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.
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.
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.