On trains and churches

MBta mapThis is really just a funny little story for Gina, Steve, and Sarah. But since I have a blog I thought I’d post it here. You can listen in if you want.

I haven’t been to church in a long time. It’s a long story, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Briefly: For twenty years I threw myself into church, Christian community, and Christian ministry, had some great experiences but also lots of bad and hard ones, and didn’t quit until I was completely burnt out, ill, and, according to one counselor, suffering from PTSD.

I haven’t been to church in years, but it has been less than two years since I moved out of the intentional Christian community where I lived for seven years. It’s been 21 months, to be precise. I’ve been amazed at how quickly I’ve healed from individual wounds and relationships. Much of that healing has come through writing about it. But I’ve needed to be alone. I’ve needed this beautiful house, this sunny porch, my two mostly quiet housemates in this quiet neighborhood. I’ve desperately needed no weekly meetings, no communal prayer times, no vision casting or conflict resolution, no expectations.

I can’t believe how quickly and deeply the healing came when I finally stepped away.

I don’t hear God’s voice much these days, at least in the way I used to, but three or four years ago, struggling to re-find my daily Bible reading and prayer time, struggling to return to church and feeling traumatized and exhausted every time I stepped through any church’s doors, I heard God say, “Why are you looking for me in the places where I’m not?” I don’t think he meant he wasn’t present in those places. He meant that, for me, he was waiting to commune with me in new places, in new ways, but I was refusing to meet him there because I thought I shouldn’t leave the old places.

When I finally let go of the “shoulds” I followed God to the new places, and he met me there. Not in the same way he used to meet me, but in a deeper, quieter way. Some of the new places were: Centering, meditative prayer instead of conversational prayer; Quiet evenings and weekends alone instead of swallowing Advil for the migraines and rushing off to lead a Bible study; Reading the blogs and Facebook posts of my friends, and writing my own; Walking, biking, and yoga.

But I still believe in church, at least in theory. As the author of Hebrews says, “[do not give] up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” I still believe we need each other, as Christians. And not just the hand-picked friends who are like us and support us, but the whole body of Christ, broken and difficult, those who speak different languages than we do, literally and figuratively, those who are in different places than we are, those who we can learn from and those who we have something to teach. I still hold the “should” of church, but I guess I hold it loosely.

That’s where I am.

So here’s the story:

I used to believe that God spoke to me through small coincidences: Two friends mentioning the same thing, reading random Bible verses that seemed to point me in an unexpected direction. Maybe God was in those things, I don’t know. But these days I tend to hear God differently, in deeper ways, through careful listening, and through years of knowing myself and who he created me to be.

But over the past couple of months things have been happening that, before, I would have seen as those God-coincidences. My best friend, Gina, had been telling me for years that I would like the Greater Boston Vineyard church. Then the pastor of that church, Steve Watson, who I know through mutual good friends, started reading some of my blog posts and commenting on them. And he emailed me to say that he thought I would fit in well at his church. I told him I really appreciated that, but wasn’t quite ready, and he was very gracious and respectful. Then Gina and Steve got together to talk about other things, and Gina told me my name came up, and they both mentioned they thought I’d like the Vineyard.

Next, my friend Sarah shared on Facebook her excitement about the direction in which the church was going, and it was something very close to my heart: Creating safe space for the LGBT community and for people with various views on those issues. This was my dream – and the reason I love The Gay Christian Network and keep talking about them – to not choose sides, to love and respect everyone and allow the Spirit to guide us, individually and as a church. “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.”

Then, in response to an ad I placed on the church’s webboard – my housemate and I had a room available in our house – a couple from the church wrote to say they live two houses down from me, and we should get together some time!

That night I went to bed laughing, thinking that if I still believed coincidences like that were God speaking, then I would be pretty sure he wanted me to go to the Vineyard.

And then I had a dream.

In my dream I walked through the streets and subway stations of Boston, and a man stopped me and invited me to his church. I agreed to come along, and we took the train there. (What do trains represent in dreams? I dream about them all the time in mine.) When we got there we went in and the service hadn’t started yet. I sat down near some people who were having a conversation, and a prim middle-aged woman in a rose-colored pants suit said sharply,

“You can’t sit there! That seat’s too small for you, you’re going to break it!”

Shamed, I stood up and tried to regroup, but I felt the familiar panic and claustrophobia closing in, and I needed to get out. I turned and walked quickly to the door, but I heard the voice of the man who invited me saying,

“Jessica! Jessica, stop, where are you going?” He came up behind me.

“I’m sorry, I can’t be here right now,” I said over my shoulder as I rushed to the door. “I need to leave.”

“No, don’t go. Don’t go,” he said, and tried to grab my shoulder, but I kept walking. As I left, I felt his fingers scraping at my skin. It was like some kind of Flannery O’Connor story, fleeing the church while a demon/Christ-figure scrabbled at my shoulder. I woke up, as I had gone to sleep, laughing. The dream had told me – in an amusingly dramatic way – that I wasn’t ready, not quite yet.

