I want to tell you why an iced mocha with raspberry tastes like faith, but I don’t know how. I want to tell you about how coffee shops and parking lots became my sanctuaries and how I found little altars everywhere once I stopped going to church. I want to tell you why I’m going to church again.
I remember when I knew I had to stop going to church. I used to say “leave the church”, but I never really left. I just stopped attending regularly. I remember standing in the vestibule, alone, dusting the ornate wood on one of the chairs, and I just knew I had to stop going. There was a peace about it even though it didn’t make even a little sense. To say I was raised in the church is almost an understatement. Though I’d recently had a few disappointing experiences transitioning from “youth” to “young adult”, there was nothing so severe to send me running from a place that I was so woven into. I could list it all out, but there’s really no need. It was a small church. I was a dedicated child, youth, and young adult. I enjoyed it all and it was my home and family. Figuratively and literally.
My daughter was recently baptized as the 8th generation in that church. I’m actually a member of the founding family. I remember thinking, as my daughter stood in the baptismal pool and the pastor shared this, that of course I had to leave.
When I walk in the doors now, I know it’s because I choose to, not because it’s what I’ve always done. At that church or any church. When I speak about faith, I speak from a hands-in-the-dirt kind of place, I’m not just spewing Sunday School answers. I can genuinely sit with someone dripping in the mess of life and say me too and I know that I believe what I believe anyways. Not just because I always have, but because I have given myself the opportunity not to and always come back to this believing.
At some point, I decided that I need to see God everywhere. Not just in the church building with the church people or doing the church things or listening to the church songs. I need to see God in the secular. I need to see God on the bad side of town. I need to see God with the addicts and the mentally ill and the poverty stricken. I need to see God in the ugly, forlorn, abandoned places. I need my faith to believe there is hope even there. Because I decided that if there is no hope in the muck and the mire of it all, then there is no hope at all. If my God’s love is not big enough to love us all, then it’s not big enough for any of us. And if there is no hope for the abused and the utterly broken, then there is surely no hope for me. If there is no hope for the trapped and the suffocating and the screw-ups and the people who sell drugs or sell their bodies or buy drugs or buy other people’s bodies, then there is no hope for any one. There is either hope for all or hope for none. That’s what I decided out there, in my coffee shop and parking lot sanctuaries. Snaking through cornfields and fighting interstate traffic, in the midst of crises at work and crises at home and crises of faith. It’s what I decided when I started to feel like I hate this world and people are awful and this is all impossible. I decided that if I couldn’t love this world and think people are beautiful and that there are miracles abounding, then I couldn’t talk about my faith and my God and church like it meant anything.
Belief is twisty and complex and simple. It’s one of the few things in life that either is or isn’t. There either is hope, or there isn’t. There either is a Savior and a Redeemer or there isn’t. And the love and mercy and grace of God is either unconditional and free for anyone who accepts it, or it isn’t. Either we are all offered the abounding, extravagant, healing gift of grace or none of us are.
Some people like to focus on how unworthy we are, but I’ve spent too much time broken and in the midst of the broken to keep coming back to that. That sounds too much like the voice of shame and guilt that the enemy uses to drag us into the darkness. Some people think we need to be “put in our place” I guess, lest we abuse the grace of God, but don’t we all do that anyway? It’s such a slippery slope to the idol of “rightness” that I can’t bear the word but for a second. I hate to even give it a paragraph. The idea that we have to “get it right” to be worthy is a dirty, dangerous lie. Either God calls us worthy and loves us as we are, or he hates us and calls us disposable no matter what. And I believe God love us and calls us worthy.
I don’t really have an explanation for why I started going back to church. It was just time. That same call that drew me out called me back in. I spent the years in between visiting other churches and doing other glorious things with my Sundays that I never would have allowed myself before. I remember one particular Sunday morning that I took the back road to McDonald’s to get biscuits for breakfast. It was a clear sunny morning and heaven looked the same to me from my car’s windshield as it did through the stained glass windows at church.
It’s crucial to be able to separate your faith and God from church and religion. It’s also crucial to know that God is everywhere, to know that you carry Christ with you, in you. If you’ve never put your faith in the “rubber hits the road” mode, then you have no idea how far you can go with it. But no matter how far you can go, you can only go so far without help. This road isn’t one to travel alone. I know that’s part of why I had to go back. I know I need something the church offers. And I suspect the church needs something from me.
I think it took me a little longer to answer the call to go back than it did to answer the call to leave. I’ve got some church baggage now and maybe a few bones to pick with the system. I lean a little more left than a lot of church people around here seem to lean (you never really know for sure). I’m not sure how involved I want to, or should, get. And, I didn’t want to pick a side.
My church family divorced while I was gone and it’s been a while, but for some reason, it still feels a little raw to me. There’s this ache and I know I’m not the only one who feels it. It breaks my heart to think that choosing a church to attend regularly may hurt someone I care about and so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t choosing. I wanted to be sure I was responding to the call.
Once I realized I probably wasn’t going to start going to a new church, but instead would likely go to one of my “home” churches, I did an internal inventory of the “pros” and “cons” of each church, just trying to find direction. They always came out even. And yet, there was a clear answer. I’m wading back in now. With some reluctance. Not because of the church itself or the people or anything like that, but because it feels like such tender ground.
One of the greatest gifts I have been given in my time not going to any one church is the discovery of so many other faith communities from which I have been able to listen and learn and engage. The good news is that I don’t have to choose just one to pledge allegiance to. Knowing that makes it easier to go back to church. Because, ultimately, we are all The Church, we are all sitting at the same table, taking the same bread and wine, washed in the same river of love and grace and mercy, looking to the same light and hope and Savior.
Yes, I’m going back to church now. But in the same way that not going to church didn’t make me any less of a Christian, going to church doesn’t make me (or anyone else) any less of a regular person.
And I still believe in hands-in-the-dirt faith. I still find sanctuaries in coffee shops and parking lots (and all kinds of other places) and I still find little altars everywhere to lay my heart upon as an offering, broken open out here, in the real world, with real people. And I remember now, that church people and real people are all the same people.