We Left Our Church This Year

In a recent post, I alluded to the fact that this year has been tough. There are so many factors that have been at play in that.

One big one, though, has been a spiritual questioning, an uncertainty.

I became a Christian as a sophomore in college, and I spent the next decade generally feeling pretty at home in evangelical Christianity. Sure, there were some areas about which I wasn’t sure exactly what to think. And there were segments of evangelical Christianity with which I felt I fit more than others. But I fit.

And then came the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. I’d already known that Matt and I were more progressive than many other evangelicals. We voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

But 2015-2016 felt different – in particular because of the rise of Trump and because so many evangelical Christians supported him, seemingly wholeheartedly. He was famously quoted as saying, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” In my mind, it is a problem if your opinion of a person or their fitness for office would not change if you were to be confronted with undeniable evidence that the person was a murderer.

We already knew who Trump was. We had heard how he spoke about women. We had seen him mock a disabled reporter. We knew. But the Access Hollywood tapes were a whole new level – a stark confirmation that Trump really was the lascivious, lewd, disrespectful human being we had believed him to be. I thought maybe the position of evangelical Christians would be swayed by this clear moral failure – and for a moment, it seemed that it might be. Wayne Grudem, the author of Systematic Theology, a book I considered for many years to be second to the Bible in its authority, penned an editorial withdrawing his support for Trump.

But then – just ten days later – he again urged voters to choose Trump.

What do you do when someone you once considered to be virtually infallible in his Christian character and wisdom and understanding makes a choice – and urges others to make a choice – that you find clearly morally repugnant? What do you do when you start to identify more with writers like Shannon Dingle (who wrote an incredibly persuasive editorial about why she, as a pro-life woman, was voting for Hillary Clinton) than with Wayne Grudem? What do you do when the voices that speak to you most begin to be people like Sarah Bessey and Jen Hatmaker? When you actually read some of the writings of Rachel Held Evans – whom you’d always, for some reason, dismissed as a rogue inventor of convenient theology – and find that you actually identify with her and her questions and explorations?

What happens when you learn and understand more about the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals and begin to see how important it is that you do not go along with the church’s high-priority, black-and-white stance on an issue that Jesus never saw fit to address once in the Gospels? What about when you have a daughter with a physical disability and you realize how behind white evangelical Christianity is in prioritizing the lives and access of people with disabilities? What about when you know that her experience – and your experience as her family – at your own church has not always worked for your family and is heading toward another season of not working as well as it should? What happens as you realize that the differences between your own stance on gender roles and your church’s is growing, not shrinking – and on top of that, your three daughters are racing toward adulthood? What about when you begin to think about the ways in which church structure – a topic you’d always considered pretty uninteresting – actually matters a great deal to the ways in which relationships within the church function and the health of those relationships? And what happens when you realize that, within your sphere, there are some questions it would not be okay to ask and some answers it would not be okay to give?

If you are me, you begin to investigate – quietly. You begin to question things that you used to believe were black-and-white certainties. You read books. You talk to people you respect. You realize that there are so many more questions than there are answers. Sometimes you do have answers – but those answers are not always the same as the answers the people you have revered as heroes of the faith believe to be true. And sometimes you come to believe that the questions might stand on their own – with answers to be unknown in perpetuity.

And you realize that you can no longer stand in a place of claiming Truth in all of these matters. You no longer believe that the answers are all black and white and certain. You have been given new glasses, your vision has deepened, and you now see the grays.

There is a discontent in the questions. You miss having the answers. You didn’t mean to trade your answers for questions. You thought you were chasing new answers, and you still hope that someday you will find them, but you realize that for now, you are being asked to sit with the questions.

But there is also a peace. There is a space for the not knowing. There is a space for the investigating. There is time for the paths and the future to unfold. There is freedom in that but also fear. You wonder what the future holds – and you don’t know. You are now conscious of the fact that you cannot see the entirety of the path your life is taking – you never really could, but now you know it.

As you contemplate a separation from your church, you realize that you have spent so long conflating the voice of your church and the voice of God that you are no longer able to distinguish between the two of them. You know that the survival of your heart depends upon your relearning to recognize the voice of God. You feel a little bit like Elijah, standing out in the wilderness, waiting and listening – wondering if the voice of the Lord is going to be in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. You know in your heart that it is not – but you also don’t know whether you will recognize His voice when the low whisper comes. You hope desperately that you will – and you know that you have to try.

