Leaving and Returning

Because some of my greatest wounds have come from the church, and so my greatest healing has happened here too. -Sarah Bessey

In my twenties, it was the trend to talk about how the church had wounded us. We all have our stories – from hurt feelings to misunderstandings to very real and damaging abuse. Some were wounded as children and never returned; for others it didn’t happen until later. For some, they left the church and have happily never looked back. For others, there continues to be a grappling and a search for that perfect fulfilling of a need.

Of course, I have my own story of being wounded. But the most important part of that story is the healing – it’s the way I found myself back at church.

The journey of leaving and returning and questioning and discovering is, of course, not limited to church. It’s not limited to years or seasons, either. Yesterday, the culmination of a rough week, of parenting alone, and of miscommunicated expectations led to some stressful moments on what should have been a perfect autumn day.

As we drove home, Bea screamed from exhaustion and I was ready to give up. Frank suggested I go to my parents house for the evening. They’re out of town, so I would not only have a guest room to myself but an entire home to relax. After some debate, I decided to bring Elle along.

Sweet girl slept in, too.
Sweet girl slept in, too.

I was away less than 12 hours, but oh! How rejuvenating! I watched episode after episode of mindless Netflix from 4:30 to after 10:00. I ate my premade Whole Foods salad in front of the TV. I ate an entire box of cookies. (Perhaps I should stop there with my indulgences…) All that to say: I lounged – something I haven’t done in so long. Elle is a laid-back baby and she was happy to lounge with me.

After a relaxed morning, we came back home. Back to our messy house and dishes not put away exactly how I would have done, but I felt good. And refreshed. And ready to return.

I know I’m going to get tired again. That Bea and I will exhaust each other again. That I’ll long for time alone. But, for now, I’m renewed. That small break was enough to reset my attitude and my outlook.

Leaving church, I think, is much like taking a break to lounge and sleep in. Sometimes it’s what’s best for us, for our communities, for our spirituality. But, here’s what I think many of us need to remember: Going back refreshed is key.

I was so tempted to stay at my parents. I hadn’t even opened the stack of books I’d brought – I could have found so much more to do. But, I knew that there’s a fine line between being selfish with my time and rest and sharing my renewed spirit with my family.

As I look back on my spiritual journey, I’m glad I chose to return. I know church and spirituality aren’t for everyone, but for me, I need that community, the thought-provoking interpretations, and that sense of something bigger than myself. I’m glad that, even after small and big breaks, I’m ready to return.

Have you ever needed a break from church? Did you return to the same place or did you move somewhere new on your journey?

12011258_10156109094605046_8628146384862283098_nThis post was inspired by Sarah Bessey’s new book, Out of Sorts. I have the pleasure of being on her launch team and just finished this book. I’ll write a formal review soon, but in the meantime, if you’ve ever felt “out of sorts” spiritually, check out this book. It releases on November 3 and I think many will connect with Sarah’s message.

Choosing to Stay

About a year ago, Rachel Held Evans posed a question about church stories on her blog as she was writing her new book, Searching for Sunday. I wrote this essay and left it. A few days ago, a conversation occurred that reminded me of it. As I reread, I realized nothing much has changed. I’m still so grateful for our community and the journey that brought us here.

Frank and I met on a snowshoe hike through the evangelical church we were both attending at the time. Over the course of the hike, we learned that I attended the evening service near my apartment and Frank attended the morning service at the more neighborhoody location. The next Sunday, as people were filing back to their seats after communion, I spotted Frank and gave a small, communion-appropriate wave.

Meeting on a hike
The day we met

Over our months of dating, our church made some changes to its leadership and soon hiking and camping took the place of showing up on Sundays.

After our wedding, we decided we needed to put down roots with a church community. Frank grew up Catholic and I attended an Anglican church during college and had tried an Episcopal church for about a year after I moved to Denver. Liturgical services had given me a refreshment from the seeker-friendly view I grew up with. We had gone through premarital counseling at a nearby Catholic church known for its showtune-esque liturgy, so decided to start attending.

In the meantime, Mark, the pastor who married us through the church we met in, had started a new location in a trendy neighborhood. We loved Mark and his philosophy, so we decided to attend the monthly meeting at an old movie theater. We tried attending both churches, sometimes on the same day, other times alternating.

I became exhausted, running around. I felt stretched, unable to truly get involved, yet unsure where I wanted to settle and in what kind of community I wanted to start a family. We started talking more and more about the pros and cons of each church.

About two or three months in, Mark made a big announcement to his congregation: After much thought and prayer, he and the leadership had decided to make the church all inclusive. LGBTQ attendees had always been welcome, but with the restrictions of not getting involved in leadership. Mark talked about how that didn’t fit in with his view of scripture and Jesus’ radical claim to redeem this world through love.

On our drive home, we were faced with where we stood on the “gay issue.” Was this a clear sign we should switch to the Catholic church full time? What did we think about a truly radical, everyone-is-welcome theology? I had never really examined my feelings on this particular subject.

Then, we began talking about our future children. What if one of them was gay? What message did we want to instill in our children’s worldview? Did we believe being gay is a sin? The phrase, “love the sinner but hate the sin” had never settled well with me, and I didn’t want to teach that attitude to my children.

After lots of processing and praying and more processing, we decided to commit to Highlands Church. Highlands is rooted in the evangelical framework. From time to time, we enjoy liturgical aspects, but there are times when I miss the common prayers, focus on images, and other elements I had grown to love in the Anglican and Catholic traditions. I had to process the return to my childhood denomination, especially with its decline in popularity.

