Still A Church Girl – Linda’s Story
I can still remember the excitement that I felt the first time I went to Sunday school at the local Anglican church. I was six years old and my younger sisters and I were dressed in matching pink knitted sweaters and white box-pleated skirts. No doubt, I was also wearing my black patent leather buckle shoes, as they were my only good shoes and, along with white ankle socks, were the mandatory footwear for any special occasion.
We were going to church with Aunty Marg and Uncle Noel. They were not our actual aunty & uncle but, as was the custom then, every adult who was more than a passing acquaintance was given that honorary title. These two certainly deserved it more than most. They were our next-door neighbours and became a reassuring, daily presence in my life, until I left home as a young adult.
Our relationship was really solidified when, first my father and later my mother, suffered from protracted and debilitating illnesses. This meant that both of my parents spent multiple, extended periods of time in hospital during the early years of my life. Aunty Marg & Uncle Noel stepped into the gap. With very little fanfare, their family embraced ours.
This was the era when doors were rarely locked, backyard fences were meaningless and the village really did raise the child. Their family went to church and so, ours would too.
I clearly recall standing at the door of the church hall, wide-eyed and full of anticipation. The room was filled with children of various ages, all of us dressed in our Sunday best. I had little idea of what to expect but within a few moments I had made my decision; I loved it here. I loved the games, the songs, the stories, the snacks and even the prayer time, although that did take a little longer to get used to. Not all of my sisters shared my enthusiasm but for me it was like coming home. My life, which had been a little topsy-turvy in recent years, began to make sense at Sunday school.
I thrived on the structure, purpose and strong sense of community. As the years passed, church, and the God who lived there, became the filter through which I developed my values and view of the world. Life was not always easy but the faith community that had become my second family provided a safe place for me to take refuge. The people of this community were by no means perfect but they were kind, generous and faithful and that never changed. But, over time, I did.
As I got older, there was a growing and distracting restlessness in me. I loved God and was committed to serving Him in the context of my local church but I also had questions and, even more than that, I had doubts. Not about God – but church culture, structure, guidelines and expectations, that was a whole other story. I had always craved certainty, believing that it would provide the necessary foundation to cope with the curve balls that life kept throwing at me; cancer, infertility, financial and professional disappointments, difficult relationships, more cancer and, perhaps the most damaging of them all, hurt and betrayal from within the church!
But in my quest for certainty I realised I may have sacrificed curiosity and the courage to think for myself.
As the years marched on, I found it harder and harder to command my doubts into submission. It felt like the one place that had offered me stability and safety for much of my life was now suffocating me. I don’t think it was intentional but the community of faith was starting to feel a lot more like a corporation than a family. I am nothing if not loyal but, while some applauded my resilience and reminded me that I was inspiring, on the inside I felt like a hypocrite. My faith was fragile, my confidence shaky. I hid my true feelings and fears inside Christian clichés and spiritual platitudes. I had way more questions than answers and this was unsettling and unwelcome. As a voice of influence within the church, the last thing others wanted from me was any hint of doubt.
But then I began to listen. As I took the time to listen rather than speak, to pause before offering to fix things with my words, to rest in uncertainty rather than rush in with an answer, I realised that what others really wanted from me was what I wanted too. None of us needed another vision statement or rallying cry, what we were looking for was a place where we could be honest with each other and given space to truly grow.
At times, it was tempting to believe that the church was the problem but then I remembered that I am the church, and so are you. If something new was to be discovered, if fresh spaces were to be explored, if awkward questions were going to be asked then it would have to start with people like me, because church is not a them it’s an us.
So I began to stretch. The church experience of my childhood was still my base but no longer my boundary. I realised that my loyalty is not to a liturgy, a leader, an order of service or a denomination, but to knowing Christ and experiencing the fullness of His character and purpose, as He engages with humanity. I am reading books I never dreamed of reading before, listening to speakers whom I may have previously condemned, engaging in debate and discussion that is both uncomfortable and exhilarating and, occasionally, pausing to wonder if my younger self would have even talked to my new, emerging self. Life with God is full of wonderful surprises.
My greatest fear in embarking upon this journey of discovery and deconstruction was that I would no longer have a place to belong, that the community of faith that first embraced me would no longer want me. It’s true that not everyone in my broader church family has celebrated this pilgrimage but that’s okay.
I am discovering that our God, who is infinite in beauty, mystery and diversity, is not threatened by my questions or unsettled by my doubts.
What’s more, in stepping out into the unfamiliar and unexplored, I have discovered that I am far from alone. That, I believe, is one of the greatest gifts of the body of Christ; it is deeper and broader than we realise. Like us, it too has the desire and capacity to stretch and grow in order to bring forth new life.
I am convinced that there is much more to God and His redemptive plan than I have yet experienced and we have not even begun to see His church reach her glorious potential. So, although this journey is uncomfortable and, at times, verges on terrifying, I am committed. My experience and expectation of church may continue to be challenged, but my love for Jesus and all of the messy, complicated and wonderful people who gather in His name grows deeper with each day.
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen.
We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created….
So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.
Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.