‘We Church’ to ‘Me Church’

I grew up in the Church. It was integral to who I was. It was my family. It defined my identify. It was a powerful influence, my moral development, social opportunities, entertainment, and an invitation to regular fellowship.

Church had been my routine and security. A part of my family history and traditions. Somewhere I belonged. A place where others depended on me. A way to love others. A solidifying of my status in the Christian community. A place to connect with others and restore my spiritual focus.

Until my marriage ended. Then I didn’t really fit in, and church became complicated.

Throughout the betrayals within my congregation and my subsequent divorce, singleness and isolation, I clung to my church attendance quite literally like a piece of floating driftwood from a sinking ship. The organisation that had kept me nurtured and safe my entire life, became an unknowing participant in my prolonged suffering.

Regardless of how much my body shook from the traumas I’d encountered, I still marched through the church doors, week to week.

Regardless of how hard it was to keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks during worship, I returned dutifully to ‘my’ seat in the pews and sang while gulping down the lump in my throat.

Regardless of the pain of mingling with people who were probably talking about my scandalous life events, I still socialised with them to fend off some of the loneliness.

Regardless of the isolation I felt after sharing my prayer needs with leaders who found my circumstances awkward, I still made myself vulnerable and left feeling embarrassed.

Regardless of the exhaustion of working full time, caring for children and pursuing divorce proceedings, I continued to serve so that I did not have to admit my limitations.

Regardless of the ignorant one-liners that reopened my wounds, such as ‘God hates divorce’, ‘you’ll find someone else’, ‘God will prosper you’, ‘things could be worse’…I allowed my ears continued exposure.

Regardless of the devastation of not feeling heard or important, when I addressed the messages that had threatened my wellbeing, I kept advocating, and became further estranged.

It was pure stubbornness that kept me hostage to my church habit, despite how at times, extremely detrimental it was.

Then I underwent a season of rest, reflection, and re-construction.

I first gave myself permission to acknowledge that church had been hard. That many times I did not like it. That it was okay not to go if I was not up to it.

Then I discovered something…new.

I took a break from ‘We Church’ and found ‘Me Church’.

‘Me Church’ was just me and Jesus.

At ‘Me Church’, I could come as I was. Slippers, dressing gown, messy hair and all. It had amazing worship. Personal playlists, set on repeat. There were cups of tea and flexible start and end times. ‘Me Church’ had various campuses, in a range of indoor and outdoor venues. I could sing my heart out in joy, or sit silently in tears.

‘Me Church’ did not require interaction with other flawed, sinful humans, which at that point in my life, was just too risky. There was silence, reflection, time for thinking, and staring out at God’s amazing creation. There could be bible reading, YouTube sermons or podcast discussions…or no teaching at all. There was space for a private conversation with God, including how let down I felt by life in general, or how beautiful the sunshine was.

After ‘Me Church’ there was opportunity to bless others, whether that was checking in and calling a friend, doing a nice deed for the family, or preparing for the working week ahead so I was better able to bless others in the community with my gifts. ‘Me Church’ was not concerned with the denomination I followed, whether I had spiritual gifts, the evangelical celebrities I ascribed to, or my stance on moral and political agendas. There was no power hierarchy, shame, guilt trips or abuse.

At ‘Me Church’, you could share your personal testimony, even if it didn’t have a happy ending…or any kind of resolution at all.

There were no expectations and no awkwardness. It was safe and it was healing. It was genuine and it was real. Despite my imperfect, single, state, at ‘Me Church’, I fit in, and I belonged.

I could be a member for as long as I wanted to. I could leave when I was ready. I would be welcomed when I returned.

If ‘We Church’ has been a complicated place for you too, let go of it for a while, and try ‘Me Church’ out for a season as well.

Even if no one else is there, Jesus certainly will be.

Photo by Audrey Badin from Pexels

Letting Go

Photo by YURI MANEI from Pexels

In my dreams, my husband loved me. He looked at me with desire, he wanted to know what I thought. He cared about me.

