If you missed Part 1- click here to read first!
Fast forward: After college, I married the cutest, sweetest boy on a Saturday afternoon in the exact red-carpeted, stained-glass church in which we had gotten to know each other. Our former youth pastor performed the ceremony and everyone thought we were a little crazy because we were basically still babies. Shortly after our honeymoon, my best friend called me, a little drunk, to tell me she was gay. She hung up before I could say a word and wouldn’t return my calls or messages for a week. I think, though I’m not sure, that she was scared I’d reject her because of my faith. Of course I didn’t, and never will. We eventually had a really nice talk about how she’d come to the realization and how she finally felt comfortable in her own skin. From thousands of miles away, I could hear the relief and the happiness in her voice. I loved her for her courage.
My husband and I attended a (not Methodist) church during that time with some friends. I had been involved in a college ministry there, where we met on Wednesday nights, sharing meals and music and fears and struggles and triumphs. Once we aged out of the college group, we became involved in more of a young-adult-type small group and we were usually present at the contemporary style service on Sunday mornings where we even participated in the praise band sometimes. We felt right at home. Okay, so sometimes the male pastor (or one of his male associates) slipped some more political points into his sermons and the congregation was almost 100% white, but I either didn’t care or wasn’t paying much attention. We felt welcomed there, at home, surrounded by good people.
Our small group was in the midst of wrestling with big topics that were often controversial. We discussed things like money and baptism, heaven and hell, sexual purity and women in ministry, even homosexuality. I’d already felt out of place during these discussions, having a much different view due to my upbringing and experiences than the majority of the people in the group. To their credit, these discussions were mostly respectful and full of love and compassion.
But one night, we were talking about the tenets of that particular denomination, focusing on baptism and communion. As I hadn’t grown out of my egocentric, everything’s-about-me phase (do we ever really outgrow this?), I prickled when he said the church placed high importance on baptizing babies. I had been baptized at thirteen, when I could stand up in front of my church and say to them that I was choosing Jesus for myself, and I appreciate my parents giving me that right. Did my baptism, in this church, not “count”? Was it wrong? I don’t remember this particular denomination’s communion guidelines but it wasn’t an open table like I was used to, and it was another topic that made me sweaty and uncomfortable. I couldn’t stay silent for long, though, because the next thing I knew, I was asking the young associate pastor, “So, what if someone wants to join your church but isn’t, like, 100% on board with all these details? What then?” And he said something I’ll never forget, something to the effect of “Well, I’d say good riddance to those people.”
In all fairness, this dude was known for his dry wit and sarcasm and could very well have followed up that comment with a laugh and a “Naw, I’d sit with them and answer their questions; I’m always up for a good debate!” But if he did, I didn’t hear it. I’d stopped hearing anything he said after “good riddance” because in my heart, I’d heard, “not welcome”, “you’re too different”, “go away”, “you don’t belong here”. Despite the wonderful people at that church, dear, kind, people who I’m still friends with today, we never went back. I just couldn’t, knowing that the things I held close to my chest, like total inclusivity and an open table, might be seen as “radical” there. I’d never be able to fully relax, and I’d never feel comfortable asking big questions. And to be honest, we haven’t been able to join a small group since then. I haven’t been brave enough to risk rejection again.
Sunday mornings became, for us, pancakes and vacuuming dog hair dust bunnies from underneath the couch. Occasionally, one of us would look at the other and ask, “Shouldn’t we go to church?” while the other one said, “but where?” and we’d shrug and commence the cleaning.
Eventually we found a new church, after multiple promptings and invitations from friends. It was a big church, one we could worship in and take the kids and know they were safe and cared for, but one at which we did not have to really engage with people. This was fine with me, we had some close friends we would sit with, but beyond that, we were surrounded by perfect strangers, and the anonymity felt safe. The worship music was beyond amazing, the teaching inspiring and life-giving. I learned so much from this church about grace and God’s goodness, the idea that love isn’t transactional but instead transformational. I learned that we can’t just talk about God and His love, we have to live our lives in a way that shows it to everyone we meet. I learned that God indeed cares for the marginalized: the minority, the mom who’s had an abortion, the divorceé. I learned that God’s grace is for everyone, even the drug addict and the adulterer and the refugee. That we were having these conversations instead of pretending they didn’t exist was refreshing and honest. We witnessed hundreds of baptisms, older children and adults who, before their complete immersion, told stories of being a prisoner to alcohol, fresh out of an abusive relationship, a product of foster care, reeling from oppressive ways of life put on them by their parents. Every single time I wept, moved by the looks on their faces as they came out of the water, each of them a new person made in the light of Jesus’ grace and filled with the hope of the Spirit. Even though we weren’t exactly “plugged in”, this church felt alive to me, it felt good to be a part of. Worship there was the closest I’d felt to that magical mountaintop experience of my youth.
Then we moved.
It was for my husband’s job, not just on a random whim, and suddenly the church we loved was a very long drive with a toddler who mostly hates the car. We tried for a few weeks but just couldn’t do it anymore, and at that point I was almost glad that we didn’t get plugged in there because I feel like it would have hurt a lot more to leave.
In the meantime, in order to save my sanity staying at home with my precious babies, I started reading. A lot. I’ve always been a reader, but until then, I hadn’t discovered spiritual memoir as a genre. I discovered that lots of Christian people actually don’t have it all figured out, that they have lots of big giant questions, and lots of doubt, and that all of that is okay. I listened to podcasts sharing diverse voices, people from all different backgrounds and cultures and experiences, inside The Church or out of it. It was like a breath of fresh air; I felt understood.
A lot of the voices had the same questions I did: Why do we still (mostly) segregate ourselves in churches based on race? Why do we close our doors to entire populations of people? Why do the loudest Christians (especially in the media) feel like the most judgmental and the least welcoming of all when instead, Jesus’ entire ministry was based on love and compassion? Why is there a belief that if you’re a Christian you have to vote a certain way? Why is there this feeling of “us” and “them” within the The Church? Why is doubting and asking questions “dangerous” and why does it mean we just “don’t believe hard enough”?
Then I started to look around and saw such sadness. I watched as a dear friend lost her teenage daughter and another experienced a heartbreaking miscarriage. I watched as some of my gay friends were treated terribly by people in their own circles. I watched parents damage relationships with their children because they were more concerned with being right than loving their own kid. I watched LGBT folks get turned out of churches and out of their homes. I watched white supremacists march out their hatred in the streets. I watched people grossly misuse the Bible to justify horrific things. And for all of it, the big question for me was just, “Why?”
There is one more part to my story, but please know that it’s not The End. Some of these questions are still not, and may never be answered for me, and there are way more still to be asked and wondered about. But, if you stick with me, I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned, some of the beauty and even some of the darkness, all of it pointing me back to the why of my faith and how I ended up here.
Thanks for reading and until next time, peace and love from my household to yours.