Leaving Church to Search for God

This morning our family lingered at length over our breakfast.  We poured warm syrup over waffles, sipped coffee, and read the Seattle Times.  Afterwards we wrapped ourselves in scarves and hats, raincoats and boots, and headed for the water.  We ambled along for the rest of the morning under the vast gray sky that stretches from the tree tops of Lincoln Park out over Puget Sound.

It was the first Sunday morning in my entire life when I have deliberately decided to skip church.  I say this not to sound overly dramatic or to exaggerate my piety.  It’s simply the truth.  I always go to church.  My dad was a pastor so when I was growing up, staying home on Sunday morning was never an option.  Even when we were on vacation, my family went to church.   I faithfully attended Sunday morning services throughout my college years, hitching rides with the other “serious Christians” on campus and secretly judging those who opted to sleep in.   Boys who did not go to church could not be considered serious dating options and all of my closest friends likewise attended services on Sunday morning– in addition to our “required to graduate” chapel attendance three times per week.  Before I married my husband we settled on which church we would attend together and when we moved to Seattle almost eleven years ago, priority one was to find a church.

The Church has been a gift.  An unequivocal, beautiful gift.  I have learned and loved and grown and changed in untold ways over the years and all of this learning, loving, growing and changing has happened in the context of the Church.  Our current church has been home to us in ways that none of the others have ever been.   We love our church.  We love our pastors and we love the people who walk through the doors every week.  We love serving communion; holding up the bread, “take and eat the body of Christ,” and the wine, “this is the blood of the new covenant.”  We became parents in this church; the pastors singing the benediction over our babies when they were just hours old.  We have led and hosted one of our church’s community groups for ten years.  We helped teach a class on Faith & Race just weeks ago.

Beneath the Surface

In Seattle the trees alert us to the arrival of Spring before the weather does.  While the rain continues to fall in March and we reluctantly leave our flip flops at home and press on in our boots, amazingly and without preamble the cherry blossoms begin to bloom.  It is, to us Pacific Northwesterners, the harbinger of Spring that we most long for.  When the cherry blossoms arrive, it means that Winter is over.  Even if the skies haven’t yet heard the news.  Even if it continues to rain ad infinitum, all has not been lost during the darkness of Winter.  While we were holed up at home with our candles and blankets, there was still life teeming beneath our feet.  What looked to be dead now bursts into brilliant color.

As a half-hearted gardener who harms more plants than I help, I know that this also works in the reverse.  Sometimes something that looks to be full of life is in fact slowly dying.  This past January I stood on our little balcony and looked with wonder at an ornamental kale that I had planted in the Fall.  An annual, it should have withered with the first snowfall back in November.  Yet here it was, I marveled, still going strong.  Seeing a dead leaf, I reached down to pluck it out and was stunned when the entire plant came with it, rootball and all.  What had looked, by all measures, to be alive and thriving, was actually in the process of dying.

How instead of What

I am not having what is called in Christian circles a “crisis of faith.”  I am not falling away nor am I leaving the faith altogether.  It is actually quite the opposite.  Certainly there has been the gentle shedding of some of the more traditional theological clothing over the years.  Atonement theology and a literal hell being chief among them.  And it is no secret that I ardently hope for the Church, and my church in particular, to one day fling wide the doors for my LGBTQ friends.  But this is not simply about semantics or differences in doctrine.

Church on Sunday mornings has always been, perhaps out of necessity or maybe even by definition, a place where one is typically taught and told what to see.  It is a place to find the answers.  Yet I am finding more and more that instead of learning what to see, I should like to know how to see.   Instead of answers, I’d like to ask more questions.  Because I have, over the years, discovered within myself a longing to root more deeply into the mystery, rather than the certainty, of God.

Fr. Richard Rohr, in a podcast I heard recently, said that Jesus didn’t come to teach us how to get to heaven.  Jesus came to teach us how to live.   If the only question worth asking is “how do we get to heaven?” then I could have quit going to church more than 30 years ago.  Because I knew the answer to that by the time I was old enough to articulate the sinner’s prayer. I want to learn how to live.

The Grace of Absence

Last Sunday on the way home from church my husband and I both struggled to articulate the dissonance and the disconnect we were feeling.  Finally my husband said quietly, “I think maybe we should take a few weeks off.  We need a break.”  We wondered for the rest of the drive about what such a break might mean.  Would we visit other churches?  Should we just stay home?  How would we know when it was time to go back?   Neither one of us had any answers but we knew that by continuing to show up on Sunday mornings when we felt so much wrestling within ourselves, that we were not fully present to our church.  We were denying ourselves both the joy and the grace of a wholehearted presence and conversely, the joy and grace we might find in a wholehearted absence.

Curtis L. Thompson writes that the triune God is the perichoresis.  God, he says, is the dancing God; open to the world, in love drawing the world into the trinity and empowering the world to dance.  I’d like to know what this might look like for me.  For us.  What does it look like to join the divine dance and participate most fully in the ways that God is healing the world?  I think our family might best be able to explore this, for the time being at least, outside of church on Sunday mornings.

Instead of appearing to be full of life while withering at the root, I’d like instead to let some things go dormant in the hope that new life might emerge.  Might this all merely be an experience in prolonged navel gazing?  Possibly.  Might we return in a few weeks none the wiser?  I really don’t know.  What I do know is that for most of this past week I have felt afraid.  Afraid of what my family and friends might think of our absence.  Afraid of hurting people’s feelings.  Afraid of what this will mean for our kids and our community group.  Afraid that our theology of Church is in desperate disrepair.  But this morning, as we sat around the breakfast table and walked under open skies, I discovered that I no longer felt afraid.  I felt free.