Then I would wake up, and know it wasn’t real. My heart would sink into the loneliness of my bed as he left in stony silence for work, or was already gone. No morning hug, no kiss goodbye, the most a grunt, a hassled sigh.

“I’m not happy.” he said, “I’m angry and I don’t know why.”

“Will you go with me somewhere to find out? To try?”

“No.” His face darkened like a storm was brewing. “I am who I am.”

Unkind words came, making me smaller, sneering and patronising until I stopped fighting back, and tried to creep inside of myself for safety. I watched helplessly as the chasm widened. The floorboards rattled with his stomping steps and his fist smashed through a wall near my head in frustration. I saw my things swept from one side of a room to the other. I felt his grip on my arm, squeezing so hard to convey his anger. I had to laugh and pretend it was so ridiculously absurd it was funny when friends noted the bruises that looked like finger prints.

I felt his rage. His rage at life. His rage at me. And his anger that no one worked as hard as he did, or could measure up to his capacity. I bore his disgust that I couldn’t come close.

He would not touch me, he would not look at me, he refused to love me, to punish me for his own dissatisfaction at his situation.

I felt so lonely, so incredibly alone and lost. I longed to connect, to smile and laugh together like we once had, but it was all gone, and my attempts to bring it back were met with “not now, I’m too busy… Do you have any idea how hard I’m working!”

I did know. He made sure I did as I hovered around his temper, trying to show him love and light. But he pushed me away, again and again…yelling, snapping, snarling…and I retreated further into myself and felt he must be right. I must be incompetent and unable to hold my own in the world, or survive on my own.

I felt tiny and sluggish, like I didn’t belong. I felt unseen and unheard and humiliated. I felt like his shadow, slinking around his ego, or his puppet, with him yanking the strings. I felt like his servant, fussing around his needs, and tip-toeing around his temper. But no matter what demands I met, no matter how hard I tried, it was never enough to reach inside his heart and soften the dissatisfaction and wildness of his tortured soul.

Then one day it happened. With the blackest eyes and booze in his veins, he spat at me with venom, “We have nothing in common!”

My heart kicked from my chest; it slithered away into a dark murky corner of the room, whimpering quietly while the rest of my body stood frozen in shock, staring at a man I barely recognised. A man so brimming with unhappiness and anger he looked empty and haunted. Tears ran down my face and he stared back impassively, wanting me to hurt, wanting me to be as miserable as he was. Why should I enjoy life if he has chained himself to work and commitments and responsibilities? Why should I ever be allowed to rest or smile, or create…or just be?

My heart wouldn’t come back, it cowered in the corner and refused to come…broken and bleeding and wounded beyond repair.

So I called for my courage. It came slowly, pressing quietly against me side as I packed my things with shaking hands and an aching hollow agony in my chest that threatened to overwhelm me. My legs gave way, I couldn’t breathe. A panic attack, they call it. How would I survive? Where would I go? What would I do…it was all so huge and scary and empty and grey and bleak. It was all too hard…but staying was harder. Staying was lonelier. Staying was emptier.

I told him I loved him, and would come the minute he wanted to seek happiness with me, to find a way to soothe his soul and hunt down his demons. I told him I’d do anything, if he’d just try to save us.

“I am who I am.” His eyes no longer met mine, “and I’ll never change.”

I did not leave my husband because it was easier. I fought every way I knew how. With words of love, and hours of prayer, messages, old pictures to remind him of who we were before the anger seeped in and destroyed us.

But I knew. After so many years, I knew. You cannot force change on a person who doesn’t want to change. Love slides off, it doesn’t seep in, against a heart of stone.

I went to the corner of the room and collected what was left of my deflated heart, stuffing it back inside me, even though I thought it was damaged forever, and would never beat the same again.

I left with fear at my back, and despair settling over me like a heavy cloak. There was no joy left inside me, no stability, no assurances in life that anything would ever be okay again.

