Church has been the center of my spiritual and social life for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest and happiest memories include sitting on the front porch, singing “Tell Me The Story Of Jesus,” and planting marigolds in the Sunday school garden. My childhood was filled with hymn sings, potlucks, choir practices, church picnics, community dinners for the homeless, Lenten suppers, church fairs, and hours upon hours of other activities at church. I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, but my faith was nurtured in that church community, and the foundation for much of the rest of my life was laid there. Church has remained central to my life for the majority of my adult life as well.
Which is why it came as a bit of a shock when I realized the other day that church and I have sort of broken up.
I haven’t written a lot about what happened in November 2014. On the occasions when I have referred to it, it’s mostly been in vague terms like: “much of my life as I knew it just … stopped.”
Because it did. And I didn’t want it to.
I had to choose between two things I didn’t want to do, and with only a few days to decide, making anything resembling a well-researched, calm, and informed decision was close to impossible. In the midst of my heartache and anger, it never occurred to me to do anything other than walk away, and not one person I went to for counsel suggested I shouldn’t.
So I did everything I was supposed to do, and “left well” – because that’s what you do when you resign from a staff position at a church and 80% of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers are members of that church. I didn’t write about what happened, or what I thought and felt about it, and only a very small number of my closest friends knew how devastated I really was.
I took January off, and then started looking for a new church home – which proved difficult. I tried going to a megachurch for awhile, and started serving in an effort to try to get to know people (and as part of the application process for a job there), but it was too long of a drive to get involved much outside of Sundays, and it never really felt like home. When I left after a few weeks, very few people noticed.
Then I tried a small, country church – which was pretty much polar opposite from the polished services of a megachurch. They needed a worship leader, so I filled in off and on for six months. The people were really nice, and generally appreciative of my skills as a musician, but no one ever asked me out to coffee or made an effort to get to know me outside of Sunday mornings and rehearsals. So when I moved last November, I just stopped going.
I went to a Presbyterian church on Christmas Eve, because I knew there would be carols and candlelight, and my soul needs that at Christmas, but I could tell right away that it wouldn’t feel like home there long-term, either. So finally – at a loss for what else to do, and with very mixed feelings about it – I went back to my old church.
A number of my closest friends are still members there, and it’s been nice to see them more often – but it’s not been easy, being back. A lot has changed in a year and a half, but my influence is still visibly evident, and while in some ways that’s flattering, it’s also a painful reminder that I’m not really a part of things anymore. I know I’m welcome and that people are genuinely glad to see me, but there’s so much history… and I don’t really know how to go to church and not do anything. Every Sunday morning entails a wrestling match with my emotions.
I talked it over with some friends, and we thought maybe rejoining the worship team, just as a background vocalist, might be an easy and low-key way to feel out what it might be like to really be back and a part of things again. So I said I’d serve a couple weeks ago, and in truth, that midweek rehearsal did feel a little like coming home – it was fun, and good to be worshipping with close friends again.
But I hadn’t banked on what it would look like to other people on Sunday:
It looked like commitment.
And in the midst of managing my own very complicated emotions about even being there at all, suddenly I found myself fielding the emotions of well-intentioned people who were so excited that I was officially “back” – when there was nothing official about it.
Singing that Sunday wasn’t meant to be a statement; it was meant to be a question… a question that, as it turns out, had a rather unexpected answer.
You see, somewhere over the course of the past year and a half, without really talking about it, church and I broke up – and it’s incredibly awkward. Because we still know all the same people, and we still hang out sometimes, so it kind of looks like we’re together, but we’re really not.
And I don’t know what to do with that. Because I still love the Church, and I still want to live my life with a community of people who love Jesus and put feet to their faith, and I don’t know how that fits with this. But both realities exist. So here we are.
I don’t expect this to be permanent. I’m already pretty sure we’ll get back together someday, maybe even sooner than later. But it’s going to take some hard work and some really honest conversations, and the one thing I do know is that for right now, I need some space.
Yesterday, I started reading Brazen: The Courage To Find The You That’s Been Hiding, by Leeana Tankersley. In the very first chapter, she talks about “listening with deep compassion” to ourselves, “instead of jumping right to judging, overriding, denying.” As I read, I began to give myself permission to really listen to what my soul is saying, instead of trying to tell it what it ought to say. And the word that surfaced was “space.”
So I’m going to create it.
I’m going to stop trying to make myself want to go to church. I’m going to stop trying to convince myself that I’m fine when I’m not, and I’m going to let healing take as long as it takes, instead of trying to rush it, or fabricate it.
I’m going to go back to some of the practices that make the most sense to me, practices in which I know I’m likely to hear God’s voice most clearly. I’m going to take an entire summer of Sundays to read and think and walk and bike and write. I’m going to spend as much time as I can outdoors, and watch for the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory to be revealed in creation. I’m going to spend time with friends who will breathe life into my soul: the kind of friends who will read this post – and without judgment and without being asked – will go with me into the uncharted wilderness of life as an unchurched believer (at least for awhile), and let it just be what it is.
I’ll work my way slowly thru books like Brazen, Faith Shift, Still, Anonymous, How To Be Here, Out of Sorts, and Searching For Sunday, and I’ll write my way through all the ideas and the questions they will raise. And maybe as I’m writing, I will find my voice again. Maybe I’ll figure out who I am, or at least who I’m becoming, and what it is that I have to say that’s possibly worth saying. And maybe – just maybe – I’ll figure out how breaking up with church (at least for now) actually works in the context of loving her so much.
Or maybe I’ll just learn to live with the paradox, and plant a few marigolds anyway.
"Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else." —Fred Rogers via @momentumdash
Looking for something quick, light, and healthy for dinner this evening? Here's an idea! ow.ly/8pAk3099AdS
"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." Einstein