This morning, I went back to church.
For more than two years, like many, I have been provided with and found reasons to attend church virtually or, truthfully, not at all. It has been a sort of rebellion. Rebellion against decades of church involvement and all the forced Sundays of my youth. A rebellion against the sting of participating in church rituals designed for couples and families after becoming single later in life. I suspect that it may be as complicated as rebellion against the God who allowed loss even while walking through it with me. On the other hand, it may be as simple as lethargy toward a wardrobe change—from comfortable yoga pants to decidedly less-comfortable church clothes.
At any rate, among the losses and difficult realities introduced by COVID-19, the advent of COVID-church was a boon—at least to me. There was a valid reason to physically step back from an institution becoming increasingly complicated and conflicted. An institution that consistently, though inadvertently, reminded me of all I lacked. COVID-church provided a recalcitrant respite from many things, among them the fallout of becoming single within the church.
Several years ago following a move to a new city, rising on Sunday mornings to attend church was more chafing than I imagined it would be. Walking into church with a husband had felt comforting and empowering just years before. Now it felt lonely and sometimes isolating.
Weirdly, this experience of walking into church alone also felt edgy and rebellious.
Defying the sting of divorce and attending church solo felt like proof that I, one of the once-marrieds, could rise above all that life had dealt. God still called me to this place. My gifts were still needed. I was determined to prove that God loves singles in the church just as they are. Not with pity and not in expectation of becoming coupled again. God loves singles.
I had been fortunate to find a space that felt safe and homelike. The people in this space didn’t push but still invested. They didn’t judge my wacky work schedule but simply took what I could offer. They provided a church community that was welcoming and gave space for each status held within the midcentury modern sanctuary walls on Sunday morning. I was just beginning to feel comfortable and then…COVID-church became reality.
Gratefully, the leaders of this fellowship carefully navigated and accommodated the reality of a shuttered sanctuary and the variety of opinions members held about virtual worship. They cared for the flock that was theirs in ways that made each vulnerable, prone-to-wander-sheep feel seen and well-tended. I know I did. They provided space to gather in various ways as a community, even virtually. As time passed and the freedom to gather in person re-emerged, they recognized not everyone could muster the risk-tolerance of a return to the sanctuary. So, they also offered a livestream option. Having befriended the comfort of unscripted Sunday mornings, I opted for livestream.
It felt rebellious to click on the white arrow in the middle of the screen to join the live-streamed service, usually already in progress. I grew to love judgment-free participation in worship at the dining room table, clad in yoga pants and an oversized sweatshirt. Worship with no makeup. Worship with feet ensconced in black fuzzy slippers. Worship with third-day hair. It felt edgy to attend worship before my teeth were even brushed. After decades of fully believing that showing up in my best with my best was the pleasing thing to God, I finally understood that simply showing up was pleasing to God.
Until it wasn’t—at least for me. The prodding to my spirit began in earnest as the first buds of spring emerged following a long COVID winter. Maybe you felt it too?
So, this morning, I went back to church. Not the church mentioned in the previous paragraphs—that would have been too risky for this first foray. I simply wanted to know what it felt like to be back in the presence of others—the complicated and conflicted, the differing viewpoints, and the inadvertent reminder of all that I lack.
This morning, I brushed my teeth, hastily applied basic makeup, topped the yoga pants with a dress, and slid my feet into sandals suitable for a tentative toe-dip into the water.
On the way home, I recognized that while my anonymous toe-dip is also enough for God, the real rebellion—the real edge—is a return to being known. The real rebellion is jumping into the deep end. The real edge is returning to space where I risk the disapproval of others. Returning to space in which I will likely disappoint or disagree. Returning to a space where the greatest risk is not of being rejected or disapproved of, but of being accepted, affirmed, loved and known. In the wake of two years of comfortable, stretchy church anonymity, this feels particularly edgy.
The water around my toes was warm.
Maybe next week I’ll ditch the yoga pants altogether and risk it all.
Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.