I realized that I still have some work to do. And I still need to spend some time where God is now for me: In my solitude, and in my writing, and in my friendships. But I’m encouraged. I feel like there is a place for me, for when I’m ready to return. It might be the Greater Boston Vineyard, or it might be another church like it. Before I was feeling like I didn’t know where I belonged: Too liberal to go back to an Evangelical church, but still too Evangelical to feel quite comfortable in a mainline church. Now I feel that there are others like me, and places where I would fit in. Well, maybe not fit in, entirely. But at least be able to be myself.

Save a space for me, friends. Not just now, but maybe in a little while.

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13 comments on “On trains and churches

  1. I teared up reading this, Jessica. Consider a space saved, whenever you want it, or even when you don’t. So glad to read that Jesus is still at work in you and for you.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Debbie says:

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. galeweithers says:

    You’ll know when you’re ready. Am happy though that you were able to take some time away to heal and then move on; healing is important. Thanks for sharing your story and God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Too libereal for evangelical, too evangelical for mainline. you’re singing my song. yet i am comfortable in a rather conservative church with progressive thinking leadership. keep your eyes and heart open, He does have a place for you in His timing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Matt Kantrowitz says:

    I bet there are thousands of believers out there going through very similar struggles. The difference is that you have the amazing courage to express it all. And you have such a powerful gift from God to express it so well.You have blessed so many here by putting into words the same things that they all have been going through.And by the way, I don’t think of you as liberal, or evangelical, or any other label. The way people (“Christians”) tend to label and judge one another is a sad example of how we fall short. But you know you are not here to live up to their expectations.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Obijuan says:

    You might be happiest and completely self-fulfilled right where you live now, Jessica. You may not need to go “back” to anything, any institution or life regulation, or pseudo-practice to be the full embodiment and manifestation of the sacred. What part do guilt and anger, regret and remorse play in beckoning us “back” to unfulfilling places?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. marlenelee says:

    Very true for any creative life. Busy-ness detracts! Thank you, Jessica and Judith.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Meredith W. says:

    Oh, to find such a place! Better yet, to find such people. My story is not the same as yours, but there are some major similarities. Still in the desert and perhaps not seeking as actively as would be of the greatest benefit, but the next step eludes me.

    I do love reading what you write, and even though we may see eye-to-eye on everything, your writing is part of what constitutes a faith community for me these days. Thank you for that. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bev says:

    Dear Jessica,
    The only space you need held for you is in the heart of God…and you are there.
    How much closer can you get?! It’s called kingdom living.

    Thanks for giving to me today. I listened in because I needed to hear what you had to say. I was struggling with my own set of counterfeit coincidences around a seemingly good thing but now I know. It was only a distraction from where God was taking me. I had my inklings and now I am on to it. It takes finely tuned discernment sometimes to pick up on something so subtle.

    By the way, I have my own church story to tell, but not now. I experience God and my healing through my horses in a way that my church would not have allowed, so I kept it secret. But I passed through a church briefly later in my life with a wise pastor. With a delightful twinkle in his eye he gave me a scripture I had never heard of when growing up in my church, Numbers 22:21-38 about Balaam and the donkey. Guess who saw the angel first?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. soundtek says:

    I could have written this post… hugs, its always nice to know that you are never alone

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Just to answer your question, trains can either signify being continuous in your ministry or spiritual life, or they can represent spiritual connectedness. Vehicles in general tend to represent ministries or spiritual journeys. I think it is the “sticking to the track” and “I’m not the driver” aspect of trains that makes them represent continuity, but that’s just my personal opinion.

    This was beautifully written, Jessica. Thank you so much for your transparency.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. suzysims1980 says:

    I have found a great relief in not pressuring myself anymore about attending a set church. Jesus said ‘where two or more are gathered in my name, there I will be also’. I have 7 dogs, one of whom is a Foster SDI, and 2 cats. Time spent with my animals is always soothing, and I thank God for them in my life. When our family is together we always have at least one family prayer to give thanks for being all together once again. I don’t need to spend one specific day, or one specific organization to serve and celebrate the gifts God has granted me. That has been very freeing. I serve through dog rescue, placement, Fostering, and training service dogs for veterans. Sometimes I listen when a friend is going through turmoil and just hug it out. They do the same for me. running with all of these beasts is always a joyful experience. This is how God uses me. This is how I celebrate Him.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Rachael says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I hear grace – for yourself, for the church, for others on their journeys. I, too, have moved toward more of the deep listening. I’m still getting used to it, having defined prayer for so many years as conversation. I am learning to trust also the communication that is not packaged in words. Bless you on your journey. May you find satisfying nourishment in your deep listening.

    Liked by 1 person

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