It’s hard for me to write about this. Because it hurts.
It’s hard to write about this because so many people were hurt besides me.
It’s a tangled web of raw emotion, betrayal, love, memory, and regret.
But I want- I need to talk about this, because it’s a part of my story. It hangs over me each time I walk through the doors of a church. Sometimes it catches me in traffic and stings my eyes. It’s haunts me. But giving words to the process is helpful, at least for me.
Our family came to my Church when I was fourteen years old. We were walking away from a painful experience in ministry and seeking to reconnect to something safe and solid.
We knew right away that we that were home.
Beginning at the age of fourteen and leading through the formative years of my life, It was the pastor of that church, Isaac, who helped to forge my spiritual identity and my understanding of grace. He was young and spirited, kind and warm. It’s strange to think that when I first met him, he wasn’t much older than I am now.
He was simply the best of us.
He had a modest humor that endeared him to everyone and a natural way of disarming those who may be have been uncomfortable in their church seat. He spoke in a voice that was gentle and wise, drawing people in with his genuine affection for God, tempting us with the invitation that we too could be participants in this faith. He was never compromising, always unafraid to speak truth about the gospel of Christ. He did so in such a way that everyone could receive it no matter where they were in their lives or what baggage they brought to the table. He was well read, articulate, and brilliant at illuminating difficult passages of scripture so that they seemed relevant. He was sympathetic to the individual struggles of the people in his congregation, continually reminding us that “no one stands so tall that they are not in need of him, and no one has stooped so low that they are beyond the reach of his grace.”
My father soon joined the pastoral ministry team at the church, and eventually my mother began working in Sunday childcare. Our family volunteered during church-wide service projects, rebuilding houses in the city, feeding the poor, painting walls, planting trees and rocking babies. The people around us were inspiring and kind. We joined book clubs and went to house parties and knew all the words to all the worship songs the band played. We kept in touch even when I went away to college. I was married on the stage of the Church. My sisters were baptized in the ocean with my father one one side and Isaac on the other. The bible I read from today was a wedding gift from Isaac and his wife, with a small inscription in the cover: “love God, love each other.”
The day he killed himself was surreal. I had just gotten off a shift at the hotel when I got the call. My sister’s voice sounded strange on the other end of the phone, tired and choked with tears. “Isaac committed suicide this morning.” I nearly fell over. The room seemed to tilt and blur.
We had all been living in a sort of limbo of disbelief since the previous November, ever since Isaac stepped down from his position as Pastor due to “moral failing.” I knew this kind of stuff happened- God did I know. It seemed like every week the Sentinel was reporting that some other mega church pastor was caught living a deviant double life, strone across the headlines and publicly shamed for their secret addictions and sins. It seemed symptomatic of something, some deep rooted problem in the way we structured hierarchies in the church. I knew it happened. But it didn’t happen with people like Isaac.
We met together as a church the next night. We wept. We held each other. We prayed. We were angry. We were sad, scared, and confused. We worshiped a God who was still good.
Isaac’s suicide left me with a broken heart and gaping holes of doubt. I joined the long list of people who had been wounded by the church and were disillusioned in the aftermath of a tragedy.
Something about being there, about watching other men stand and teach on the same stage where he had stood and taught- hearing them say the same words he had said- it hurt very much. It was hard to focus on worship when my mind kept getting pulled back into what had happened. I tried to suppress negative thoughts during each service, but I found myself overwhelmed with questions, getting defensive, going numb.
I started sleeping in on Sundays, and eventually venturing out to visit other churches- something I hadn’t done since college. I think I wanted a to just be someplace where I could worship without a cloud of sadness hanging over me.
But I was stunted by a paralyzing inability to trust any man speaking from the pulpit. I scoffed at bad theology and nitpicked sermons and had an inner voice that kept asking who is this guy, really?
In the process of trying out new churches, my husband and I were introduced to Calvinists who thought we weren’t part of the elect, Reformed Baptists who assured us that we were part of the elect and it was only other people who weren’t, fundamentalists who discouraged us from celebrating the evils of Halloween, Seminarians who discouraged me praying in my husband’s presence (because, you know, I’m a woman,) an Orthodox Priest who tried to convince us to be baptized into Orthodoxy, college-age ministers who tried so hard to be cool it felt patronizing, and an affluent preacher who encouraged his congregation to aim for corporate success by branding oneself and dressing nice.
It was exhausting.
In the past year or so, I have taken a step back and allowed myself some space to sort things out in my head. It’s given me time to reexamine aspects of my faith I have long taken for granted, I have begun to honestly ask myself what I believe and why.
I am becoming comfortable with ambiguity, with not knowing all of the answers, and with being wrong. Christ does not change, but I do: I am changing daily, evolving, shifting and learning. I have felt him leading me into new open spaces where it is okay to be unsure and to change my mind. It feels truer and healthier than standing still and never wondering.
I know that Jesus has room for my questions and doubts. His truth is big enough to withstand my uncertainties.
Slowly but surely, I’m collecting an inner voice with which to express these thoughts, and experiencing the comfort of a God who loves me right here in the middle of it.
In the end, I’m thankful that Isaac was one of the people God chose to speak into my circumstances and influence my faith during the formative years of my life. Because I believe the things he told me were true. God uses broken, ordinary people to do his work. I think I will always miss him.
These days I’m just longing for church.
Some days, I want church to be like an AA meeting, where we all sit in a circle in the basement and are viscerally honest about our shortcomings and addictions. Knowing that we are equal and that we are broken, we are free to cheer one another on towards healing, towards the light on the other side of decay.
Some days, I want church to be a concert, a dark and hazy crowd spattered by colored lights and blurred by smoke. I want to raise my hands and shake my hips and disappear into the mass, I want to lose my thoughts and find my heartbeat.
Some days, I want a reverent silence all around and the physical sacraments to feed my hungry soul. I want to breathe incense and taste sacred wine on my lips, to kneel in the flood of the stained glass light of morning and listen to an organ playing old hymns.
Some days, I want Church to be a dinner table. I want it to be good friends and laughter, board games and stout beers. I want it to be conversations that stretch long into the night, without a thought or mention of morning, with my dogs waiting beneath for scraps.
Some days, the thought of church just hurts too much. I don’t feel like getting my hopes up.
But other days, hope is inevitable.
I hold on to the feeling I am not alone after all in my experiences. If you’ve ever felt this way before, if you’re feeling this way now, reach out. I would love to hear your story as well.
I wonder: What does your hope for the church look like? Where would your spirit, heart and mind feel fed and able to connect with the truth of God? Which church are you longing for today?