–Daniel S. Ferguson
Alex Beffrey is a dear friend of mine. We met while living in the same dorm house in college and have been on more adventures than I can count. I titled this post “Alex the Defender” not only because his name literally means that, but also because that’s how I think of him. Alex won’t just stand up to defend you; he’ll jump.
I can say with confidence that many elements of some of my fiction work wouldn’t even exist if Alex hadn’t been in my life, defending my ideas to their worst critic (myself). We share a create kinship that, at least in my mind, rivals that of the Inklings.
Another kinship we have is that of spirituality. Alex’s story is like my own in many ways. We were both raised Southern Baptist. Both our mothers worked for churches. Both of us have distinct impressions of church as an institution rather than a collection of people. Like he says,
“I didn’t even associate church with church functions. It associated more with other parts of life. It’s where Mom worked.”
That’s very much the experience I had, too. Church wasn’t something our families chose to attend. It was a part of our mothers’ job descriptions. So much so that our mothers’ careers dictated our church membership far more than any typical factor. We never changed churches because of theology, doctrine, practice, or belief. We changed churches because Mom got a new job at a different one.
For us, therefore, churches have always been somewhat interchangeable. We know from the outset that it’s temporary. That sounds somewhat freeing to us now as adults, but it wreaked havoc on us as teenagers.
“When my grandmother passed away, we left the town. We moved to an even smaller rural town. One of the first things we did was try to find a church. Nothing we ever did felt quite right. They were all welcoming, but at least to me, it never felt like I was wanted there.”
It was that feeling of not being wanted that led Alex’s family to drift away from the church when things got hard. Alex’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and became quite ill for a time, and church attendance took a backseat to her endeavor to survive. The connections with their church were so thin that they broke without even really being noticed.
Alex’s response was typical: he struck out alone to find spiritual truth for himself.
After all, churches were a dime a dozen (at least seemingly), and they weren’t, in his estimation, necessarily going to be positive places to pursue truth.
“Most of my experience at church has not been inclusive or trusting. It’s been almost in that high-school-esque click sort of way. You only know people through the context of what amounts to gossip, not as people with hopes, dreams, and desires.”
So Alex did what Alex does best: he became a walking church of his own. He looked for truth and love as best he could with the resources available to him. He completely rethought his idea of church.
“Is the church an amorphous blob of 500 people who see every Sunday morning? Or is this mass collective of people in your world? Honestly, I don’t want to go into that scenario where I have to open up to everyone. I’d rather find people that I care about, not the mass.”
I posted before in my blog about church websites that most people don’t seek out church on a truth quest. They’re on a relationship quest. When church fails to provide those relationships, or provides bad ones, people leave. Truth often has nothing to do with it. It’s not even part of the equation. It’s not that they don’t want truth; it’s that they want relationships also. They figure (somewhat rightly) that truth is less elusive than love, and they reason (definitely rightly) that truth without love is, at best, worthless and, at worst, devastatingly harmful.
Such was the case with Alex. He already knew that he could find truth in different groups. He learned that by changing churches as a kid. So now, the new revelation was to create his own community, one built on individual relationships of people who genuinely love each other first, and pursue truth together through that love.
And that’s why Alex is the ultimate Defender. That’s the Alex I met at 18 years old, one who draws people into his circle, loves them intensely, and protects that relationship with his whole soul.
Alex’s life forced him to test this theory of church. Alex took on a job for a while where he was being asked by his employer to perform what he considered immoral actions. From his experience, he instinctively knew not to talk about that at church.
“Why settle down with strangers and share with openness and reach heart to heart? Especially when I was doing things for work I didn’t agree with morally. I struggled with that. Part of it was shame. The pressure at church would probably have been more than I could bear. They would tell me to quit, which I wanted to do, but couldn’t. I had to eat the next week.”
But Alex did open up at church. Just not a normal, Sunday morning, small group, Bible study church. He shared his struggle and his shame with the church he had created, the close circle of friends whom he had defended so well and so long. It was in that moment that Alex himself needed defending, and the church he had created, however unorthodox, did that for him.
He found sanctuary without a sanctuary. Discipline without a discipline. Preaching without a preacher. Grace without saying grace. Direction without a director. And communion without communion.
Without realizing it, Alex has been going to church this whole time, one of which I am a proud member. It even has a mission statement:
“Act as someone who is saved. Spread love and joy.”