"I suppose that since most of our hurts come through relationships, so will our healing, and I know that grace rarely makes sense for those looking in from the outside."
For a while now, my Christian friends have laughed (or cringed) at my response to theological talk. I usually say something like, "I really just don't care - y' all know I'm dead inside."
That response isn't new. When I was serving my very first church as a youth pastor back in 2008, I felt the same way about theological talk. From my experience, religious arguments bear no fruit.
The response isn’t new - and it’s also not true. I'm not actually dead inside. It just seems more comfortable to play dead when church discussions come up rather than to do the deep dive into all the issues I have with the Institution.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I felt the need to step away several years ago. After my suicide attempt, I had to find myself outside the unrealistic expectations of certain church folks. I needed quiet. It was time to stop serving and performing and just get still and listen to the inner voice of Divine Love, which continued to remind me that my story wasn’t over.
I think leaving was a good thing, for a while. But there's been a shift happening lately - and that's scary as hell to admit - so please be patient with me.
About six months ago, I was giving blood. The technician immediately labeled me a pastor. I flatly denied it. You can read the whole story here. The part of the conversation that stuck with me is when she said, "There's plenty of us Agnostics who still need a pastor. Some of us even like Jesus - sounds like you do, too. And if you ask me, you still sound an awful lot like a pastor."
I haven't been able to get that conversation out of my head. And my heart has been doing something weird, too - it feels like it's beginning to bloom again. Like maybe I'm not quite so dead inside, after all.
I've cautiously admitted to a few people lately that, "I miss church work." What the hell is wrong with me?
Let me be clear:
I don’t miss the politics.
I don’t miss the staff meetings.
I don’t miss catering to the whims and opinions of the people who tithe the most.
But as crazy as it sounds, I do miss the community.
I miss the conversations.
I miss the hugs and handshakes and hope and harmony of a Sunday morning.
The thing that bothers me the most about admitting this kind of personal paradox is the fear that I’ll be outed by friends who left for the same reasons.
It’s crazy how easy it is to become the very thing we hate. We hated the country club mentality of the Evangelical church. We railed against the "us" vs. "them" culture. We despised their refusal to accept the relationship between faith and science. For many of us, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the love affair with Donald Trump.
It's crazy how easy it is to become the very thing we hate. via @iamsteveaustin #graceismessy
But instead of standing up and fighting for all the things (and people) we believe in, we left. Rather than using our leverage on the inside and pushing back, by saying this is wrong and let’s fix this, we took our toys and went home.
In the wake of our Exodus, we formed a "Bad Boys Club" of sorts and labeled ourselves #Exvangelical. Sadly, in doing so, it seems we've become no better than the place we left. It's still "us" vs. "them," and all we're doing is smearing our pain and anger on the steeple of the church.
But I want to heal, damn it. I am desperate to heal. (I’m also pretty sure I’m not the only one.)
I'm tired of wallowing in my bitterness, frustration, sadness, and angsty rage. I want to get better! I want to learn from the pain I experienced in the name of God, rather than constantly picking at my scabs. I want to connect with others who are healing, too.
I'm not saying I want to ignore the wounds - that doesn't help anyone. I don't think we should ever sweep dysfunction under the rug. I'm saying I want to face it head-on, to continue to call out toxic theology, to rail against the machine that keeps straight white men in power and views all others as subservient. But what if we do it from the inside?
Is it possible to call out toxic theology, rail against the Christian machine, & embrace diversity - from inside the church? via @iamsteveaustin #graceismessy
Call me crazy, but I want to go to a small group (I might even want to lead one). I want to sing my favorite hymns on a Sunday morning. I want kisses on my cheeks from little old ladies who have loved Jesus longer than I've been alive. I want to laugh at the pastor's cheesy jokes. I want to cringe at the pitchy solo by someone who has no business holding a microphone. I want to try all thirteen varieties of lukewarm mac and cheese at dinner on the grounds. I want to celebrate when parents bring a new baby into the congregation, and I want to cry with the family who has just lost a loved one.
But deeper than the mac and cheese or the kisses or the tired dad jokes - I’m wild enough to believe there can be a community built on honesty, diversity, dignity, and love. I think we can find or form a place where there is no clear distinction between “leaders” and “followers” - where every voice and story matters. Where each person feels seen and heard - even in the dark and difficult times.
I want to try this thing one more time so that I can tell others - with struggles similar to mine - that they can wrestle and question and complain, and still remain.
I'm going to head back to church in coming weeks, fully aware that I may see and hear things I don't agree with. But after a long time away, I'm willing to face those things again, with patience, honesty, and grace. I'm hopeful that I'll receive the very same thing in return.
I haven't always felt this way, but these days, it seems that belonging somewhere (however imperfect the community may be) is better than being lonely. So, I’m trying out church again for the first time. After all, true healing always comes from within, not without.
I wonder if belonging to an imperfect community is still better than being lonely? via @iamsteveaustin #graceismessy
Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.
Growth Begins with Acceptance
Life-Giving Spiritual Practices for Weary Parents
4 Ways Your Church Should Look More Like a Psych Ward
It’s Time for the Church to Confront Mental Health (via USA Today)
Suicide: Let’s Talk about It (podcast)
Suicide Prevention for Pastors
Podcast: When You Feel Like You Can’t Go On
7 Life Lessons from a Suicide Survivor