Every now and again, I have the pleasure of reading the words of Adria Murphy, a friend from high school homeschool speech and debate days. Adria is a special education teacher and blogs at The Still Point. She is also one of the sweetest, kindest souls I know. Yesterday she wrote a post called “Where Did I Go?” It’s about her journey to find a church she could call “home.” Her openness and vulnerability moved me, and she gave me permission to share her story here.
There are now two churches asking me questions I don’t want to answer. After attending one evangelical church for six years, I left. A year later, I came back. In between, I attended an Orthodox church.
My reasons for these changes are not completely logically defensible.
I can’t even give a very insightful answer, yet. I know I haven’t completely understood my own actions, because every time I give an account for myself, my story changes a little. However, I feel I owe some kind of explanation to a lot of people. A blog post is a mightily convenient way of explaining something to a large audience, but it might also be a cowardly way. I’ve been afraid of having face-to-face conversations with people who know more than I do, and I admit to avoiding some of those encounters. So I hope anyone reading this will allow me to be what I am, for the moment: a slightly baffled, frail human being attempting to make sense of herself and God and her community, trying to be honest, trying to fight the temptation to hide.
Allow me to be this. Help me to be better.
My first Sunday as a Freshman at Biola, I asked someone to tell me where to find a good church close to campus. I was told to go to Grace EV Free. I didn’t have a car, and I knew some friends went there, so I did, too. I continued attending Grace throughout college and my first two and a half-ish years after graduation.
While at Biola, however, I wrestled with my Protestant upbringing and theology. In high school, nearly all my favorite authors had all been Catholic or Anglican. I was compelled by Sacramental theology. I was blessed by reverent and glorious traditions of church art and music. I longed for more emphasis on spiritual disciplines, more metaphor, more rootedness, more historical awareness, more saints, more tradition, more corporate participation in church services, more more.
But I stayed at Grace.
When my friends, who knew my theological and aesthetic leanings would ask me, “You go to an evangelical church? Aren’t you Anglican or something?” I would say, “I would be, but I love Grace.” Besides, there were people at Grace who loved art and church history (even pre-Reformation church history). Grace renewed my hope in Protestantism. I loved the teaching. I trusted the people.
After graduation, a lot of things happened. My parents got divorced. I got depressed. My community got small. And I started reading a lot of books about Orthodoxy. When I was out of town and unable to attend Grace, I attended Orthodox churches. The books I read and the people I talked to seemed to have the same complaints that I had against Protestantism, and they also seemed to have all of the answers. They had all of the “mores” I wanted. There also seemed to be a stronger emphasis—perhaps a deeper understanding—of spiritual struggle and darkness.
I read ancient saints who told me, “This absence of God you’re feeling is normal. We’ve all been there. It’s okay. Here’s what you should do….”
Aside from the theological reasons to lean towards Orthodoxy, I was getting very burnt out. Being involved in my community and teaching Sunday school, while juggling an overly committed schedule and fighting an almost overpowering world of inner darkness, left me wanting to run away. My roommate had to pull me out of bed on Sundays. I cried on the way to church. I was late a lot. I always tried to be transparent with my Grace Group but the truth is: perhaps I needed more help than I knew how to ask for.
So, when a new job caused me to move farther away from Grace, I began to entertain the idea of attending an Orthodox church—just to see. My breaking point came one Sunday when I was feeling particularly isolated and depressed. When the service ended, some friends asked me how I was doing.
“What if I never feel God’s presence or hear Him ever again?” I asked. “What if the darkness doesn’t break?”
The answers I received grated on me: “God has good plans for you,” “Things will get better at some point… they have to….”
What I wanted to hear was what I heard the saints saying in my Orthodox books.
I wanted to hear, “This absence of God you’re feeling is normal. We’ve all been there. It’s okay….”
