I have found comfort in your writing lately, as another angsty soul undergoing a spiritual reckoning of sorts. Like many “Dear Addie” readers, I find myself unsure of how to move forward.
I grew up evangelical in the Mid-Atlantic East and went through a season of questioning and claiming my faith in college. I had traveled abroad for a semester and found the space to ask questions without the pressure of expectations from my family and my friends in college ministry. I meditated in awe-inspiring cathedrals; sometimes I went to a local church on Sundays, sometimes I went to art museums. I spent a lot of time bonding with my non-Christian classmates. I felt that God found me where I was and it was liberating.
So I find myself surprised as doubts resurface now that I’m in my mid-30s and parenting two small boys. I look back and realize I never finished “unpacking” my spiritual baggage in college. After that semester abroad I returned to school and largely resumed the campus ministry life I had led before. Sure, there were inklings along the way, like my discomfort with the way our campus ministry pressured us to witness with tracts in the dorms. Or, my sadness when our church left the denomination over homosexuality issues.
I am not sure what I believe anymore and the simple act of going to church feeds my cynicism like a fire; however, unlike your struggle with the Church People, my husband and I have many friends we know and love at this church. At this point, it is a social outing for me. I want to be honest, but I can just see the condescending pity in my family and friends’ eyes if I were to voice my thoughts.
My question is two-fold:
1. How do I claim space around me in order to process my doubts? (I should also mention that several members of my family work in professional ministry and my parents recently joined our church, so they notice when we don’t attend. How I long for the anonymity I had during that semester abroad.)
2. And secondly, how do I parent my sons (ages 4 and 1) in the midst of this transition? I don’t want them to be confused by our sporadic church attendance. At the same time, I don’t want them growing up in a world painted in absolute black and white brushstrokes. In fact, trying to figure out what to say to my older son about God and church played a role in sparking this latest season of doubting.
While I am the more cynical one, my husband and I share in much of this. The difference is that I feel much more angst and a need to “get through this” while he’s pretty content to ride it out.
I’m writing this response to you in the middle of Lent, which came this year on a gray day in March and brought with it all kind of feelings and frustrations and baggage for me.
I found myself shocked by this, and then shocked by my shock, because I have learned you never finish unpacking your spiritual baggage…or your human baggage, for that matter.
The work of pursuing wholeness is an altogether daily one, and some of the healing and wisdom we strive so desperately to find is elusive, unveiled slowly, over great swaths of time. So, despite the years I’ve spent intentionally dissecting my spiritual experiences with friends and therapists and spiritual advisors, in my writing, and in prayer, Lent came for me this year like the proverbial bag of rocks.
In my memories of Lent seasons past, they’re all muddled and confused. I can’t tell the difference between experiences meant to invite me into the season in a new way and those attempting to manipulate my emotions. When I told this to my spiritual director, she said gently, “Of course you’re sensitive to spiritual manipulation. How could you not be?”
She suggested that this year for Lent I give up trying to muster up any kind of emotional response. That I give up trying to manufacture meaningful spiritual experience for myself and instead sit very still. Wait for God to make the meaning.
I thought I had already figured this out. I thought I understood that my feelings—or lack thereof—are not an indication of spiritual failure, but rather bits of information. Road markers to notice and to consider and to help me understand where I am.
I have been “unpacking my baggage” for more than a decade now. I consider myself to be in a healthy place with my faith. And yet, during this Lent season, I am reminded yet again that so much in me remains unresolved.
I am picturing you standing on a Sunday morning in a famous gallery in a far-flung place. I am imagining it hushed and holy, the art breaking through the shoulds and the should nots, the hustling righteousness of American Christianity. I felt that God found me where I was, you wrote. Yes.
Your time abroad, I think, was a kind of liminal space—rare and lovely and undefined, like the first watery colors of sunrise bleeding into the dark. The freedom and beauty of that time and that place lent themselves to your pilgrimage toward a truer picture of God.
And then you came home to the faith structures that had come to define your experience of God, and all that seemed to fade. The expectations and familiar norms of your college ministry reeled you back in. Programs and ministries are a mixed bag like that; their sleek, fine-tuned structure provides a place to start when you don’t know where to begin.
And yet, in some ways, it feels like boarding a slow-moving ship. Like you have to choose: on or off. Like someone else is driving the thing and your doubts and questions have little space to unfurl.