But there was one tiny emotion left that enabled me to force one foot after the other.

It was hope.

The only thing could get me out of my bed day after day and keep me going. Hope that one day I would feel strong. One day, I would feel like me again, and be happy with that. One day I would feel worthy of love again. One day I wouldn’t be broken anymore. That I could put myself back together, and be stronger for it.

One day is hope. And one day I will find my way again, whole and hopeful and knowing who I am in this world.

I am not worthless. I am courageous. I did not give up, I fought to the end.

I am not done. I am only beginning.

Beauty in Brokenness

Photo by Tim Gouw

Since the beginning of my mortal existence, I have been blessed with the gift, or curse, of perfectionism. I soon discovered that when my perfectionism collided with the subjectivity of music and the performing arts…things didn’t always go to plan.

Despite my best intentions to practice, practice, practice, for the perfect classical performance, the final product was never guaranteed to go as I wanted. I seemed to have a knack for momentary lapses in concentration and coordination which at the crucial moment, would result in the most amazing wrong notes ever to be produced! Following this I would go home and literally chain myself to the ivories, intent on overcoming those unmanageable passages by sheer blood, sweat and tears…only to be disappointed the following performance with feedback such as “performance lacked expression”. My desire to ‘play the right notes’ dominated my playing, and left no room for appreciation of the beauty of what I was producing.

Fortunately since that time I’ve grown to learn that the admirable quality is not a mistake free performance, but the willingness to put on public display the ‘realness’ of flawed abilities. A desire to make something beautiful despite the imperfect skill base. Now when rehearsing for a performance, I work at the challenges with diligence with the expectation it likely it won’t go to plan. I aim for perfection…but in the real performance, I rarely get it, and that’s okay! The uniqueness of my performances and the experience of putting my work out there for others to critique, and hopefully enjoy, is where the spiritual gifts of patience and humility are refined.

In a world where we are brainwashed into thinking the ultimate success is to plaster the best staged moments of ourselves for all to see, including our picture perfect sets and moments with our co-stars, I’m not so sure that’s the way it should be. When this can’t always be achieved, we can still feel pressured to take this further by hiding the imperfections at all costs, making an exhibition of our suffering, or proving there was a happy ending to it eventually.

There is nothing wrong with the above, however as my life has progressed I now know there’s another option! I refuse to bow to perfectionism any more and will be at peace with the brokenness! This does not excuse poor attitudes, character or abandoning my God-given purpose in life, but it means I’m giving myself permission to perform the musical movements of my life without the expectation of relentless excellence! My personal life sonata could even be re-arranged, with certain new motives developed, diminished, augmented, inverted, accented or transposed to create the ultimate, messy masterpiece!

It’s taken me some time to learn that it requires more sacrifice and character development for our pride to be challenged by realness, and to possibly admit we will not always be able to reconcile all of the wrong ‘notes’ of life and their long-term legacy. Sometimes bad turns to good, sometimes it stays the same for a long time, and sometimes it gets worse. No matter the strength of our faith or how much we nag God to rid the script of these inconveniences, they do not necessarily end in a perfect finale performance.

I can hear you….‘call yourself a Christian?’ Yes…I know! However, isn’t it even more so a test of our faith in Jesus to place our trust in him despite not having the assurance of getting things our way? Isn’t it the highest sacrifice to deny our human desires? Jesus himself explained that “anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of their father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27 The Message). After all, God promises to “bestow on them (us) a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3 NIV) so what do we need to fear about being real?

As Christians, if we were to expect perfect performances in all the acts of life, we would deny ourselves true creativity, agency and blessings. The ability to work through and with our imperfections and messy masterpieces, requires us to put ultimate trust in our Father, which in our current world is arguably the highest level of spiritual enlightenment.

