To Church or Not To Church

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I initially thought about setting up a trigger warning for this post, but then thought, “How in the world would that even read?”

Like: Trigger warning for anyone who ever choked on communion mid-service and nearly passed out trying to get out of the sanctuary before cough-exploding in the vestibule in a manner that caused Niagara-tears to gush from your eyes and caused a church-inappropriate-Alice-Cooper-raccoon-eye-look that incited gossip over whether or not you and your husband might be getting a divorce.

Or: Trigger warning for anyone who ever attended a non-denomination church where they began to strobe pink lighting during the prayer, and you thought “this is it, this is where I’m gonna get a seizure” so you sat down and put your head in your hands and the little old lady behind you patted your back and said, “Honey, do you need me to go forward with you? Cause we all sin.”

The thing is, I haven’t found a church “home” since getting a divorce. I’ve wandered about, first in Little Rock and then here in New York, visiting churches now and again. Sitting in the back pew and inspecting, hoping, waiting, and sometimes crying. It has felt like a quest to find home again, when “home” was burned to the ground in a pile of ashes. I have wandered and visited hoping to find something that might restore my faith to what it once was.

I could dive down that rabbit hole of the why’s and the what-happened, but, I won’t for many reasons, but mostly because I’m past all the bitter “can’t hardly swallow it down” feelings that accompanied the whole experience. But, it left me in a strange place once that bitterness passed. It left me in a place where I was afraid to go to church again.

Actually, it left me in a place where I didn’t WANT to go to church again.

The entire experience, a childhood spent in one of the strictest denominations in the southern Protestant community, college years spent at a conservative Christian university, my twenties spent attending and investing myself into a church community with deep conversations, Sundays in the pew, baby showers, hugs… I felt… had utterly let me down.

I felt that the safety nets I believed in had snapped. I began to believe that all the people who had proclaimed love for me over the years, and then turned their backs and gossiped, might have been lying. I believed that a life spent doing all the right things, spending Sundays in church, giving money to church, surrounding myself with Christian friends, doing all those things I was told would make me okay, make my life okay, had utterly failed me.

There are those that argue that when someone feels that church has failed them, they just don’t have the right kind of faith. They were either attending the wrong church, or they didn’t have a close enough relationship with God. And to that I say, uh, no.

Noooooo.

People who believe that have had the vast luxury of insulation.

Insulation from how truly awful and betraying Christians can be to each other. Insulation from bad things happening in their lives, so terrible, that on a good day they question whether God can hear them, and on a bad day they question whether he’s even real in the first place. Insulation in the form of self denial, because believing that churches can cause someone to lose faith, or hard times can cause someone to lose faith, are things too scary to think about.

Or perhaps, in the words of all southern Grandmas, no one ever taught them how to act.

But in the middle of my church and faith crisis, and after peering behind the curtain and catching the Wizard of Oz manipulating the controls, I found something different.

I found that all those years believing that without a church family, and without services and preachers you couldn’t know God, weren’t exactly true.

I found that in absence of a church, I turned to prayer time by the East River. I found that sitting next to the water, and watching the sea gulls perch and call, and breathing in the air, and telling God how I felt were some of the truest prayers of my life.

I found that in absence of a preacher, I turned to books and podcasts. I walked the streets of Queens and New York listening to wisdom in my ears.

I found that bedtime prayers and reading with Jane and our conversations about God and what happens when we die and my personal favorite “baptismos” (Jane informed me she was sorely not in favor of water going up her nose), are some of the best moments I’ve ever had with my daughter. I didn’t depend on a Sunday school class to teach her these things. I’ve had the privilege of teaching her those things.

I found that in absence of church friends, I had real family and friends who were ready to talk and email about God and what it all means. I had real friends and family who told me it would all be okay, who supported me, or just held my hand when they didn’t know what else to do.

I found that in absence of all those “church” things, I questioned more. I read more. I sought more. I grew more. My certainty of “all the things” grew less, and my ability to say “I don’t know” grew greater. I felt less need to preach and indoctrinate those I encountered, and more need to connect and know and just become a friend. I felt less smug, and far more humbled by the vast sea of things I have yet to know or encounter.

And I firmly believe that sometimes stepping away from the things we hold onto so tightly, so fearfully, is the only way to peel back the layers and discover what we’re actually doing with our lives. What we actually believe.

God. This one word is the greatest mystery of this life, and I am certain I will never figure it all out. I am certain I will never figure 1/10 of it out. I am certain that no matter whether I am churched or not churched, my relationship with God will grow and change.

And now I find myself dipping my toe back into the church water again. Tentatively attending. Tentatively shaking hands. Tentatively taking my daughter to Sunday School. Tentatively taking communion. I am doing this thing again, hoping that spiritual butterfly stitches hold together some of my deep wounds. Hoping that this time around will be different.

But.

But.

If it isn’t different, this time around will still be different. Because I believe the Lord is faithful to all of us, those who are sitting in pews, and to those who are huddled on a bench by the East River.