So now, here you are, Elise, smack-dab in the middle of your Tired Thirties, feeling claustrophobic and trapped on this ship you climbed on all those years ago. The ship is large and heavy and cumbersome and doesn’t turn fast or easily. (Still handing out those gospel tracts; still knotted up over homosexuality.)
The memory of your time abroad glows like an ember at the edge of your consciousness, imbued with a kind of freedom and space and luminosity.
Of course you want to get that back. Of course you feel the urge to jump.
What does it look like to make space? you’re wondering. Does it mean leaving church, with all its poorly worded worship choruses and sermons and over-simplified Sunday school curricula?
What I hear you asking—the question underneath your actual question—is How do I get back to that art gallery, those cathedrals, that place of mystery and honesty and grace?
You experienced something abroad that felt truer to the heart of God than what you experience in church and in programs and ministries. And when you’ve found that once, the natural thing is to try to retrace your steps, to find it again.
I’m all for taking time off or away from church attendance if that’s what you want to do. (Lord knows I have needed time away over the years, and I have taken it.) But it sounds from your note that this feels complicated to you in ways that stem both from fear (I can just see the condescending pity in my family and friends’ eyes) and also, more complexly, from love. You are connected in some deep way to the people at your church, and that is not nothing. That is worth paying attention to.
Don’t get me wrong—there are reasons to leave a church, and they are often good and important and worth heeding. But leaving alone won’t heal you, dear Elise. The cynicism and the doubt are trying to tell you something, and they cannot be dismissed easily. It’s possible that without those Sunday morning services exacerbating your concerns they’ll quiet down and give you some peace, but they won’t go away.
How will you make space for yourself if you leave church? Will you go back to the art galleries? The cathedrals? Will you take your children? Will you sit in a park in the sun and listen to the whispers of God’s love all around?
Or will the Sunday morning hours, empty of the church commitment, be simply trodden over with the march of daily life. Dishes. Newspaper. Facebook. PBS Kids?
What is the difference between making space and running away? What is the difference between honoring your doubt and engaging with it and pretending it doesn’t exist? These are questions worth sorting through, and only you know the answer. The answer might be to go. Or it may be to stay. There is no “right way”—just the way that is truest to your particular soul in this particular season.
I think the answer to your question lies in your own statement, dear Elise. “I felt that God found me where I was, and it was liberating,” you wrote of your time abroad.
God found you where you were.
God found you.
You did not find God.
The difference is startling in its simplicity. It’s freeing. You have no scrambling to do here, no other place you must go to get to God. God is here. God is already finding you.
And yet, in a way, the difference is also frustrating. It means you cannot map your way to a holy moment. You cannot recreate an experience of God by simply setting yourself in the right space. You are not in control of the situation at all. God is here. God is finding you. Your only role is to allow yourself to be found.
Elise, is it possible that the same God who found you in the cathedrals and in the art galleries and in the late-night conversations with your peers might also find you here, in the throes of the mundane work of mothering, in the unglamorous (sometimes cringe-inducing) church community you find yourself unwittingly grafted into?
I think it is—because I have experienced it.
Every week I sit at a small, evangelical-ish church in our community with all my unresolved, ever-present baggage. But I am learning to let it exist within me as I sit there among the imperfect, broken people I’ve come to love.
I’m recognizing that my Cynic Voice is really, at her core, discernment unheeded, turned loud and pushy to make me hear her. I’m learning to listen. I’m learning to pay attention to the feelings that rise up and the information they are giving me about where I am.
I am trying to give up manufacturing meaning and emotions. I have learned to be the one to speak up first about my doubts and fears. Not everyone understands, of course, and I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t received the occasional look of condescending pity. But more often I have found that all this time I was not alone at all.
You can leave if you need to. If you are sensing the pull toward something else on Sunday mornings, by all means heed it. But I want to tell you that, for me, the space where my doubt and pain and baggage rub up against the grating beauty of my local church—this has become a space of healing for me.
And I think, Elise, that the messy authenticity of our own journey, shared with others, has the power to create that spaciousness we crave. I believe when we speak the truth into the places that feel so claustrophobic, so cluttered with our baggage, they transform little by little. They open up around us and show us that, against all odds, we were never actually alone at all.
After all, the God we address in our badly worded worship choruses and imperfect sermon series and simplified Sunday school lessons is the same one whose glory haunts the galleries and the cathedrals, who inhabits the sky and the sea, who whispers in our own mangled, broken hearts. He is a God who is present even on these less-traveled paths we find ourselves on—the ones littered with the discarded baggage of our ever-changing faith. He is still, always, finding us—right, exactly where we are.