I gave up church for Lent.
It wasn’t intentional. It was a complete accident. But the last Sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday) has come and gone, and my place in the pews remains empty. I’ve only been attending since mid-advent in December, but already I feel a place in this little building that is mine. One of the middle pews on the very left-hand side. At one of the back tables for coffee hour. These are the places I inhabit, the areas from which I am finding belonging within the congregation.
But it’s hard to find belonging when you are absent. It’s not possible to inhabit physical space during the liturgy if you are at home. It’s impossible to partake of the Eucharist with the other people of god if you aren’t there. And, I haven’t been absent; I’ve been at home; I haven’t been there.
I went back this Sunday, not just because it was Easter, but that was a happy coincidence. I went back this time because I could. Not only was it time for me to return (long past in my opinion), but I was physically able to return.
See, there has been some personal and family crisis going on that have prevented my Sunday mornings from being open to the liturgy. In short, I’ve been busy with family and life, and the extended version is more complicated, and part of it isn’t my story to tell.
Suffice to say, as crisis hit, as life began to fill up with chaos, busyness, and weariness (because crisis is tiering), the first thing to get pushed out past the edges is spiritual practice, specifically the spiritual practice of gathering with the people of god. It’s easy to see why this happens – when we are unable to find time during the liturgy to be present, the practice remains unfulfilled. Still, the argument remains that you shouldn’t find time for what’s important to you (indeed what I need during this season); instead, you should make time for what is essential.
Making time’s not easy when you have other people to consider. If it was just me alone, I’m sure I could figure out attending corporate worship and becoming one of the liturgical players every week. But I have others to think about, specifically my kids.
I never want to force my boys to go to church. I want them to have the option of going or not. My four-year-old may not be able to say he wants to go to church yet, but my nine-year-old can, and he hasn’t been enthused by the idea. So, rather than force them I acquiesce to their wishes. This means, when I am the one caring for them on Sundays, I stay home from church.
I could force them to go. I’m sure they would be alright with it at some point. I could always bribe them (bribery is the parent’s secret weapon). But that’s not what I want for them. I still fear indoctrinating them. See, there is so much I have had to unlearn from the theology I was raised in – indeed indoctrinated with. I know no one intentionally drilled certain concepts into my heart, but year after year, week after week, hearing the same teachings, the same life applications, the same fears, the same exhortations, it has a way of catching onto your mind and becoming part of your psyche.
Don’t get me wrong; I want my boys to know Jesus. I even want them to love Jesus and their neighbor (this is the heart of Christianity after all). But I want them to approach Jesus on their terms, not according to what I think is best for them. So, we talk about Jesus and god and the Holy Ghost from time to time. I think, for now, that is enough.
I don’t blame my kids for keeping me from church on Sundays; it’s not their fault in the least. I don’t know if it’s necessarily anyone’s fault. Looking back, it was merely the circumstances of the season, and that season of my life corresponded with Lent.
I do wonder why my spirituality is the first thing I jettison when crisis and chaos hit though.
It’s not the whole of my spirituality that is falls to the fringes. There are always foxhole prayers and moments of gracious gratitude. But, the spiritual practice of gathering with other Jesus people, that is quickly brushed aside and put on the shelf in the face of a time of ongoing crisis.
It could be shame, shame that I don’t have it all together, that I am going through something hard, something consuming, something that causes me to need again. Lord knows I’ve done my share of needing in life, and the honest truth is I feel like a vampire of sorts most of the time, taking and sucking what I need from others but never giving life in return.
It could be fear. It’s scary to admit what is going on in your life, especially when it is painful. It’s not an easy thing to remain vulnerable, open, willing to share your life with these somewhat strangers. While perfect love may cast out fear, human love is stuttering and stilted, and it is a scary thing to ask for love. Every time you ask, you risk not receiving what you need, being rejected, told that your emotional needs are too much, stupid, that you should get over it. Asking for love is a brave thing, and sometimes, frankly, I am not courageous.
I don’t think its shame or fear that keeps me away from the congregation when a crisis hits though. I think it’s something more straightforward, something more on the surface. See, deep down I want to join with the people in the celebration, confession, and partake of the Eucharist every week. But, sometimes I don’t have the energy.
Crisis takes a lot out of you, and ongoing crisis quickly drains your reserves of resilience. You have to keep pushing forward, sometimes running on pure strength of will. Crisis will burn you out. Crisis will make you weary to the bone. Crisis will cause you to insulate and pull inward because you simply don’t have anything to give people.
I guess that’s the thing about Sunday mornings: I feel like I have to have something to give, something to offer, something to make people glad I am there. There is a voice in my head that says without something to give; there is no reason for people to embrace you.
It’s a voice that has been dropped into my head by my own doing. I spent so many years trying to give at church, teaching, preaching, leading music, planning, developing curriculum, anything and everything I could do. And when I did something, particularly when I did it well, people responded favorably. I received praise, so I began to believe that the way to acceptance (as manifested in recognition) was to do.
Crisis reveals a truth about me though: I don’t have everything to give. I am finite, small, limited. I can’t do it all. I can’t give and give and give in every area of my life. To me, in the core beliefs about myself, this tells me that I can’t be accepted everywhere. And that hurts.
When I let people down, it hurts me. I do it a lot, and every time it is painful. Sometimes there is shame associated with it, but always there is this emotional pain, this prick to my soul, knowing that I let someone down, that I didn’t give enough, that I was unable to do what was needed of me. That hurts.
Combine that with my already wounded heart around the church, and crisis makes me want to stay away because I don’t want to hurt. I don’t want to let people down, to need from them without having earned what they give. I don’t want people to expect something of me and not be able to fulfill that expectation. I don’t want to be bereft of gifts to give and therefore unworthy of love.
That’s some shit to say out loud right there.
I think it was appropriate that I was absent from church of all of Lent. Lent is a season where we examine ourselves, our vices, our crutches. Where we face our mortality, and in doing so face the ways we try and earn favor. We give up things we enjoy, mortifying the flesh, and triggering fears and hurts in us that we keep covered up and under wraps the rest of the year.
So, in my absence, Lent stripped me down, revealing the truth that is hard to say: I don’t feel I am worthy of love unless I can earn it by what I have to give. That is what lurks beneath my skin, in my motivations, in my heart. Lent stripped me down and exposed this to the air. While it stings, I know that only in the open will it cease to fester, to infect, and finally, it can heal.
This little congregation is one that I want to give to. I want to offer what and who I am for the benefit of the people. However, I don’t want to continually live for praise, attempting to earn their favor and admiration, win their love. I want to love freely and be freely loved, simply because I am human and each and every human is inherently worthy of deep, profound love.
So, I sat, exposed and vulnerable, in my spot in the pews this past Easter morning. I risked coming back with nothing to offer, nothing to give, no way to earn favor. I went forward to receive Eucharist, and after receiving the body of Christ, the priest crossed my forehead and laid a hand on me. This was a blessing, an acceptance, utterly unasked for, unearned, and unexpected. The cup of salvation came, and as I took the wine to my lips, I knew I was loved by God and by people.
With the touch of Christ, I was affirmed as a loved member of the congregation, embraced and loved. Coffee hour proved it. People simply asked how I was, not where I had been. There was no guilt, no chastisement, only acceptance — only love.
Just like that, I am back in the spiritual rhythm of liturgy and love. The season of Lent was in many ways a death. Now, in these 50 days of Easter, I am resurrected, renewed, reaffirmed as loved by the people of god, not for what I offer, but because I am – just as you are – the beloved disciple of Jesus.