I wasn’t ever going to write this and share it, but as I mulled over this coming lent I thought about all of the little quotes and verses, prayers and voices which had fed into this journey for us last year, and I felt drawn to share some of the journey with you friends. Not to show off, not to pretend to have any answers at all, but hopefully to help anyone else struggling with Church and gathering their thoughts in preparation for this lent.
You may not be Christian or a Church Goer. Maybe you were once Christened, but don’t regard your self as ‘Religious’? Or you may be a steady ‘Church Goer’, deeply involved in your church community. Lent may not mean a lot to you, or it may just be something you do every year because you always have. It might symbolise something negative for you in the form of a resented discipline, or another job to do.
I am (for my sins) a great lover of Lent. Not because I am super-holy or come from a certain background, but because it reminds me to look afresh at myself, my people, my world and most of all, my Lord in the midst of a hectic and busy life. Which I think we could all do with every now and then, no matter what our background or faith is. After all, we all end up ‘serving somebody’ as Van Morrison says.
So you might be surprised to hear that last lent, when my husband and I chatted briefly about our plans over some manic family drama (the exact scenario escapes me now), we both felt drawn to ‘give up church’. I know, controversial! Yikes. I may upset a few of you here, so hold on to your seats.
A quick Wikipedia search calls Lent: “A solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later, before Easter Sunday.” I’m not sure that this really does it any justice. Lent for me has always (rightly or wrongly) been a time of expectant waiting, preparing for Easter (hence it’s timing). All the trappings and traditions are supposed to be a part of this. Preparing your heart for the ‘big reveal’ of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Day. I love it, not because i’m ‘religious‘ but because every year it feels increasingly exciting all over again. A little like the Advent build up to Christmas Day, but better because of the weight which is lifted off us in the Easter Sunday celebration of the resurrection and carrying away of our sins.
Last year, as we built up to Lent our hearts were solemn. A little lost really. We had had a bit of a crap year in 2015 and had few friends we felt we could share it honestly with. Our sons’ Autism diagnosis was dragging on; we were drifting in an unknown area; were we or weren’t we now parents of an Autist? If so, did anyone care and would we get any help in this austerity crisis? If not then what on earth would we do next? Neither of our kids were sleeping. Were we destined to a life of sleep deprivation? My husband had undergone a pretty nasty throat op which had left him bed bound for weeks, off his face on morphine. His shifts felt like they were just slowly killing us. Utterly exhausting, taking over our lives. We were like passing ships in the night when he was working, and when not, we were too tired to communicate. He really hated the role he was in, but was just not having much professional success elsewhere. Knocking at every professional metaphorical ‘door’ (as Christians say) but with no answers. Was it finally time for him to leave his job? And if so, what on earth would he do then? An old friend had recently died and our hearts were heavy with the sorrow of it all. I was in a terribly insecure place (for too many reasons to outline here). I hated approaching the school gate and fighting with stretched, worn out teaching staff and SENCos for my sons needs, which I didn’t even fully understand myself. We were struggling with our fundamental identity as a family and our belonging like never before. Isolated, exhausted and burnt out, we stumbled on.
And to top it all off, the one place we thought ‘had our backs’, our church community, suddenly shifted, as things tend to when you’re hoping they wont. A big shake up was announced. They were rethinking everything, anything was up for grabs. To the credit of the leadership, the intention was utterly God centered, and made so much sense. We served the local unchurched young people, but we were loosing our relevance in the service which we ran for them, maybe we needed to be with them more? We needed to really rethink it all, it made sense. But the timing couldn’t have felt worse for our little family unit; we needed to show up each week to register our belonging to this church family didn’t we? Otherwise where did we belong? Who did we belong to? These were our people, right?
Suddenly friends were split on opinions, personal alliances formed, service times and structured changed, creche was dissolving (there were only 3 of us anyway in a super overstretched church and most of us were unsure if we would make it for a rota each week). Going to church alone with two kids while my husband was at work was just leaving my heart angry and exhausted. The kids hated it. Honestly, I hated the process of it. I was going with gritted teeth, after tantrums, tears and kids skipping naps. I couldn’t worship anymore because I was either chasing the kids alone or too frustrated at how hard the whole process of getting there had been. My heart was just not able to be there. Even if my body, my kids, the pushchair and all our mayhem was very definitely there.