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25 Comments

  1. Jessica G says:

    Blessings on your journey church-ward. I’m a pastors wife and we’ve seen quite a few people over the years sneak into our back rows and then dart out afterwards. When we meet with them, and they explain the pain they’ve experienced from other churches, we tell them to rest. Keep sneaking in and out until you find a place of peace and refuge. Because that’s what we all as Christians are called to be, especially the church. I personally have found so much healing in being a part of a regular meeting of believers. May the same be true of you. Been reading your blog for years now. Still here. Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pam says:

      As a newly divorced woman of 65 I know that God has, will and is truly taking care of me. There are a lot of churches but only one Christianty where God controls your life and to quote my brother in law ‘ it’s not for everybody ” for few find the way thereof. I too was disheartened by the members who I felt would stand by me. But to add fuel to the fire, my step daughter spear headed the campaign and our church split, leaving only a handful left. This has been so painful. To try to go to them and tell the truth, only suggest that I am doing what they did or that I am wrong. So do I continue to go to church? Yes, why, because I’m going for me not them. There’s a song:Life is easy when your up on the mountain and you’ve got peace of mind like you’ve never know, but then things change and, you’re down in the valley, don’t loose faith child for you’re never alone. You see remove their things, those paddings, and see exactly what’s underneath. Whether you can go back to your church or not,it will take searching to find a church with a spiritual awakening and I’m not talking about a loud, screaming one, just one that has a sweet spirit and when you enter, you can feel his presence. Without that, it is merely a meeting. God bless and keep searching.

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  2. Ellen says:

    I always enjoy your thoughts on this subject, and I remember exchanging a couple of lines with you about this a few years ago. I grew up in the same church you did, and I completely understand everything you are saying. I have decided that organized religion is just not for me. The park bench by the river idea is much more to my liking.

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    • lizharrell3 says:

      Hi Ellen. I remember those exchanged lines. I completely and 100% understand why spiritual people turn from organized religion. One thing I know for certain, God hears us plenty clear when we’re on our park bench. Love and hugs to you!

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  3. Dena R says:

    I am sorry you had to walk this journey. But, I am so happy that through it, you have found that your faith is independent of your denomination, church attendance, personal community, or actions. It is sad that so many equate God with church. And in doing so, equate faith with works. And this sets up pride. I love my church, but I grow more and get more from my personal prayer and worship time than I ever have in a service. I had a hard time finding a church home. I just didn’t fit in. I was so tired of condescending looks and comments from church “ladies” because I didn’t volunteer for VBS and didn’t goo to the Tuesday morning women’s bible study. Never mind the fact that I work a full time job, have three kids at home, run my husband’s business with 6-8 employees, and have a successful speaking ministry unrelated to the church. That wasn’t good enough because my “good works” weren’t on display for all to see. I found a small group first – outside of church – and that was my fellowship for a few years before finally finding a church. God will plant you where he wants you. Keep up your relationship with Him and all will be well. If you can find a group of three or 4 women with which to meet and discuss and ask questions and pray – what is that but church? Church is not a building or a service; it doesn’t have to involve a hiarchy or planned sermons. And most importantly, it doesn’t dictate your faith or personal relationship with your Savior. Good luck on your journey!!

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    • lizharrell3 says:

      Dena, thank you for sharing all this. It is encouraging and makes my heart happy to have connections here with so many amazing and brave and vulnerable and non-curated women like yourself!

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  4. Erin Bartels says:

    Another pastor’s wife here. 🙂 I second Jessica G.’s wise and caring words. And I’ll add to them this: not everyone who belongs to a church is a Christian, and even of those who are, many of us have a long way to go when it comes to living like Jesus–especially when you are in a more legalistic setting where the do’s and don’ts trump the grace. Here’s my prayer that you will find a community of believers who extend unbelievable grace at the same time they preach repentance. Because that’s what Jesus did. Keep searching, knowing that God has already prepared a place for you.

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  5. Julie E S Harris says:

    Oh,Liz. I am so happy that you are healing. We seekers of the Lord are broken people. When we forget that, we break others. And people do and say stupid and wrong things. I have an aunt who never returned to church after divorce, and followed off into something really strange. (It was a very weird funeral.) Sometimes it’s divorce. Sometimes it’s an untimely death — my husband’s parents were killed (he was 1 1/2) and people told his grandmother it was “God’s Will” that a drunk driver killed her only daughter and son-in-law. She almost stopped. Similar statements affected by Grandma when her husband died when my mother was young (they thought she should give all her money to the church, though she had 2 small daughters to raise.) Sometimes it’s a power struggle between leaders in the church, maybe over doctrine, maybe over money, or power. Oh I wish those stories weren’t there. I’ve lived in several places, and I’ve learned that the good, the bad, and the ugly not only live in the same place, but sometimes that same person. Sometimes those things can kill faith because like it or not we are God’s hands and feet — and we can use it to help people or kick them when they are struggling.
    And we who struggle sometimes need sabbatical to heal. I’m glad you’ve drawn closer to the Lord, and that you are trying to commune again. Communion with the Lord, what my grandmother called the lifeline to God, has to be first so when can begin to commune with our fellow man. It’s not about the works, as some have said before. It’s about your relationship with the Lord, and then about the relationship with the rest. It’s hard not to bind the “spiritual checklist” on people, but every Christian’s journey with the Lord looks a little different. God bless you as search for people to seek Him with.