And you resign your membership in your church. You cry and you mourn and you grieve. You talk to your therapist. These were your people for 12 years. You served together in ways too numerous to count. You brought your babies home to this church. You have shared your life with these people, and you know that some of those relationships will be altered. You have no desire to walk away from these people. But you no longer feel like you fit in this particular institutional manifestation of the church.

It feels a little bit like becoming untethered. Where you were once firmly stationary, set in your little place in the big world, you are now adrift. You feel more alone, more separate from a group, than you have felt in a long time. Part of you feels free to breathe in that new alone-ness; and part of you feels lonely. You are able to explore much more broadly the world around you. You are now free falling, and oh, my God, it is beautiful! But it is wild and terrifying, as well. You wonder – the God of the universe, that Being whose essence you once foolishly thought could be captured in a theology book, whom you once thought you were close to understanding as well as was humanly possible – will He catch you?

And you hope in the wisdom of the Internet age that you have seen so often before.

You don’t know what this journey forward will look like. But you place one foot in front of the other and you trust that God is still writing your story, and that He is good. Sarah Bessey writes in Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, “When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine” (p. 157). You feel great comfort in that but also great wonder. You wait, listening, for the low whisper, and you wonder what it will say, and what your story will hold.

Access Matters

I’m sorry to have to admit that, for most of my life, I was pretty oblivious to issues of accessibility and disability rights. It took exploring adoption through a special needs program to begin to open my eyes, and it took adopting a child who actually has a medical need that is considered a real disability for me to begin to truly see. And I’m still learning – but I see more than I used to see.

Everywhere we go, everywhere we look, there are barriers to access.

Do I want to go to a park? Do I want to take my kids to play at a playground? Do we want to go to church (did you know that churches are exempt from the ADA?)? Do I want to sign my children up for a group or activity? Do we want to hire a baby-sitter to watch our children? Do we want to take advantage of the childcare advertised as being provided in conjunction with an event?

Because one of the members of our family has a disability, none of those activities are ever straightforward for us. Every single one requires advance planning, maybe scouting out a location, maybe explaining our situation to whoever is in charge.

Even the language that we, as a society, use to talk about disability and access is often awkward. I cringe when I hear the phrase, “wheelchair bound.” Does this look like a child who is “bound” to and restricted by her wheelchair?

I’d argue not. FangFang’s wheelchair is an amazing tool that allows her greater access to the world around her than she would otherwise have. Without it, she would have almost no “social mobility” – the ability to move herself around in public places. At home, she is quite mobile – she can butt-scoot or crawl to get herself almost anywhere, including up and down stairs – but butt-scooting down the aisles of Target isn’t exactly within our social mores. It’s true I could put her in a stroller, but in that situation, I’m pushing her around, and she has no control over where she goes. At four, just like other four-year-olds, she wants to have some freedom to explore her world, and it’s entirely appropriate for her to have that. That is what her wheelchair offers for her.

FangFang knows there are things that other kids her age can do that she can’t. She doesn’t often communicate that it bothers her…but when we find ways to facilitate her participation and her independence, her excitement is palpable. She has been potty trained for months, but because she doesn’t walk independently, and she’s so tiny, she has always relied upon me to assist her in the bathroom, even as she has seen her younger brother use the bathroom on his own. This week she received a custom-made step-stool, a modified version of this one, that allows her to be almost entirely independent in the bathroom. She is beyond thrilled.

It’s true, providing for access is expensive. It’s almost never efficient. But don’t the lives of people with disabilities matter? They’re people, right? My daughter who doesn’t walk independently is still a person, still an image-bearer of the Living God, worthy of respect and dignity, right? And my friend’s daughter, who is deaf? And another friend’s son living with HIV? We, as a society, should not be setting up systems that perpetuate exclusion. None of us benefit from that situation. Right? Do you believe that with me?

I hope you do. But sometimes I wonder. Maybe other people don’t? If they did, would it be this hard?

It breaks my heart that I am going to have to, at some point, teach FangFang to advocate for herself in a world that, in so many ways, is not built for her. I am so thankful for the ways in which we as a country have grown in inclusion – for the ADA, for IDEA, and more. But we still have so far to go. And as hard as the mental back-and-forth is for me, the mother of a child with disabilities (I need more help – I literally cannot do X unless someone else helps me; but who am I to request additional help, beyond what everyone else gets, when I know people already have a lot on their plates; what should I do here?), I am committed to the fight, for my child and for those who come after her; would you like to join me? I don’t want them to have to fight so hard. And I wear my new shirt to remind myself of the future for which I’m fighting.