Last May, Chris and I walked out of the church community we have been part of for 19 years. This particular ending had been building inside of me for quite some time, yet I repeatedly stifled my sense of knowing, certain that there was no place else to go. This was the church where we had raised our family, first spoken our stories of trauma, and become captivated by living the radical way of Jesus.
Staying at this church was a hard-fought battle at times. We experienced unresolved hurt, people leaving, and accusations of heresy from friends, family members, and conservative theologians. Yet last spring, my heart knew something significant had shifted. It was no longer a place that welcomed both my joy and my pain, my doubt and belief. I no longer felt at home.
The sense of powerlessness, betrayal, and grief I’ve experienced in leaving has been painful, to say the least. We didn’t rush to start trying out other places of worship, having set aside the legalism we were both raised with and the not-so-subtle message that weekly church attendance was a condition of salvation. More importantly, we instinctively knew we needed time to honor what had been and what was now no longer before we moved into what could be.
At the Brave On conference last week, I was reminded again of the loss. I was surprised by a surge of grief that came while Nichole Nordeman was speaking. While recounting the story of Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, she focused on this verse:
Taking a good look at them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” They went, and while still on their way, became clean. Luke 17:14
“Jesus healed them on their way to the appropriate Christian space,” she said. “Jesus knew they would not be allowed to enter that space, so he met them on the road, healing them along the way.” She continued, naming the pain she suspected many of us held in the room, the pain of knowing our brokenness is not welcomed in many “appropriate Christian places.”
I felt the chills race up my arms first, signaling my body’s awareness of a holy moment. And then came a flood of tears, as the grief of all we had lost welled up inside and spilled out, quickly depleting my “just in case” stash of tissues.
How ironic that this holy moment took place in a church, the very place I have purposefully not entered for months.
I don’t remember much of what Nichole or anyone else said after that. Thankfully, it was near the end of the conference, and I was trying to welcome my feelings of grief while also staying present enough to say goodbye to the people around me. I’ve returned to that moment several times, allowing the goodness to linger. In the past, the shame of my tears in such a public setting would have overcome me, but this time, I kept returning to that moment where I felt Jesus saying, “I see you. I know your pain, and I will continue to meet you – even outside the appropriate Christian places.” In that moment, my tears were not only appropriate, they were welcomed.
You see, the reason Chris and I were committed from the very first day we found our church years ago, was that it was NOT the usual appropriate Christian space. We were both familiar with those types of churches, where attendance felt more like an obligation – something you did to prove what a good Christian you were, to ensure you wouldn’t be judged by God or anyone else. Instead, there was a sense of excitement and welcome, an awareness that all of us were longing for more than lessons in sin management and sanctification. I was hungry to learn more about a Jesus very different from my childhood picture – one where Jesus was probably kind, but I would never know, because He was too disappointed in me to allow me to come close.
Over the past several years, I have encountered a Jesus who welcomes me with all of my brokenness and regularly reminds me of His love. He’s taught me that His generous love does come with an expectation, but not the one I thought. He simply asks that I would give His love away to others.
Last week, that same Jesus reminded me He will always find me, regardless of the place I’m in. He will find me in a church, on the road, or in my sunroom on Sunday morning, and His healing often comes in the places I least expect.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris, and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.
Great post! Thank you for sharing this. Very important truths here that many Christians forget or don’t know.
If you’r ever looking for a place to guest post, check out DailyPS. No pressure though! You’re doing a great job here and making a difference. 🙂
Sigh…this is an all too familiar experience. I understand the pain and betrayal you have written about and I love the places Jesus is finding you today💗MJ
Janet, once again I connect with you as a kindred spirit and long to sit with you for a lengthy conversation and to glean some wisdom and courage from you face-to-face. Until then, I am grateful for your bravery and vulnerability to share your story here. This story in particular is timely for me; thank you. I love the ways that you are encountering the love and kindness of Jesus, wherever you find yourself. Your awareness of this is beautiful and hopeful.
Oh, Susan. My words in your mouth. Janet, I agree. The timeliness, the faithfulness, the deep presence you share are evidence indeed of the goodness of God in the land of the living.. These precious and priceless words: ” I have encountered a Jesus who welcomes me with all of my brokenness and regularly reminds me of His love. He’s taught me that His generous love does come with an expectation, but not the one I thought. He simply asks that I would give His love away to others.” Your words ” remind(ed)me He will always find me, regardless of the place I’m in.” Leaning in. Grateful.
Yes… I agree
“He simply asks that I give His love away to others.” It’s just that clear.
Janet, once again, your writing finds me, soothes me, speaks into my living. You bless me. Again. Thank you.
Dear Janet. Your words, your spirit, your heart of love for Jesus and His gospel resonate so deeply with me. Thank you for all of it. Love you, Christine
Dear Janet…I do not know how you feel. I “left” my birth church at 21 years old. I have been at a PCA church for 21 years. They do not ordain women. For me, I love the people and I for sure the hell do not want to preach. Yet…I am furious that this ordination does not recognize that a woman’s voice is paramount, along side a man. I know you wrestled with your decision. Come Lord Jesus. I want to die with a church family alongside me. Because, f-ing nuts….I will most likely outlive my husband. There are so many dilemmas on this side of heaven. Damn…I hate that you have had to leave and the suffering that it caused. NOT SMALL IN ANY WAY.
Janet – What a gift you provide each time you write! I also was deeply struck in that moment of “on their way…” in Nichole’s teaching on Luke 17 at the Brave On conference. I love the new era you are embracing even in the midst of your coinciding grief. May you experientially know, without doubt, that Jesus continually says, “I see you. I know your pain, and I will continue to meet you – even outside the appropriate Christian places.” Thanks so much for the reminder!
In the Catholic Church, we attend Mass on Sundays to worship God and receive the Body and Blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, as He directed us to do in the Scriptures. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will have no life in you.” It is great if we find fellowship and understanding with the community of people who worship at the church we attend, but it is far from the real reason we need to go there. And so we go even if our fellow massgoers break our hearts with their indifference and lack of compassion, because God wants us to worship Him, and only there do we get the sacred nourishment we need for the journey of our lives.
Wonderful article. I can relate. My husband and I felt we had no other option but to leave a church we had poured ourselves into for 15 years, raising out three children there. We grieved tremendously when we left, but Jesus has gently helped us with healing. We are now facing other issues and challenges, but praise the Lord, Jesus doesn’t change and He is always with us.