I made myself visit a church this past weekend. My kids were staying with my parents Saturday night and I impulsively told my mom that I would try to visit a church Sunday morning if they could keep the boys until after lunch. I immediately hated that I'd said it out loud, thereby committing to it, but sometimes it takes a few seconds of impulsivity for me to push myself into something I’ve been avoiding. I mean, I can't just keep writing and talking about finding a church and not actually do anything about it. That's not how it works.
It really shouldn't be that big of a deal. I've attended church far, far longer in my life than I haven't. Sure, each congregation has its own culture, but I have been to a lot of different churches and the service part is inherently not that difficult if you are able to sit quietly, follow the lead of people around you, and look forward for an hour. It should have been easy for me to go.
But it wasn't.
I arrived a little early and sat in my car in the parking lot, The Lumineers playing through the speakers, talking to God in my head, and reminding myself to be open. That’s when I realized my hands were shaking. What the heck? I know I'm an introvert and sometimes intimidated by crowds, but I'm pretty decent at forcing confidence when I need to. After reflecting on it a few minutes, I concluded it wasn't that I was scared of walking into the building and sitting with people I didn't know, but instead that I am scared of becoming all the things from before that I've worked so hard to unravel and put aside.
I am afraid of acting like I'm okay with things I'm not okay with because I don't want to rock the boat. I’m afraid of defaulting back into the lingo and putting back on the front I’d gotten pretty good at before. I’m afraid that I will feel like I have to hide my heart and my questions and my true voice. And I'm even more terrified that I will follow through on those feelings and hide those things because that is what it feels like to me to be in church.
But I took a deep breath and got out of the car anyway.
I've been thinking about this and trying to write about it all week. Now that I've started to understand some of my biggest fears about going back to church, I have to face those fears and navigate the process in a way that addresses them. I think one thing that is going to help me with this is the realization that I'm not actually looking for a church, I'm listening for a church.
What I'm listening for is a place where people are encouraged to speak with the voice God gave them. We all hear God differently and experience God differently and speak about God differently and this is what give us each our own voice. I want to hear from and learn others in their own voice, even if what they say doesn't sound like what I would say with my voice. As long as what is being said does not go against what we knew from scripture to be true about God, there is a lot to learn from hearing things explained through the experiences and voices of other people. What I am listening for is a church where everyone's voice doesn't sound the same.
I think that when I finally hear in a church that different voices are heard and appreciated, I will know I have found a place where it will be okay for me to speak with my voice instead of through the old filter of what was "acceptable" for me to say or to think. When I find a place where I hear people asking questions, I will know I have found a place where I will be able to ask questions. When I find a place where each person isn't required to speak in the same voice, I will know that I've found a place where I won't have to hide who I am or what I think in order to be part of the community.
So what I really need to do right now is to listen. And listen. And listen. I need to listen so I can learn and understand. And when my listening leads me to ask questions, I need to still be respectful of the traditions and the cultures of the congregations I'm visiting. All of these things are necessary if I want to figure out how to live in a faith community again. I have no idea if what I'm listening for is something I can find in a local church in the traditional sense, or if it will be in some other kind of regular meeting-together-of-people who are trying to work out and live out their faith with each other outside of the church. But I do know that trying to find what I'm listening for involves a lot of paying attention and working to really hear what is going on around me.
I know I need practice listening in a way that helps me learn to form the right kinds of questions that will help me get a true understanding of a church and the people whose voices are heard there. I know I need to learn to reserve judgement, because first impressions can be misleading. I know this listening and keeping an open mind and learning the right way to question isn't something I'm going to know how to do overnight and I will probably make some mistakes along the way. At this point, I am completely overwhelmed, but with a lot of listening, whispered prayers, listening, questions, and listening, I’m going to keep trying.
And I'm going to keep taking deep breaths and making myself get out of the car, even if my hands are shaking.