Our first small group found us as the only straight couple. It was eye-opening being in the minority and doing life and community with amazingly committed, involved Christians. Their strong faith reminded me of the conservative church I grew up in, but somehow without the labels of who we can love and accept.

Now, five years later, we laugh that it was even an issue. Really? We thought we had to pray about whether or not someone could serve at church? I cringe a bit at my journey but am so grateful we are in community that utilizes, embraces, and celebrates every congregant’s gifts. I am grateful that Bea loves going to church and is so loved by a community just for being her – without any other expectations or definitions. I am grateful for our friendships and all we have learned from our community.

Even though it seems so uncool to say I go to an evangelical church, I look at the pioneering work Mark and our other pastor, Jenny are doing. I see how they are laying a foundation for future churches to change, to embrace, to accept with grace.

What type of church did you grow up in? Do you still attend a similar denomination? What are some changes you’ve discovered along your faith journey?

Remembering Grace

This past Sunday, in honor of Pentecost, seeded paper was placed in each bulletin at our church. The idea was that you could plant it and wildflowers would grow. During a song, we were to write words and phrases that came to mind when we thought of Highlands. Some came easily: Redemption… Practicing Upside-Down Kingdom… And then I wrote, Celebrating imperfect gifts and my eyes filled with tears.

While this is one of the things I love most about our church – that everyone can serve; that no one is excluded – I tend to judge one part of the service harshly. I mentally criticize tiny details and I wonder why we can’t just do better in this one area. The thing is, I know I’m in the vast minority with my griping. Most people adore this area of our service and come to our church specifically for this experience. Clearly, it’s my own petty issue.

Part of Highlands' ethos: "For all of us grace here."
Part of Highlands’ ethos: “For all of us grace here.”

On Sunday, as soon as I read Celebrating imperfect gifts on my paper, I realized how I did not celebrate the imperfect gifts of others. I relished in the acceptance and embrace of my own imperfections, and yet I refused to extend this same grace to others.

I need to remember that our church is made up of pastors who give more of their time than they receive in salaries. It’s made up of volunteers who give hours and hours of their time to keep it running. Why on earth would I expect perfection when amazing things are being done simply because people love – love Christ, love Highlands, and love their neighbors.

I need to remember that Jesus founded the church on imperfections. Lists have already been made of all the imperfections in church history – from the Old Testament’s Abraham, Moses, and David to the New Testament’s Peter and Paul, perfection certainly has never been a requirement of faith. If anything, it seems to detract from a person’s ability to fully experience the grace and love of Christ.

So, I need to shift my reactions and choose grace. I need to recognize my own imperfections and remember that grace is the reason I am loved and received at Highlands. When I feel critical, I need to choose grace. And, as with all practices, the longer I choose grace, the less I will notice these “imperfections” and simply be open and willing to love my church family.

Do you struggle with extending grace? Where’s an area in your life that you need to choose grace?

Linked with (in)courage Grace Writers group’s Defining Grace.

Strength in Community

I’ve never had a dorm experience. When I decided to attend the American University of Paris, I also decided to forgo a typical college experience. From living with a family to cramming three of us into a one-bedroom to a small studio alone to finally finding a quintessentially Parisian one-bedroom shared with a best friend, I learned quickly the art of opening my home to my community.

Some of my favorite memories were hosting brunches and dinner parties and cocktail hours with other expat students and twenty-somethings. We would squeeze into small living rooms, eat off of borrowed plates, and share life together. No one cared how big or small or mismatched everything was. (Though we did love congregating at one friend’s massive two-bedroom flat in the heart of St. Michel.) We had all chosen, for various reasons, to come alone to a big, bustling city and we needed to create our own families and tight-knit community.

Easter in San Sebastien
Easter in San Sebastien

Looking back, over ten years later, I find myself thinking romantically of those days of picnics by the Seine, spontaneous day trips to Normandy, and weekends in San Sebastien. In reality, there were disagreements and misunderstandings and cliques and hurt feelings. Not many, but it was no idyllic community. For most of us, our commonality was being away from home. And yet, we chose to continue, to be vulnerable, to question and grapple and grow together.

When I moved back to Colorado, I was surprised at how quickly and easily it was to fall back into old habits. My first few years in Denver, I went from church to church, looking for that instant community. I slowly made friends, but those deep, shared experiences were hard to come by. As stressful as living abroad was, I longed for the instantaneous connection of needing a community.

I finally found a church and settled in. I made friends and joined book clubs that are still meeting. But, it was still easy (especially when the particular pastor I didn’t connect with was preaching) to find church in the mountains or with friends, rather than in the actual building. When Frank and I were first married, we tried to combine churches and communities and finally had to just choose one.

Now, five years later, we are still at the same church. We have, through bumps and questions, chosen to stay, to choose community. And, seven years later, I still meet weekly with the same book club. Through marriages and babies and misunderstandings and questions, our group has grown deeper because we have chosen community. I guess, that’s what I’ve learned: Community is a choice. Abroad, it was a choice that had to be made quickly, so seemed easier. Now, it’s a choice I make continuously but one that has given me deep and lifelong friendships.

When I think about the words in Nehemiah 8:10, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength,” I think of the choices we make to prepare food for each other, to choose joy over grief, and to allow those experiences to change and deepen us.

What is your community like? How do you make choices to create lasting relationships?

Linked with (in)courage’s Joy of the Lord is our Strength.