“I’m a minister’s wife who doesn’t go to church. In fact, I was forced out of church.”
This is what I say, sometimes, when new friends come round to dinner, just so I can see their reaction. Typically, they glance at me, appalled, then at my husband, with pity, and then back at me with the 45-degree pastoral head-tilt. At this point, Jon just rolls his eyes at me, as if to say, “Are you going to tell them the full story, or shall I?”
It’s true that I’m a minister’s wife who doesn’t go to church, but the story behind my church-truancy is not a salacious one. It is not my behavior, nor my beliefs that have forced me out of church, but my body.
It started with mononucleosis as a teen. I recovered, but not quite: an autoimmune illness crept up on me in my twenties, leaving me tired and unusually susceptible to viruses. After a decade, I had a name for it: myalgic encephalomyelitis. I learned that exercise, rather than helping my health, worsened it. The years went on: my legs grew weaker. Over-exertion of any kind was dangerous, so giving birth was always going to be a risk. Labor broke my body: I gained a child and a severe disability.
Seven years after giving birth, I need to lie in bed 21 hours a day. My concentration fizzles after a few hours. My house is a benign prison: I am let out for good behavior once every two weeks, in a wheelchair, to remember the beauty and color of the world. It has taken me seven years to adjust to this new way of being, though I am still in process. For who, as an adult, can fully make peace with losing their independence?
My illness has affected my whole life, including church membership. Once, I was so keen on church that I went to three services each Sunday. For a decade I had been a paid Christian minister. Now my church attendance averages less than once a year. Although Jon leads a wonderful church who love and support us as a family, I cannot enjoy the fellowship of worshipping in a community.
I have become a wilderness-Christian.
Churches as gardens
For my entire spiritual life, I had worshipped in a church environment. As a student minister, I had preached about the danger of skipping church, and how easy it is to fall away from faith without regularly worshipping with other Christians. Now I had become one of ’those’.
To worship in a church is to be invited into a friend’s garden. Some churches may have the spiritual equivalent of overgrown bushes and dying roses, others may have manicured lawns and marble statues but, essentially, churches, like gardens, are cultivated places, shaped by humans. They are carefully-designed safe havens where you can gather with friends and family and find refreshment.
I was out of the garden, into bare scrubland. I was alone, and God was nowhere to be found. I prayed for guidance and God said nothing. I prayed for help, and no help came. I prayed for healing and my health grew worse.
The early days with a newborn baby were the hardest. I was too ill to speak to friends for longer than thirty minutes per day. Worship music had become an oppressive noise, and I couldn’t concentrate on recorded sermons. I could read, but only a little, and the Bible’s language seemed incomprehensible.
Within my bubble of silence, it was Twitter that rescued me. As I attempted to master @-mentions and retweets, I stumbled across a community of Christians who, like me, were in a wilderness, hurt and bruised, looking for sustenance.
Wilderness as mercy
Unlike me, most of the Twitter community had been forced out of church by people, not circumstances. There was a woman with depression who left church after Christians said her depression was a sign of deep sin; LGBT teenagers who’d been kicked off their Sunday School ministry because their sexuality made them ‘dangerous’ to children. I discovered parents of children with special needs whose leaders had taken them quietly aside and told them every child was welcome in church, except theirs. One woman was called in by elders and given the choice to either stop writing her popular blog about journeying with doubt or leave the church. There were others who, having raised concerns about the child protection policy, were told they could stay if they would only come up to the front of church and apologize for their divisiveness. The most gut-wrenching were the women who had been sexually abused and told to forgive their abuser, who was still at church.
We were the spiritual walking-wounded, but we had found a safe place online to be honest. Listening to their stories taught me this: wilderness times feel like a punishment of exclusion but often they are an act of God’s mercy. The places they had left were so hostile it was better to be out from them.
This has a biblical precedent. When the Israelites first came to Egypt with Joseph, it was a land of blessing, but over time it had transformed into a land of slavery. Though they were chased into the wilderness by angry Egyptians, ultimately it was God who had called them temporarily into a deserted land where they were free, and then onto a new home.
I started to wonder: can we reframe our experiences in the wilderness? Rather than being a curse, what if spiritual wilderness is a strange blessing?
Wilderness as God’s dwelling place
It is tempting, if you are forced out of church, to feel like God has stayed behind with the institution and your Christian friends, and you are alone. However, I have learned that God can be in two places at once. Even if a human hand shoved us out of the door, God’s hands are waiting for us in the desert, in open embrace.
I thought of the nation of Israel, who took pride in God dwelling with them, housed in Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem. When God’s people were subsequently forced out into exile, far from the temple, it felt like the ultimate rejection. Yet the temple could not contain the Holy Spirit. God was with the exiles in Babylon, not with the king who remained in Jerusalem. God was with the wanderers.
Elijah also came to mind. When everything was too much for him, he ran away into the desert. God sent him angels who gave him food and water for the journey. I considered the desert fathers (and mothers) of the third and fourth centuries, who literally moved into the desert to meet with God.
Though the scenery may not look much, God is there. For me, God showed up through others’ kind acts when I had no room for words. Later, God came through the theology of lament, in social justice and birdsong.
It took a while to adjust to the silence, but eventually, I heard God’s whisper.
God always shows up in the wilderness.
Sometimes, when we feel most rejected, it’s an invitation from God to, like Elijah, take a break from the heartache, hide awhile in peace and be ministered to by angels.
Maybe there are angels waiting for you in the wilderness. I found a few on Twitter.
Tanya Marlow lives in a vicarage in Devon, England, and is the author of Those Who Wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay (Oct 2017). Formerly a lecturer in Biblical Theology, she is now a writer, broadcaster, campaigner, patient-advocate for those with M.E. She writes on finding God in hard places at TanyaMarlow.com, where you can download her first book for free.