE. They mean it when they say “By coming, it means you belong.” This is the most authentic, honest expression of God I have ever seen. If I hadn’t already committed to a year of Sundays, I’d be going back next week. That’s how much I loved this church. It felt like HOME.

I started this journey because I couldn’t explain why I always cried in church. I would plop into a pew, someone would throw out a random “Jesus,” and I’d suddenly feel tears begin to gurgle in the back of my throat like a backed up garbage disposal. The strange thing is that we’ve been to, what, seven churches already this year? And I haven’t felt the need to cry even once. Not even for a second.

But The Bridge managed to clog my IN-SINK-ERATOR no less than three times.

The first time was with the music, which was raw and motley and unsophisticated. At the end of the opening set, the band put these lyrics up on the overhead projector:

Beautiful Savior, like banana peels in the garbage disposal of my heart

At the final chorus, the punk rock band chugged to a halt and the entire congregation sang through the lyrics a capella. The hum of those haunting voices – so full of love and grit – it got to me. I busied myself hugging Genoa against my chest and dotting her forehead with kisses to save myself from bawling. I also didn’t want the song to end. Ever. And this was a song about JESUS, people!

When the pastor, Geoff Neill and his wife Crystal (who comments here as foulmouthedpastorswife) took the floor, they immediately introduced us. Apparently, the pastors had checked out our heathenish little blog and decided that their best bet was to just be themselves and see if they might have something to learn from our critique.

Pastor Geoff Neill and his daugher Bettylou having a really good hair day

Honestly? I wish we DID have something to teach them, because then it would feel a bit more equitable that we learned so much from them. From every word.

If they had me with the music, then The Bridge owned me with the sermon, which covered two subjects I hold close to my heart:

1) The concept that You Are Enough. A concept I recently posted about on my own blog (did you watch that video yet?!?!)

and

2) Fred Fucking Rogers.

I welled up again for the second time simply because they mentioned his name. Way to go for the low-hanging fruit! But the truth is that if this agnostic has her own personal Jesus, a man she admires above all others, a man she wishes to be like? That man is Mr. Rogers. I grew up on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, he died before my children were born and even now, I still can’t watch his show without an incomprehensible level of histrionics.

[Joel had the idea that we should start our own church just to honor him. Saint Rogers! We could all wear button-down sweaters, change into our comfy shoes before every service and play make believe with overdressed puppets. Everyone in the neighborhood would be welcome! We could call it: Beautiful Day Church!]

[Come on. You KNOW that idea has merit.]

But moving on…

Geoff and Crystal shared how they were listening to an audio book called, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers, and how it was also making both of them sob like babies. The author, Tim Madigan, was a journalist who serendipitously befriended my personal Jesus after interviewing him for a newspaper article. They shared this letter Fred Rogers wrote to Tim Madigan after Tim admitted (full of shame and fear) that he was on the brink of divorcing his wife:

My dear Tim,
Bless your heart. I feel so for you—for you all—but, Tim, please know that I would never forsake you, that I will never be disappointed with you, that I would never stop loving you. How I wish we could be closer geographically! I’d get in my car, drive to your house, knock on your door, and, when you answered I’d hug you tight.
You are a beautiful man, inside and out, and those who care about you are privileged to share your pain…As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. You write of “powerlessness.” Join the club; we are not in control: God is.
Our trust and affection run very deep. You know you are in my prayers-now and always. If you ever need me you have only to call and I would do my best to get to you, or you to me…
…You are my beloved brother, Tim. You are God’s beloved son.

If that’s not true Christian ministry, I don’t know what is.

The Bait and Switch (in the background)

Then Geoff and Crystal punted the baby again, which warmed the cockles of my crusty, shriveled uterus and I started thinking about a conversation Joel and I keep coming back to. I recently asked him who his model couple is. It’s a worthy question, no? Do you know anyone in your life whose marriage/relationship/domestic partnership is an example for you? Sure, they’re are plenty of couples I admire and genuinely love, but I’m talking about relationships where you just KNOW they aren’t faking it.

Neither of us has been able to identify that perfect couple, so I secretly started wondering if maybe it was us. Maybe WE’RE the couple we want to be like. But as I sat there watching Crystal and Geoff play “you’re it” with their daughter, it struck me: this is the couple I want to be like.

Or at least this is the couple I want to have beers with. Because Crystal went on to say something I had to scribble down as fast as I could so I wouldn’t forget it.

“We’re either the perfect couple or we’re the major fuck-up.”

I’m sure she was talking about Jesus loving them either way, but I was blinded by how whole I felt in the presence of that kind of honesty. Her vulnerability astounded me. THAT right there is how you build human connection. THAT is how you build trust and community. THAT is walking the talk. You don’t do it by waving your hands around making a spectacle of how awesome you look in the church pew. You don’t do it by bragging to everyone about how to be the perfect Christian.

You do it with honesty.

Geoff closed the sermon with his take on “the truth shall set you free.” Even little old agnostic me has heard that one a million times, but I’ve never heard it put quite so eloquently:

“Jesus will show you who you REALLY are and THAT is the truth that will set you free.”

Part of me worries that a church like this could only happen in Portland, Oregon, but I hope I’m wrong. Because even if, like me, you’re not sure if you’ll ever believe in God, you might still need a place to go every week to remind yourself that you are loved unconditionally and not only that, but that it’s totally okay that you go on loving other humans unconditionally too. Go on with your bad self.

This church doesn’t have a PR department or a logo or a red velvet bag for your tithe. All they have is a scrappy, shared yoga studio on NE Tillamook and each other. The only thing I could find lacking at The Bridge was judgment. There is no “IF” at The Bridge. No qualifications. They literally DO love you just for being there. It’s the “only a mother could love you” church. Everyone qualifies. Every. Single. Soul. The more flawed the better.

And if I believed in God, THAT would be the kind of God I’d want to worship.

The one who made The Bridge possible.

I realize I’m gushing and I could go on and on – about the God who unburdens you, about the awesome Sunday school (where the teacher actually got up and told everyone what she was planning to talk about that day and then INVITED the children to follow her back to the play room), about how for the first time since we started this journey I was inspired enough to write a check, but I think I’ve made my point.

Unfortunately, I have to wait about 45 weeks before I get to go back there and all I can say is that rest of the churches in Portland better check themselves. The Bridge just set one hell of a bar.

Me and Pastor Donna VanHorn

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