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.