When Church Island Crumbles

When Church Island Crumbles August 14, 2015
Photo Credits: All pictures are screenshots from Inside Out, ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen Disney’s Inside Out, this post contains the basic plot of the story but without giving away the ending.

I’d like to introduce you Riley. She is the blond, 11-year-old girl who stars in the animated hit, Inside Out. The story of Inside Out revolves around the adventures of the emotions that make up who we are, and what happens when they start to change. In the movie we not only see Riley as she navigates a big cross country move and all of the uncertainty that comes with that, but we also see the changes in her emotions and how they try to stabilize the situation. Throughout the story we follow Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, as they experience life through Riley’s eyes.

The story reflects the nature of our emotions and how they color certain experiences and memories. Early in life, most of Riley’s memories are yellow – for Joy. But she also has moments of Sadness (blue), Fear (purple), Disgust (green), and Anger (red).  Early on, the goal to have a yellow day, is the the priority of emotion central. Then, every once in while, a memory with particular staying power turns into a glowing, bright core memory. Up until the move across country, all of Riley’s core memories are Gold. Her parents talk about what a happy kid she is. And they count on that to get them through difficult times.

Each of the core memories fuels an island (aspect) of Riley’s personality. In the movie these Islands kind of look like little amusement parks built around a certain aspect of her experience. They are distinct and separate from each other. Riley’s general personality is a balanced mix of the different islands. Riley has 5 islands – goofball island, hockey island, family island, honesty island, and friendship island. These are the main components of how she sees the world. Everything in her life fits into one of these categories and helps to define a happy, healthy girl.

Riley’s life is full of Gold core memories, happy days, and beautiful friendships. But then one day her Dad comes home and announces they are moving. They sell the house. They have an exciting road trip as they cross the country from Minnesota to California. But soon, life is just not adding up to everything she imagined. Sadness starts acting out. The smooth moving machine of emotions keeps getting interrupted by Sadness touching things and poking around in the memories. Memories start turning sad and no one can turn them back. Things are not working the way they used to. Then, without giving too much away, Joy and Sadness go on an adventure, and while they are out, things fall apart.

As Riley faces these new encounters in her world, her islands start to shake and move and eventually crumble into dust. Her islands of memory and personality disappear. This leaves her with a huge sense of confusion and almost paralyzes her ability to adapt to her new world. She is stuck without her islands.

This metaphor of the islands seems very poignant in relation to our faith. As I watched the movie, I was instantly drawn to the idea of Church island (or faith island). For people of faith, Church island is an essential part of who we are and how we make sense of the world. It stands on its own and shapes the way we see and perceive reality.

Church island developed early in me. I don’t remember a time before it. It was what we did as a family. I remember the sanctuary so clearly I could draw a picture of it. The dark wooden pews and the deep red velvet drapes. The red carpet and the grand piano. I remember the library upstairs and the accordion doors at the back for the adult classrooms. There was the fellowship hall and kitchen lined on one side by children’s classrooms. I sometimes have dreams about that church. It is one of the places that has many of my memories.

I remember pastor Ed and his jovial smile. His hair was wavy and grey as far back as I can remember. We had VBS in the parsonage yard and I spent hours there on weekends with my mom cleaning the church and running the bulletins on the lithograph. I can almost smell the paper and ink, and the Lemon Pledge. I remember methodically running a dust rag up and down the rows of pews. I can mimic the motion of sliding my hand down around the edge of the endcaps. My island would look like that first church building.

Church island held up for a long time. Along the way I received a call to ministry and faced opposition because I was female. That was one of the weirdest things I had ever heard. People started to require new things in order to be considered a believer, things that weren’t part of my tradition. It was confusing and destabilizing but I held on for dear life. Thankfully, for Church island, my church at large was able to stabilize things with a little more fundamentalism, and some encouragement to submit and give everything to God.

We then went on the longest road through seminary ever. Had a good dose of financial hardship and ruin. And nursed along the constant desire to not let the church down by continuing to give, serve, and lay it all down. We loved people, did grunt work, and kept count of who we saved. Church island was fortified and we lived happily inside.

But then, I don’t know what happened. A pastor I knew was released under strange circumstances. We were abused at our first place of ministry (like so many new ministers). We struggled to fit in. But we were busy and I guess happy, and were making a difference for the kingdom. And then, the shaking started.

I don’t know what all it was, but the shimmering forcefield around church island started to give way. We started to see that it was a long way down. We kept having to throw ropes to our friends as they experienced failure and challenge. We kept seeing people abused, ignored, and taken for granted.

And then we went to a conference where we saw theology done differently. We heard the Bible used in ways that brought light, and goodness, not just survival. We encountered people that weren’t trying to keep up the look of Church island, but were willing to live a faith with cracks, and crumbles and broken pieces. It was weird, and it was real. Then we went on retreat and learned what it meant to live fully and find wholeness without having to pretend things were fine. We made some new friends and saw with new light what our lives had become. We started interacting with other believers, and realizing that church didn’t have to be what we always thought it was.

Then, like Riley, we moved across country. And as I was sitting at Starbucks one day, being told that all my work and commitment might not transfer, and that maybe a man needed to speak on my behalf to make sure I would be heard – it happened.

Church Island sank into the Memory Dump. It crumbled into a million pieces and fell into the abyss.

And like Riley, I felt pretty lost for a while. But slowly, over the last few years, my faith and its expression of community is starting to rebuild and find a place mixed into the rest of my life. The building is not done. And faith has become shaded by many colors – red and purple, green and blue. Sometimes there is so much sadness. And for many months, so much anger. But there has been joy mixed in. Joy in making new friends, in having new experiences, in seeing God work in the midst of brokenness.

And God has sent people to help along the way. People who have lost their islands already seem to be the best at helping me reintegrate things in my world. Some of the are older and some of them are younger. Some come from similar traditions and others from very different traditions. But thankfully, they give me a glimpse of their journey and it helps mine to make more sense.

There’s new construction going on, but thankfully I didn’t have to hold a fundraiser. There are new windows that we’ve pieced together from the old ones. There is a desire to be rooted in the Church at large, something that’s been around a lot longer than my tradition. Carefully, thoughtfully, we’ve been able to recover some of the music and some of the prayers. We use a lot of candles. We eat together. And play together. And cry together. And we still find ways to pray together.

At it’s core, Church Island was never meant to be alone. It’s always meant to be part of life at large. Faith is something that should be integrated into our daily life and practice. When it lives on it’s own island, it tends to get distorted. It becomes a primary focus, one that sometimes overshadows other things. Instead it really should be the pavement and trees, the beauty and the balance of our island of life. It should help integrate us into wholeness and health.

By making these connections, newness comes. Light shines through the broken panes of colored glass and fills us with hope for a future of honest faith. One with memories made from a mosaic of colors. A belief that reflects the realities of real life. A faith full of color, and a church where all things are made new. But also a place where sadness and fear, disgust and anger can be acknowledged and experienced. And hopefully, through love, joy, and community, be transformed into something new.


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