Finding the sacred after church hurt
When I was 22, at the same age a lot of young people leave their faith altogether, Good Friday and Easter were my favorite holidays. I hated the commercialization of Christmas (still do). It was my first year living in the “real world” after college, in the enchanting city of Boston. There, I discovered a whole new church world I had never discovered before: Episcopalians.
Episcopalians have a special talent for making things feel holy and sacred, for inspiring awe. They are especially good at this during Holy Week, which is the week leading up to Easter. As a 22-year-old in Chaco sandals and flowy skirts, with a sketch pad and pencils hidden in the backpack that was slung on my back, I crept into Trinity Episcopal Church day after day that week, seeking out a particular feeling.
I craved connection with the divine. I longed to know them and be known.
I longed to have a feeling experience with God after living my whole life in a rules-based religious community: one that claimed grace was the foundation but actually required certain beliefs and behaviors to obtain said grace.
I got those experiences in spades that weekend, and I wrote about those experiences here. I only lived in Boston that one year but I kept seeking out that feeling everywhere else I lived: Boulder, Denver, Indianapolis, rural Ohio. Even long after I had dropped nearly all the beliefs that one might think were prerequisites to seeking out those experiences.
I don’t seek this elusive feeling of touching holiness so much anymore. Maybe it’s an effect of having two kids under three years old. Maybe it’s that I live in a small town where no church has the resources and a theology I feel comfortable with to put on quite an experience as Trinity does. Maybe I’m just getting older, and I don’t care about my very internal, personal spiritual experiences as much anymore when I’m busy running my own business and raising babies.
But I still remember how it felt, and there’s a little ache, a little wistfulness, that still resides in my heart.
It’s especially confusing to hold these feelings as a person who has gone through intense faith deconstruction and holds a lot of complicated feelings toward organized religion, as I’m sure many of you understand.
For many people who have deconstructed and/or lost the faith they once had, major holidays like this can bring up a LOT of complicated feelings. We used to make a big deal out of Easter and Christmastimes, and now we don’t really know what to do with it. Sometimes it feels like I “should” do something, but I do not think I really want to do something. I don’t want to force it. Yet many of us struggle with this void of what once was. We are not yet sure how to make new meaning out of something that we’ve experienced as harmful or what (if any) rituals we might want to replace with what we once had.
A lot of ex-evangelicals end up throwing religion as a whole into the garbage can, never to be seen or heard from again. I totally get that impulse. Honestly, the beliefs I hold are probably pretty similar to anyone who identifies as secular, de-churched, ex-religious, etc. But I constantly walk this line of what I believe (religiously speaking — not much) and what I find meaningful. And whether I can engage in the meaningful without rolling my eyes too much or getting triggered.
Somehow, something in me longs for a good story, for a bigger purpose and connection. I’m not talking about beliefs about God (or not), heaven (or not), or divine purpose (or not). It’s more a feeling I have of how I engage in the world and how I think about my own life. It’s the things that inspire me and spark my soul.
I feel it when the therapy practice that I’ve worked so hard at begins to take flight and clients contact me because they feel that I, in particular, would be a good fit for their needs, and I get the joy of establishing new relationships with people who grant me such privileged access to their inner worlds.
I felt it the other week when the church community I’ve been integrating myself into met at a local store for worship on Sunday as they prepared to sell their building and find a new place to meet. The store has a beautiful mural on the wall with diverse people, a rainbow, and a dove all painted on it. Another wall has enormous windows where the light shone in that morning. I could feel the congregation collectively experience the goodness-of-fit of this place and breathe a sigh of relief at having a new landing pad. It was all I could do to not burst into tears when the store owner, who joined us, commented how healing it was to have a church meeting here in such a manner after experiencing so much church hurt growing up.
Holiness finds us in so many ways.
I haven’t believed in the standard Christian line about what happens on Good Friday for over a decade now. I don’t believe Jesus had to die as a sacrifice for God to forgive humanity. I don’t believe that’s why Jesus was killed. I’m tired of people assuming that believing this is what it means to be a Christian.
I think he was killed because that’s what the System does with people who are different — Others who buck authority. The religious and political systems generally want power and control and will kill — symbolically or literally — those who stand in their way. I believe Jesus knew this would be his fate (not because he was clairvoyant but because he knew the patterns of the system), and he took the risk anyway because he believed in a bigger purpose. People like him know they’re making enemies everywhere they go and that their enemies are threatened by their very existence.
Is there room for a (non)believer like me in a church community?
You don’t have to believe what I do. And trust me, if I could believe differently, I think life would feel easier. But I discovered long ago I can’t just will myself to believe something I don’t.
But what I have discovered is that the pieces of religion that I want to hang on to are not about beliefs. Communities that emphasize “right” beliefs are not ones I can or will make my home in. No, the shreds of religion I want to hang onto are much more about a sense of beauty, connection (to self and to others), community, purpose, values, ethics, and envisioning a better life or a better world. Many times I find these things outside of religion. And sometimes, I find them inside.
And I think that’s okay. It’s a weird place that makes both religious and ex-religious people uncomfortable. Maybe it’s not the best marketing tool, but I’ve found this is how I am true to myself. I would prefer to live authentically than live pretending to be something I’m not. So here I am.
May this day, this weekend, this season, be something meaningful to you — whatever that may look like.