I wanted to hear that some saints were martyred and some were depressed, but they lived for a better country beyond the present darkness of their lives. I wanted reassurance that I was not alone. And I knew—I knew—I was among people who believed these things, who had experienced more hardships than me with faith and grace. I knew it. And I also knew that God did have good plans for me. But at that moment, I didn’t hear it and couldn’t see it. I thought, “My theological questions and my darkness don’t fit here.”
I wrote my Grace Group a letter explaining my theological issues (though not my emotional or relational ones), and I left. Not in that order.
I attended St. Barnabas for almost a year. During that time, I learned a lot. And some things got better. I found a lot of the “mores” I was searching for. I found answers to my questions, space for my darkness, overwhelming beauty, historical roots, new friends. In many ways, I “fit in” better.
Some things, however, didn’t change. I had new theological questions. My longsuffering roommate still had to pull me out of bed on Sunday mornings.
I still cried on the way to church a lot.
As Pascha approached and many fellow catechumens began making decisions to get baptized or chrismated in the Orthodox church, I found I wasn’t ready. Neither was I willing, however, to spend another year in limbo between Orthodoxy and Protestantism—another year unable to take Communion or truly be a member of the church. I was beginning to see some very troubling effects of this in-between state. I was struggling with more sin. Good friends caught me making statements revealing my unconscious doubt of God’s goodness and love when I should have theologically known better. If I couldn’t become Orthodox but couldn’t remain in limbo, I sensed some kind of spiritual triage had to occur. Something had to change.
I woke up one Sunday and, almost without premeditation, drove to Grace. I remember crying (per usual) on the way to church, scared had not gained spiritual insight into the “right church” after a year of constant questioning, scared because I wanted to clearly know what church God wanted me to attend and I had no clarity. As I pulled into the parking lot, I remember praying in exasperation, “I’m done, God. I’m done criticizing worship services. I’m done trying to find the ‘right church.’ I’m done wondering if I’m going to lose my salvation if I get it wrong. I’m tired, and I just want You. I hope You can find me here, because I don’t know where to go anymore.”
Looking back, I have a lot of theological problems with my prayer. It was terribly individualistic, and seems to imply that I stopped caring about important theological questions. I care so much. However, it was a turning point. Perhaps there was a grain of grace even in my willingness to pray a flawed prayer, and (finally) trust that God would understand my heart. I also realized in that moment that I had been seeking a church for the sake of getting my needs met, and being theologically correct (not completely out of pride, I think, but out of a genuine love of truth, and out of fear that I’d somehow miss God if I got it wrong). Instead, I began seeking a church secondarily to seeking a relationship with and worshiping God.
I don’t remember the particular text of the sermon that day, but I remember the speaker dealt with suffering and endurance and struggle. I remember wondering, “Whatever made me thing I was so different, such a misfit, here? What made me think I had to hide?”
One Sunday at a time, I found myself slipping shyly (and still usually late) into Grace. I desperately needed community and Communion. I started attending my Grace group again—unable to articulate the reasons for my absence or return, but deeply grateful that they welcomed me back.
Where did I go? I went there and back again.
I had questions and I went away. I carried my questions with me. I came back with more questions. I left to solve my problems. I came back when I figured out I was the problem.
I still cry on my way to church a lot. I still fight the belief that I am the worst sinner and misfit in the sanctuary. I still love Orthodoxy. I still feel alone. In some ways, a year changed nothing. It did show me, however, that my problems will follow me, no matter what church I attend. Picking the ‘right church’—however important that is—won’t transform me into the ‘right Christian.’
I am learning to sit in services with my darkness and theological problems. And to sit. And to stay. T.S. Eliot says, Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.” This is what I am trying to learn. I am learning to let go of my criticisms and allow myself to be taught. I am learning to search, but also to be charitable and (I hate this) to wait. I am learning that you can’t find Home if you keep running around looking for it. Sometimes, you have to make a place Home by staying there, even if it’s not perfect. I am learning to trust that God is pursuing me, and that my salvation isn’t called into question every time my foot slips.
This is not a complete story. This is a story I am still learning to tell. But, this is where I went.
This is where I am.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one. ~ T.S. Eliot