Mystery is not the absence of meaning,
but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.
~ Eugene Peterson
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When I was a girl sitting in church pews—a girl still small enough that my feet swung back and forth because they didn’t reach the floor—I learned that God was holy. Being with God meant spending Sunday mornings in a space like no other in my life, with ceilings reaching three stories high, painted blue like the heavens, and walls of stained glass to my left and right. In that space I learned that mystery and rituals matter in equal portion—that Sunday after Sunday we did the known things we could do in hopes of glimpsing the edges of the unknown things shrouded in mystery.
I learned very early on that God is loving and accepting of all, but also that my own potential to sadden him had no bounds. Through unison prayers of confession, I became aware of not only of the many things I could do wrong, but also of the “right” things I left undone. Between the sins of action and those of omission, how could I possibly get through a day unscathed?
The God of my childhood was not a God of fire and wrath, but a God of head-shaking and disappointment. It seemed he was always looking down on me, wishing I had made a different, better choice.
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At high school church camp, I learned the night sky could be the ceiling and the northern Michigan trees the stained glass of a different kind of church. I learned that God could be met anywhere, apart from pastors and acolytes donned in robes, and even apart from my family sitting alongside me in the pew.
I also learned, through the testimonies shared around campfires by leather-jacket-wearing ex-convicts and -addicts, that God’s love is bigger than his disappointment, and that he’s in the business of changing lives, not critiquing them.
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During my senior year of college I sang in a gospel choir at a diverse urban church whose style of worship couldn’t have felt more different from Sunday mornings in the stained-glass church of my youth. In addition to learning the importance of clapping the off-beats, I learned my alto part by listening to the choir director sing it—I learned that God could be found outside of music staffs and key signatures, and beyond written confessions inked on pages at the back of hymnals.
In that place people wept their confessions, which were scripted in their hearts. I also learned that God made people raucous and joyful, and that I could get caught up in that joy for a moment or two, but faking it wasn’t the same as making it. My understanding of God had broadened over the years, but now I could see it was still flat, easy to see right through.
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At a church in St. Louis, a couple of years into my marriage, I learned how God works in the lives of grieving people. We arrived just months after the sudden death of the church’s beloved pastor, and while that could have easily been a reason to leave the church, it became a reason to stay: In that place I first glimpsed an entire church full of people being raw and real in the presence of God.
I saw a broken community of people trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, and trying to hold one another up. They worked out their anger with God over months, not hours, and I learned that God accepts our anger, like a father who lets a grieving child beat upon his chest until, finally exhausted, the struggle becomes an embrace.
* * * * *
But when my own life was falling apart, a handful of years later in another city, my new church presented me with a different God—one who wasn’t there to absorb and then transform my pain, but to deflect it back on me, to multiply it with guilt and regret in order to help me learn the hard, unforgettable way.
In that place, I almost unlearned everything important I had learned about God—the loving and holy mystery that can’t be contained by stained glass, the God of transformative power, who meets us in our raw pain and failures. Instead, I was learning why so many people walk away from it all, as I finally did one bright spring Sunday morning.
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Until one day a few months later, when I walked into a space that felt nothing like a church, with its coffee stains on the carpet and institutional ceiling tiles above. It was in that place—filled with unpredictable, moving, awkward, painful, and joy-filled people and worship—that God taught me about grace, and about all of the learning I have yet to do.
Kristin, I am in the middle of my own struggle with the walls and rules of this faithful church I attend I am here by God’s grace and family circumstances but it doesn’t seem to fit. Leaving feels like an abandonment and staying feels stifling. I pray for the journey God has me on to beat His fruit in my life. Thank you for your honest and thoughtful reflections.
Lilly, this is a very hard place to be: “Leaving feels like an abandonment and staying feels stifling.”
I think we often find ourselves in in-between places for much longer than we’d like, but I also believe we are learning and strengthening in preparation for when it’s time to move on. I pray that you will find peace in the waiting and clarity in the moving. Thank you for reading, and for sharing part of your own journey.
Only reading this in November, but I share the experience and the wonder of it all in that same coffee stained place of worship with God’s people. Really appreciate the way you can put many of my feelings and thoughts into words. Thank you!