Don’t get me wrong, I was sold out for our church and had been for 10 years. I would need to be pulled out kicking and screaming, I was not leaving quietly, and certainly not over something as ridiculous as a service timing. It was our place, our people. Friends who shared our heart for young people, community, tolerance and inclusiveness in a divided wider church… you know the type of place. There was amazing teaching that stuck in my heart for days, thoughtful, mindful people. Imperfect but great people. Young people who were sold out for Jesus. Kids ready and open to learn and decide for themselves. But in sticking around and trying to muddle through, we got bitter and cross. Resentful and jealous. Frustrated and whiny. We lost the ability to make our thoughts heard in any positive or constructive way and it started to eat away at us and our friendships. We couldn’t imagine ourselves anywhere else, starting over again, and I (in particular) was ready for a fist fight. It wasn’t sustainable. Something had to change but we couldn’t handle the thought of moving churches right now, with everything in our hearts still in such a mess. We didn’t feel called away and we had lost sight of the wood for the trees.
So I started to back out of everything. Not as a reaction, or running away, but seeing what happened to the conversation if I stepped out and listened more. I saw it was better for everyone. And it hit us. We needed a break from Church. Not from God, but from Church. Not forever, but for now. For everyone’s sake as much as our own. We told our friends we were giving up church till Easter. No long term decisions, just enough time to think about other things. Move the focus. It was such a discipline, but instantly the weight lifted. When conversation turned to church politics in each others homes, we quietly left or held our tongue. It was much harder than giving up chocolate or wine has ever been, trust me. I practiced mindfulness techniques to notice how much of my worry was engrossed by it. I practiced intentionally moving my thinking away from it. There was no way I alone was going to solve this problem with worry or thought, and it had completely shifted the focus on the one we were actually supposed to go to church for; Him.
I don’t go to church to worship my friends, my family, our community or even our awesome church leader and his wife (who inspire me like no other ever have). I don’t go there to worship the Church of England, Justin Welby (although I am a big fan) or even the act of Church Belonging. I go to corporately worship a being so much greater than any of that or myself (among other things). As soon as it becomes about something else, you have lost the point.
A wise friend gave me this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke. She was unaware of our struggles with Church, but it was very fitting;
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
So we waited, we trusted, and we started practising the Sabbath. Oh my word, what a change. Sunday became something new. We rested, had time together, read the bible together, listened to sermons and chatted about them. We had slow, intentional, thoughtful meal times together without the rush of church. My husband wasn’t rushing to a worship practice mid lunch every Sunday he had off. I wasn’t trudging along on my own to watch him from the back with grumpy kids. I cuddled the kids on the sofa more on the Sundays Andy was working, left the house work. We made time to talk with the kids, have long kids bath times or slow bedtimes on Sundays. We went for lunch with friends who had gone to church already and talked about how they were. We saw more of our extended family and hosted friends we couldn’t normally see on Sundays because of church. We traveled far some weeks to see old dear friends we missed. I read ‘Searching for Sunday’ by the gifted Rachel Held Evans. What a breath of fresh air. We came off facebook groups relating to church. Passed emails by completely and intentionally. Trained each other to talk about other things. Didn’t serve out of guilt or obligation, only in joy when the opportunity arose. Gave it all back to Him, and trusted.
On Easter Sunday my husband was (by some miracle) off work, and we went back to church. I had forgotten how great the Easter Sunday service was. It’s always my favourite. Held in a friends back garden (rain or shine) with wellies and rain macs then followed by an egg hunt and hot cross buns. Spring peeping out of everything with promises of days to come. Nice and early when all the neighbours are still alseep. No keys, drums or electric guitars for once. Just our voices, open expectant hearts, the Holy Spirit and of course that wonderful news shared among friends; He Has Risen.
Our church community is still finding it’s feet with open, expectant hearts. We remain on the edge of conversation intentionally for now, but with much more ready and expectant hearts ourselves. We may leave one day, we may stay another 10 years. We may not know for years. Perhaps we will need to do it all again one day, I really don’t know. It has not made us perfect, it has not changed our lives.
But we have learnt a lot about the importance of practising Sabbath ‘religiously’, the power of our tongues (or typing fingers), the preciousness of church community and the fragility of our relationships, especially when you throw a bunch of normal, diverse, imperfect people into a room and try to make something from it. It is never going to come out perfect, just like us, but it may just make something worth being a part of, if you wait expectantly, strip away what you can and just give it a chance.
Thank you for reading.
I’d love to hear how you have found ways to overcome personal struggle within Church. Have you tried any different way to practice Lent? Maybe its new to you, or you don’t practice it and are quite comfortable with that?