It’s Sunday morning once again. And once again I feel a sense of relief when I open my eyes and realize I don’t have to go to church. And once again I feel a pang of guilt when I realize I won’t be going to church today by choice.
Many well meaning people give me advice each week… “You should come back and visit. We have a new preacher!” “Church members are just people and people make mistakes. You can’t let that hold you back.” “Come on back. Eventually the trouble makers will die off. They won’t be around forever.” “You need to get somewhere. Being unchurched isn’t good.” “Most of the people at church don’t even know what happened [making them innocent bystanders]. Come on back.” “You should watch our church on TV! We have a new young pastor. He’s really good.” “You should read [this or that] book.”
I have a hard time explaining to people where I am spiritually.
After my first two experiences with deception by church leadership, I knew what to expect. I knew that cynicism would be the toughest part of the fallout from this latest episode to overcome. At least that’s how it played out for me the last two times. But, I was wrong. This time I moved past cynicism into a place of repulsion. Repulsion at the sight of the church building, the sight of the sanctuary on the TV broadcast, the ‘church talk’ buzzwords, the committees, the prayer request-veiled gossip, the ‘deacon body’, the programs, the ‘stewardship’ of the offerings, the culture and those who buy into it and the hurtful deceptions hidden behind a façade of unity and godliness.
I wish I could find a way to describe this repulsion to people. I’ve thought a lot about it and this is the best I can do for now:
Let’s say you go to your favorite restaurant on Friday and order your favorite salad topped with grilled salmon. Later you come down with a terrible case of food poisoning. You are ill for several days and it takes a trip to the ER for IV fluids to help you regain your strength. The doctor mentions that you probably got the food poisoning from the mishandling/prep of the fish by the restaurant food staff.
As soon as you are over the initial trauma of the food poisoning, do you want to go right back to that restaurant and eat the salmon salad again? Or do the memories of vomiting every hour override your desire to go back and eat the same meal again? Do you think, “Well, chefs are people and people make mistakes. I’m sure the chef usually washes his hands after using the restroom. I can’t let that one mistake keep me from eating there again this week.”? Do you realize logically that the possibility of it happening again is slim, but still can’t seem to overcome the feeling of nausea when thinking about eating the salad again? What if your friends suggest that you celebrate your birthday or anniversary at that restaurant…after all, they’ve never gotten sick after eating there. What if they suggest that you simply order the salmon salad as a take out meal if you’re having a hard time stomaching the thought of eating it inside the restaurant?
Now, think about what would happen if you had eaten the salmon salad 3 different times over the years and had gotten a case of food poisoning each time. How likely would you be to visit the restaurant again? Even if you realized the likelihood of getting sick again was slim. Even if you realized that chefs and food staff are just people who make mistakes occasionally. Even if you realized that the staff had changed since the last time you visited the restaurant. Even if all your friends thought it was ridiculous that you couldn’t get past the memories of being ill as a result of the food poisoning, and urged you just to go on back to the restaurant where everyone else still felt comfortable eating.
Repulsion. Not repulsion toward God. Repulsion toward all things ‘church’. That’s where I am. Repulsion manifested as physical symptoms that can creep up and hijack my body before I even realize what’s happening. Repulsion brought on by triggers that no one else even notices or thinks are relevant. The sight of the church building, the presence of certain people in a room, bits of conversations, photos, memories. I hope not to stay here forever. But it’s where I am right now and I can’t deny the truth of my situation. I don’t want to go back and get sick again. I don’t want another helping of church for a while…neither dine-in nor carry out. It makes no difference who the chef/pastor or staff happens to be. It doesn’t make me feel any better to know that they make mistakes that make people sick and excuse it because they’re human without acknowledgement or apology.
I wish it were as simple as people make it sound to ‘come on back’. And I wish it were possible for those who desire that for me to understand the depth of the devastation ministers’ families must navigate long after everyone else has moved on and forgotten the parts of the story that were just too uncomfortable to hold on to. For ministers’ families, time inevitably moves on. You learn to function again, you learn a different way to exist and be happy…but, you never get to reclaim that part of your life that was violated and lost. And you must mourn that loss…which takes a while.