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.