Christmas is a time that brings truly epic surprises. Who could have guessed that the God of the Universe would be turned away from lodgings? Who would have thought that the first people to encounter Christ would be shepherds? Who would have known that myrrh — the funeral spice — would be a perfect gift for a newborn? Christmas is a time where God changes the story in ways that are both predictable and completely mind-blowing at exactly the same time.
This transition from Advent into the Christmas season has brought some uncharted terrain for us. After doing our best to be church with one particular community for nearly two years, we find ourselves experiencing clear confirmation that it’s time to move on. To clarify, we’re not moving from one Christian tradition to another, but to a different parish. We value our Christian tradition, and we intend on continuing to seek Christ within it until we draw our last breaths. Nevertheless, sometimes one needs to make some changes for one’s spiritual welfare. We’ve had seasons where it has become essential to seek different confessors and attend events at multiple parishes in search of some spiritual balance. Coming to these decisions is difficult for any person. Because we are aware that some of our readers are also struggling to find church homes, we decided to reflect a bit on what we’ve noticed about and in ourselves as God has directed us toward seeking a different parish.
At times, emotions, can be an important indicator that one would benefit from discerning the possibility that God is calling him or her elsewhere. In our case, we had started to notice that sadness set in just about every time we had the opportunity to go to church. We love our Christian tradition and all of the ways it invites us to shape our entire lives around Christ. Yet, we noticed that when we went to services at our parish, we couldn’t move past the sadness and it was becoming overwhelming. We had been regular attendees at our parish for over a year, but the atmosphere was full of (mostly) unspoken awkwardness. The feelings that inspired us to write 10 Things We Wish Our Church Family Knew lingered, and several months later we wrote In Which We Decide to Go to Church. We had experienced occasional hints that the atmosphere could have been changing, but only to see that those breaks in the ice were disappointingly fleeting. As this continued, our sadness shifted towards frustration. We noticed that we were constantly examining and re-examining ourselves to discern what we were doing wrong. Every time we queried ourselves, we arrived at the conclusion that all we wanted was to come to church and pray, and our expectations were entirely reasonable. We wanted to pray, go to coffee hour, and be part of a local church family during good times and bad. But the good almost never came. Our emotional experiences of church moved from sadness to frustration and eventually to anger. We reached a point at which we couldn’t imagine a Sunday with anything but awkwardness.
Especially as Sarah’s health has been steadily declining over the past four months, we’ve found ourselves asking, “Why are we trying so hard to get to church anyway?” Under normal circumstances, we enjoy going to church. We love praying with a community focused on encountering Christ, and we do our best to prepare ourselves to participate fully in the services. However, we started to notice that our Sunday preparations required steeling ourselves emotionally. We never knew what people were going to say or do around us, so we had to be prepared for almost anything. Preparing ourselves for Sunday began drifting more and more into the week, often resulting in high levels of anxiety. Once we started noticing feelings of dread intruding regularly into our Wednesdays and Thursdays, we had to ask “Are we going to church to encounter Christ, or are we enduring an emotional survival course to fulfill our Christian obligation?”
We started to take inventory regarding our spiritual growth, individually and as a couple. When one finds oneself in survival mode, it’s hard to thrive. Lindsey found it difficult to anchor solidly within our Christian tradition, branching out more broadly to other Christian spiritual practices that have been constant in Lindsey’s life. Sarah was able to engage in spiritual practices from within our tradition, but felt alienated from others in our parish community in terms of prayer life. In some ways, it felt as though any spiritual progress we were making was coming from sources apart from attending our regular parish. Chance conversations with friends developed into times for shared prayer. Visiting a different parish on occasion offered an opportunity to relax in an environment where we found ourselves able to pray. Once we began considering all of this with rigorous honesty, it became clear that our experience of spiritual life at the local parish level did not match with our spiritual experiences the other six days of the week.
Eventually, other people from our parish started to approach us to discuss how we were experiencing parish life. Especially within the past couple of months, some have dropped by to see how we are. Sometimes, great conversations happen over casseroles. We’ve been blessed to have two or three families in our lives who are willing to go the extra mile to walk with us. Over the last several months, some of the friends we’ve made at church have been confirming that we did not invent or imagine the concerns we’ve expressed about how we fit into our parish. They have recognized and affirmed that we’ve been trying different things to alleviate the awkwardness, and that it hasn’t been improving.
We’re incredibly blessed to live in an area where we do have other options. Searching for a parish is challenging. We notice different things when we visit a new parish. Our individual spiritualities are quite distinct, and we never know what features will combine to allow a place to feel like a spiritual home. We are aware that a perfect church exists nowhere, and we are not seeking perfection. We’re not looking for a Christian utopia where no one ever experiences hurt, disappointment, sadness, or anger. We do not desire a parish where we can avoid being challenged and never have to face our sins. We just want to be part of a growing, vibrant spiritual community within our Christian tradition that challenges us to grow closer to Christ.
This Christmas season, we’ll be praying for all who are without a church home regardless of circumstances, and especially for those making the difficult step of exploring new Christian communities. We would be grateful for your prayers as well. Blessed Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord to all of you.
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