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    • lizharrell3 says:

      This would have brought tears to my eyes even if I didn’t personally know you, but I do, and I’m very thankful. I’m thankful for your classes in college, and I’m grateful to know you now as an adult and friend. Thank you for sharing about your family. Hugs to that beautiful boy of yours!

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  6. feathering6innest says:

    God bless you sweet Elizabeth. I finally realized that there wasn’t time for the Thief on the Cross to get baptized or visit a church, yet Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise…” Luke 23:40-43. He confessed his sin and he believed in Jesus, that is all that it took. I myself find closer moments with God by doing my private Bible reading and prayer at 3 am at the kitchen table than I do at a church (a lot of times). Shame on anyone who thinks your heels are not high enough, or that you’ve been divorced, or that… or that.. We all come in broken people, into the vestibule of the church. Let’s walk tenderly and be careful not to step on someone’s heart. I believe fellowship with other believers is good as long as it is done with love and not with judgment. We are all flawed and we all need God’s grace. I have personally found Calvary Chapel to be very true to God’s Word, and very loving towards anyone who walks in the door. I believe there is one in New York. When I do not attend church I find Beth Moore Bible studies to be amazing fillers to help me grow closer to God (at 3 am), or next to our creek, or where ever. Whether you attend church or not, the Lord knows your heart and sees you, and can speak to you anywhere on this planet. Blessing to you my dear. Kathi

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    • lizharrell3 says:

      Thank you for this Kathi! I just love “Let’s walk tenderly and be careful not to step on someone’s heart.” That is so beautiful, and ideally what we all come to find with other people who believe in God and are searching.

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  7. Linda says:

    After a very painful divorce I no longer felt at home in church. I eventually stopped going and I think the main reason is that I don’t want a man telling me how to live and think and believe. Since I left the church, I feel much more free and light. I guess I am spiritual but not religious now.

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    • lizharrell3 says:

      I completely, totally, 100% understand this. I don’t foresee ever considering myself religious again, even if I do attend a church. Religious is a really loaded word to me now. And also, yes, the patriarchy in most churches is impossible for me to tolerate.

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  8. Kim Funk says:

    I still search for a church family. It’s hard to find. I do wish you luck in this.

    And that book, Good Christian Bitches, was more fact than fiction for me and my experiences.

    Like

  9. ellebee says:

    You have such a gift with words. I’ve loved reading your blog for so long. Thank you for being willing to share your un-curated heart. So many people struggle with authenticity and being real. Thank you for sharing your struggles, joys, challenges, and celebrations.

    Like

  10. Linda says:

    The kiss of the sun for pardon
    The song of the birds for mirth
    One is near God’s heart in a garden
    Than anywhere else on earth
    (I think the poet was Gursey? Guernsey?)

    Church is where you find it. You sound strong and well. A pleasure to read your posts!

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  11. allison says:

    For a variety of reasons, we’ve chosen not to church with our young family. Both brought up in different Christian religions, feel absolutely no connection to either of them…except for maybe a bit of nostalgia here and there around the holidays (and to be very honest, after this election I;m so turned off by a particular strain of “christian”, that I could puke).
    A Roseanne episode sticks with me on this subject. DJ comes home and asks his parents what they “are”. Roseanne tells him, “we’re good people. We believe in being good”. Sounds about right to me.

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  12. Melissa VanderMeeden says:

    Liz- I have been reading your blog for quite some time and was so sad when I hadn’t seen one in so long. I was so happy to find this post tonight and I simply cannot put into words how much of this rings true for me and things that I have experienced. The terrible hypocrisy within the organized church and those that call themselves “religious” has made me walk away more than once. Thank you for your honesty. It is more helpful than you can know.

    Like

  13. Katie says:

    This was beautiful! It really touches home for me! Makes me feel not so alone. I grew up southern baptist. But now it feels like all people do is gospip and judge. I haven’t been to church in years. I’m always thinking if dipping my toe somewhere again, but I don’t know where. I’m not even sure what denomination I am anymore. I know I’m Christian, but beyond that…? I think praying beside you on a bench in NY sounds like the best kind of church!

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    • lizharrell3 says:

      Hi Katie. I completely understand. And I think there are a lot of us that feel this way, but there’s a lot of shame and judgement and lecturing that goes along with admitting it out loud. So mostly, people stay quiet. I keep praying. And I don’t beat myself up about it. And I don’t beat up other people about it. There’s a lot of peace in that. 🙂

      Like

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