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In his New York Times column this week, my friend David French wrote about what it was like to be “canceled” by his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. He later told me how stunned he was by how many people responded immediately—grieving their own “cancellations” from churches or ministries they’d loved and served.

I was not surprised at all.

Most people, of course, aren’t canceled in the way we typically use that word, but in a way more like the situation described by the late Will Campbell. He wasn’t “fired” by the National Council of Churches, he would joke. They just unleashed a swarm of bees in his office every day until he voluntarily left.

Similarly, many people who feel “homeless” these days aren’t told by their home churches or traditions, “Get out!” Instead, they face a quieter form of exile.

They face those they love, who expect them to conform to new rules of belonging. Sometimes, that’s to some totalizing political loyalty. Sometimes, it’s to a willingness to “get over” their opposition to whatever their church or ministry leaders now deem to be acceptable sins. Sometimes, this doesn’t even happen to these people in their own churches but in their larger theological or denominational homes, or vice versa. It’s confusing. It’s disorienting. It’s sometimes angering.

What it really is, though, is grief.

People who’ve faced this in their own contexts often ask me, “How long does it take to get over this?” I usually quote the landslide-losing presidential candidate George McGovern when he was asked a similar question by later landslide-losing candidate Walter Mondale: “I’ll let you know when I get there.” But an earlier version of myself would have had a completely different view.

When I was a young doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I hosted a panel discussion on the topic of war and peace on our campus during the weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I wanted a genuine debate—not just a caricature of one—so I sought to include a pacifist in the group, ending up with the pastor of a very progressive Baptist congregation in our community, one that had long parted ways with our denomination after years of controversy.

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Afterward, the pastor said that he didn’t think those of us on the conservative side of the split really understood what it was like to lose a sense of belonging, a sense of home. “It’s like going through a divorce,” he said.

In all of my punkish arrogance, I responded, “Actually, it’s more like after the divorce when the ex keeps showing up on the lawn with a bullhorn, despite the restraining order.” My implicit message was, The controversy is over. We won. You lost. Move on.

All the ways I was wrong would require an entire book, but here’s one of them: I had no idea that trauma here was not a metaphor. What this pastor described was not about Robert’s Rules of Order or even about which systematic theology textbooks would be taught at the alma mater. He was expressing grief, and I did not know what that was like until decades later.

We would not tell someone who’s experienced the loss of a parent, sibling, spouse, or lifelong friend to “get over it” or “move on.” Most of us would do what Jesus did with Mary and Martha, grieving the death of Lazarus: weep right alongside those who experienced the loss (John 11:35). Many of us, though, are less sure what to do when we ourselves experience this kind of grief, this kind of loss. In fact, many people want to hear, in a moment of unexpected church homelessness, a word of hope.

I say: Not so fast.

The hope is real, of course—and that’s not just in the Book of Revelation kind of long-term view, but right now. God is doing something new. Old alliances are shaken, but new ones are being formed.

In the civic political space, many of us are finding that the fundamental division isn’t where we’re used to it being, between the left and the right, but straight through them. People with fundamental differences on important issues are finding that what unites or divides them is whether democratic principles and constitutional norms are needed to have those critically important debates.

The same is happening in the religious space. We are accustomed to the dividing lines we knew whenever we came of age: Calvinist versus Arminian, cessationist versus charismatic, complementarian versus egalitarian. The dividing lines are in different places now, and unusual alliances are forming. From the very beginning of the church, God has worked with what one scholar describes as “patient ferment.” Change is always disorienting, and often painful.

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And much of what God has to do can only come out of this kind of shaking. “I think that to overcome regionalism, you must have a great deal of self-knowledge,” Flannery O’Connor once said. “I think that to know yourself is to know your region, and that it’s also to know the world, and in a sense, paradoxically, it’s also to be an exile from that world. So that you have a great deal of detachment.”

O’Connor needed a rootedness—a sense of being a Southerner and of knowing other Southerners, specifically Bible Belt Protestants. She also needed, though, a kind of exile—the experience of being a Roman Catholic minority in Milledgeville, Georgia. Whatever is next—perhaps the conforming of the American church more closely to the global body of Christ—requires the kind of change that can feel scary. And many of us will grieve what is lost.

For some of us, we need to give heed to what Jesus said to his followers: “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32, ESV throughout). Grief shouldn’t cause us to look perpetually backward. But many also need to remember too that Jesus, even as he said for us to expect it, recognized that losing one’s home base would be painful (Matt. 10:17–21).

The apostle Paul told us that we were to “rejoice” in our sufferings, but he did not tell us to see them as anything less than suffering. Instead, we are to see that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Rom. 5:3–5). To short-circuit endurance and character to get straight to hope is to do something different than what the Holy Spirit does.

People who do not allow themselves the time to grieve what is lost, in my experience, often end up in bad places. Some of them wind up with a cynicism that sees all connection as suspect—and we know what happens to human beings when we give ourselves to isolation. Some of them, in the fullness of time, end up pursuing the mirror image of what they once had, as though the antidote to every problem were the opposite of it. Fundamentalisms of those on the right become fundamentalisms of those on the left, or vice versa. The end of that path is disillusionment and exhaustion.

That’s why T. S. Eliot, in my favorite poem, “East Coker,” writes:

I said to my soul, be still, and without hope
For hope would hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

For those who feel homeless, grieve with hope—but remember, there actually is a place called Home. And don’t forget that even in hope, it’s okay to grieve.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.

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