Thank you for sharing your story. As someone happily married for 14 years, I realize I am blessed. Recently, I was having a conversation and the women said, “Being divorced is like wearing a scarlet letter D. It would be better to murder someone than get divorced?” Ouch. Why do you think there is such disdain for being divorced in the church?
This is so beautiful and so appreciated. I hadn’t thought about growing up with a head-shaking and disappointed God but, yes, me, too. What I especially love about your patchwork is how you’ve quilted the pieces together with Mercy.
We were at the beach a few months back. At water’s edge having just watched the beautiful sunrise, I did a short, quiet, and deeply personal ceremony releasing something that has been weighing on me for a very long time. There was prayer, there were tears, there was mystery, there was beauty.
My original intention when I finished was to then go to a local church for a morning service. But after I was finished? I knew that I had just been to “church” and that by going to the building up the street (which is beautiful) would undo and cheapen somehow what God and I had just done together.
Debbie, thank you so much for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I love that you wrote “you’ve quilted the pieces together with Mercy.” Sometimes when you’re too close to an experience—or several experiences over time—it’s hard to step back and see the red thread. We need to see our story through the eyes of others. And your own story about your experience communing with God on the beach? Beautiful.
Kristin, this post reminds me of a kaleidoscope… there’s a fractured quality to all these pieces, which is just the truth of most of our experiences of a big thing like ‘church’, but there’s also surprising beauty to see all these scenes set next to each other.
The last three scenes hit me hardest… the “father who lets a grieving child beat upon his chest until, finally exhausted, the struggle becomes an embrace”, then the hard, inflexible church, and finally the coffee-stained sanctuary. It reminded me that the church, when it’s really acting like the Church, is a living, breathing organism; and not rules set inside stone walls.
Oooh, what a lovely metaphor—a kaleidoscope! There are so many aspects of our world, our lives, our hearts, that fit the image of broken pieces that contain potential for beauty. I’m going to be turning that image over in my mind for a while.
“…a God of head-shaking and disappointment.”
Oh, Kristin. You, too? What a deep, important story this is you are sharing with us. It has taken years for me to adjust my vision of God as a stern, punitive father. I’ve always waited for “the other shoe to drop,” when I am content. Walking on eggshells around our Abba is no way to live. (Brennan Manning’s words changed my life.)
Keep on writing your personal narratives. Love and grace to you.
Lisa, I’m sure we aren’t alone, by far! What I can’t quite wrap my head around is how the church (and parents of young kids) can best teach children about God’s love and the utter JOY he takes in us, while ALSO teaching them about how to live in the world—how to make choices that honor God’s creation and respect other people. Even if we affirm children in some kindness they did—that it “pleased God”—there is the unspoken message that other things they do *displease* God. It’s so complicated. I know the church of my childhood was not trying to manipulate me with guilt, at all, yet it still seeps through.
At least the most significant take-away message I learned about God as a child was a very important, positive one: God loves ALL. That was a solid foundation to build a personal faith on, and I’m grateful for it.
So fun to read and recognize your writing KT.
Celebrated Easter on a Florida beach during Spring Break one year – that church had wide walls, loud waves, and jelly fish. It was good.
A church with “wide walls” and “loud waves” sounds pretty amazing. I’m not so sure about the jelly fish, but I guess when you put it all together it’s a wonderful picture of God’s gorgeous and mysterious creation. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading my post!
Beautiful journey Kristin. I love this part: God who is “loving and holy mystery that can’t be contained by stained glass, the God of transformative power, who meets us in our raw pain and failures.” So, so true. Such an evocative image.
Thank you, Ashley. I have to say, I’m very thankful to be able to hold those truths about God in my heart—that they’ve risen above the more difficult parts of my journey.
It’s always fascinating to look back on the journey, and then awe-inspiring to know that there’s still so, so far to go. Thanks for the reminder! 🙂
It was definitely an interesting exercise to look at all of the individual lessons as part of a whole, and to see how they feed into and play off of one another. Here’s to the many experiences and insights to come!