Drawn to Grace

In early 2020, while COVID and civil unrest engulfed our country, an ongoing conflict with an abusive pastor came to a climax when my husband and I were shown the door at a church we had served for over fifteen years. I was  untethered, wondering what life in the world would look like in the months to come. I wondered: What do I believe? Who do I trust? And where do I fit?

These questions were unsettling, as the place I had often leaned into during crisis had been the church. It had always been a part of my rhythm, and a type of “family” to me. Would I ever trust the institution again?

It has been over two years and answers are still foggy. I have become comfortable without the weekly pattern of a service, but I do feel a void without the gathering of the community.

It feels next to impossible to choose a church to attend.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are 40,000 Christian denominations. The choices are limitless. How do I balance the many things that feel so important to me and line up with my convictions and preferences?

The Bible describes a first “church” where many were drawn to faith. These folks were committed to the “teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers” (The Message, Acts 2:42).

Perhaps this is a place to start.

During my childhood, my family went to the many-pillared Catholic church on 5th Avenue. Saint Joe’s had a massive staircase up to the front of the structure and big, heavy doors that opened to the expansive sanctuary. There was a musty smell that overwhelmed me every time I walked in. Each week when I touched the sacred water and performed the sign of the cross, it settled me.

It was in that ornate space that desperate prayers were first uttered by pony-tailed me. Many were memorized, but before long I went off the grid and spoke to God as an all-powerful friend. My hope showed up in appeals such as, “Help,” and “Please!”

I learned to pray in the Catholic church.

Early in college, I began to explore different options on the Protestant side of the aisle. I embraced my faith more seriously when I attended a Lutheran Brethren Church. This community had a bus that came around to campus and gave students rides to services each Sunday. The building was refreshing—no more stale smells or pictures of a crucified and bloodied Jesus. Pastor John dressed in a smart suit and unpacked the scriptures in a way I had never experienced. I left inspired and renewed. I cultivated an understanding of the words of God which had a profound impact on the path of my life.

The Lutherans helped me to love the teaching of the Apostles.

For most of my twenties, my husband was in the Navy and we moved often. We attended many varied churches: an academic Presbyterian, then numerous genres of Bible and Baptist churches throughout the country. I saw fellowship lived out while serving with people from all places, stages, and walks of life. Our communities celebrated holidays and births of children, and suffered loss and life’s disillusionments together. We built lifelong bonds. Last August, a group of us gathered together in Maine, where we had been stationed thirty years ago. In true style, our former pastor and his wife opened their home to eighteen of us. They served a lavish lobster feast and left us once again spellbound by their aged wisdom, gentle kindness, and extravagant hospitality.

I came to know what “life together” looks like during the military years.

In the early 90’s, we left the East Coast, hungry for a church involvement that felt fresh and new. I  thought we had really found it when we settled into a non-denominational church. We helped start two different churches and experienced the “seeker-sensitive” and “multi-site” movements firsthand. These church encounters held numerous opportunities for the breaking of bread and for conversation.

I treasured the depth and goodness of being seen and sharing a common meal together while worshiping outside denominational lines.

Since my faith and trust have evolved, I am not sure where I will find my fellowship. Whether I find a church or I don’t, I hope to integrate the practices that have helped me grow to love God and others throughout my life. I am convinced that the grace of God will find me, just as it has in this wilderness. Grace—there’s plenty of it, and that’s the one thing about church that I can commit to.

Maryhelen Martens has been gathering and connecting with others since she was a young girl growing up in rural Wisconsin. She is a lover of whimsy and play, beauty and depth, all of which she experiences in her relationships. While her emotions and voice were shut down for decades, she is finding them again and using them in healing groups, story coaching, and writing. She’s always been drawn to water and sunsets and more recently to the desert and sunrises. She’s curious about that. Mother to three authentic adults, Maryhelen lives with her steadfast husband Keith on the shore of Lake Michigan.