708 Days of Growth, Evolution, and Healing From Leaving and Returning To The Church
A Story in Three Acts
All cartoons used in this series come from David Hayward, aka ‘nakedpastor’ at www.nakedpastor.com
March, 24, 2015.
I felt an odd tension in my seat, unlike any I had felt on any Sunday morning.
I kept anxiously turning on my phone to check the time, but also felt like the time around me flew by quickly.
The second service ended, people scattered throughout the building for prayer and superficial conversations, while I stealthily checked the aisles for trash and emptied the offering boxes and delivered the money for counting. It kept my mind temporarily off the upcoming conversation with the pastors, but could not delay it long enough.
It was time.
As the three of us headed to the senior pastor’s office, a hundred different scenarios rapidly played out in my mind, each having the same ending.
When I uttered the words of resignation from the church, it didn’t phase them. Both of their faces told me they knew it was coming. Their body language with their arms were crossed and told me this conversation wasn’t going to end well. I tried to explain how tired I had become.
I could have been a member of The Flying Karamazov Brothers with all the juggling I was doing. Teaching 6th-12th grade English full time, attempting to get the college/young adults ministry off the ground, and trying to care for and find solutions to a sick eight month old. All of these things combined took every fiber of energy I had in me. In addition to the stress that their demands were taking on me, it was affecting my family too. Because of the needs of our child, there were many Sundays where my wife would stay home to take care of her. This was met with ridicule and gossip, instead of compassion and kindness.
This is normal.
They tried to assure me.
Then came the bigger bombshell:
my family and I would no longer attend their church.
Are you sure?
You’re opening your life up to more attacks from the devil.
Is isolation really going be helpful?
You realize you’re going to enter into a time of darkness?
You realize, your relationship with Jesus is going to dry up?
You realize, your relationship with your family is going to suffer?
Placing your family before our church is idolatrous.
You’re making a big mistake.
You failed us.
Rejection and shame from men you made memories with, laughed with, prayed with, and, who became like brothers felt unlike any pain I have felt before. Stung harder than any injury from sports field and pierced stronger than any of the ink on my body, because they were speaking to my soul. Amidst all the hurt from their questions and explanations of how I failed as a leader and my tears on the car ride home, I knew healing would come from all the pain I was feeling.
But, not yet.
Act 1: Loving The Church
I’ve always been involved in church in one capacity or another. I was baptized as an infant, my earliest memories are checking out books and videos from a church library, and going on (successful) missions with my older sister to find the communion wafers when we should have been napping. When we moved when I was four, we attended an Episcopal church in the morning and Nazarene church for Sunday School. I delivered sermons in the living room my toys, I could recite from memory the eucharistic liturgy before I learned algebra, I was the youngest member of our Bible quizzing team. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be husband, daddy, and pastor (in that order). Throughout middle school and high school, I was heavily involved in programs designed to build knowledge and skills in leadership and my faith, while the desire to be a pastor grew. Once I graduated from high school, the path to pastoral ministry didn’t seem as clear. I knew didn’t want to go the traditional route of Bible college->seminary->church for a variety of reasons, mainly, I wanted to know what the world outside of my Christian bubble was like.
However, a shift took place in my thinking that I would never forget.
My sister loaned me an album called “She Must and Shall Go Free” by a guy named Derek Webb. She told me that the album changed her views on the Church. The first time I listened to it, I didn’t get blown away, but one thing stood out to me, his sincerity. I listened to it again and picked up on the revolutionary idea that had never took hold in my young mind until then:
You cannot love Jesus and not love the Church.
One of the songs from that album, “The Church” makes this point through the analogy of a groom and bride in a more beautifully and poignant way than I could:
“there is none that can replace her, though there are many who will try and though some may be her bridesmaids, they can never be my bride. cause i haven’t come for only you, but for my people to pursue, you cannot care for me with no regard for her, if you love me you will love the church.”
As a little boy at the Episcopal church, I never understood when we said the Apostles Creed together, the following lines, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Holy Catholic Church, The Communion of Saints..” For the longest time, I would always omit the Catholic line because I thought we were corporately confessing our trust in the Roman Catholic church, which I deemed as false. However, when I was older and had a wider vocabulary, I found out that the confession we made was bigger and beautiful than my young closemind had conceived.
I was wrong
When we confess with billions of brothers and sisters our belief in the Holy Catholic Church and Communion of Saints, we are saying we believe in the Church, not just in America, but worldwide, throughout thousands of years. The gathering of men and women who met in secret in ancient graveyards, in smoke-filled pubs, in living rooms, in elementary school cafeterias, or in floors made of dirt and blood. We are joining hands with the family of God, spread across time and location, we are declaring we are one with Jesus as he is one with his Father.
When I made the commitment to not only love Jesus, but the Church too, thus began a frustrating and often rewarding story. A story with many unique twists and turns, like letting a homeless man spend the night in my apartment, sharing the love of Jesus in a gay bar, conversations that continue with the rising sun, hearing stories of brokenness and healing across different countries and states, even receiving hurtful and deceitful wounds from from brothers and sisters I admired and respected, including the ones on March 24, 2015.
No matter the story, the characters, or the settings, one theme remains true, I was never alone. This truth often gets watered down to a cliché, but there is a significant amount of power in this promise. The presence of God is found in our victories and pain. This is illustrated in the song that Jews and Christians have been singing for thousands of years:
“I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you.” Psalm 139:7-12 (NLT) (Emphasis mine)
Act 2: Hiatus to Healing in 708 Days.