Rocky Forgiveness

Photo by Ir Solyanaya

Six years ago, my life changed forever. Infidelity caused me, married-mother-of-two, to become single-mother-of-two. I was suddenly alone to navigate the world of working, providing, finances and child-custody negotiations. I lost friendships, became disconnected with my community and experienced a deep, piercing grief.

I spun through emotions like a merry-go-round. Over and over I experienced combinations of anger, sadness, depression, stress, fear, and the occasional whiff of hope. There was no logical pattern for this cycle.

Within days of my life turning upside down, I was told to forgive, for ‘my own’ sake. As the months passed this pressure continued from multiple sources. I received well-meaning advice, such as “you need to forgive“, “don’t become bitter”, “it will be okay”, “do it for the kids’ sake” , “you’ll find someone else”, and “you need to move on”.

Unfortunately, the people sending these messages had no idea of the suffering I was enduring, which included regular flashbacks of events where I had been deceived and manipulated. I was still in the process of adjusting my perception of the past and the people I trusted.

The pressure to forgive was enhanced with the expectation that it’s what good Christians do. But I was not allowed to grieve as a widow would. I was not allowed to display my pain about the death of my marriage by wearing black. There was no memorial service for the loss of my friendships. I was not brought meals or flowers. I was expected to carry on as normal and to hide the shame of the situation that had been forced on me.

People gossiped about me. People avoided me. People abandoned me. Some people attacked me. I was told to keep quiet about what had happened. I was then again reminded that I needed to forgive.

The inability for me to do this in the expected time frame, made me feel more of a failure. Why couldn’t I just be at peace with my new lot in life?

How do you forgive when you are constantly living with the daily repercussions of other people’s choices that have negatively impacted your own life?

After years of processing, counselling and healing, I now have my answer. It’s like I have a jar of rocks. Rocks of all different sizes and shapes, each representing a wrong that had been done to me and something that had been stolen from me. Something to forgive.

Just like the rocks in that jar, I needed to start by disposing of the little pebbles that filled the gaps around, under and over the larger rocks. I then needed to grieve them. Put actions in place to prevent them happening again. Then take some more little pebbles. They could represent lost friendships and family, or increased responsibility. I could crush them, skim them into a lake, feel them, grind them, decorate them or make use of them in the garden. Grieve them. Put protections in place. Let them go. Walk away.

The pressure of ‘just forgiving’ was the equivalent of arranging a truck to scoop up the enormous load of rocks and drop them all into the ocean in one, simple movement. Be done with them. Quickly. Forever. Forget they existed. The danger of that process was they could land on me, trip me and control me. I could even be tempted to pick them up and hurl them to cause harm or damage, as an act of retribution.

A sudden deposition might make others around me feel better about the situation, but it would leave me empty and with limited potential at overcoming the pain.

I was unable to do this because I didn’t know what that pile consisted of. What layers, shapes, pieces and materials formed it to make the load so large and heavy? The boulders of betrayal and abandonment would be there a while, maybe forever. It might be simply enough to just look at them, or acknowledge they existed at all. Maybe chisel off a few edges. Sand back a few surfaces. Feel the texture and the weight. Reduce them to smaller pebbles with a hammer. Put them back in the jar. God could mind them until I was ready to deal with them again.

Forgiveness is not an end result. It is a continuous process; one which acknowledgement of the wrong that has occurred, grief and time plays a large role in the success of it.

Ecclesiastes describes this concept as there being a ‘time for everything’, especially in verse 5, there is “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”.

In this chapter of the bible there is permission for people to take time with the seasons of life. God does not give our healing an expiry date. He is patient, loving and kind. He understands how painful grief is and would not look down on us for mindfully and spiritually processing our pain.

To those of you who have suffered greatly as a result of the choices of others, allow yourself space to grieve and heal as you feel able. Forgiveness should not be controlled by the expectations of others and does not reflect the strength of your faith. As long as you are moving along the road of forgiveness with God in a forwards direction of some sort, that is all that matters.

The jar of rocks is yours and God will willingly help with that burden as you need Him to.