Church Hunting (2): My Story

In the second year of our marriage, we lived on the outskirts of Shanghai, in a small, factory town of half-a-million.

On Sundays, we took a rickshaw to the town’s Three Self Church– the one that is owned and monitored by the Chinese government. The only one that we were allowed to attend.

From the balcony, we listened politely to songs we did not understand, and then we sat, and the sermon was all unfamiliar sounds and tones. We were separate from it: the language, the traditions. Our foreignness was barrier that kept us watching from above.

After service, old Chinese church ladies handed us doughy, warm bread, and I think they knew. I think they meant it to feel in our hands like Bread of Life, like communion. I bravely tasted a few bites but couldn’t eat much more than that, and it got thrown away in time.

Eventually, the twelve of us American teachers began to hold our own church services in the upper room of the Chinese church. The president of our school joined us, and if we didn’t sing all the verses in the hymns, he’d shake his head, stand up and give a speech, and then make us do it again.

I spent a lot of time in those days looking out the window. Aching. Longing.

When we came home at the end of that year, I thought that this kind of sadness could be simply shaken off like water. Here there were so many churches. We could choose any one of them and hear our own familiar language brushing against the things of God.

And yet, loneliness creates its own kind of barrier inside of you. In China, I had turned a little colder. I’d curled up tight around my own inexplicable pain and alienation. It would still be over a year before we called it Depression with a capital “D” and began to lean into it.

We, all of us, search, hunt, visit, leave. We make our spreadsheets, and all the while, we carry our own pain, our own expectations. Our deep needs masquerade as shallow things like music preferences and programs and “how things feel” at a particular church.

Some of us even dive headfirst into a church experience, looking for belonging and life.  This is what Andrew and I did…barely at one church a week before volunteering for Jr. High Youth Group and relay races and ice-cream sundaes, assembly-line style.

We’d barely heard the first whisperings of a House Church, and we were In It, bringing casseroles on Sunday nights for potluck. We were helping one member move, helping another run a crepe stand at an art fair, calling them our family.

I hauled my broken self faithfully to ever gathering, just as I had done in high school. I wanted them to say the things that would make me feel whole. I wanted them to see that I was hurting, to sit with me and let me talk through the sadness until I had rendered it powerless.

But they were only people. Church people, with their own issues, hangups, busyness, lives. We look at each other, all of us, and we don’t always see.

And even if they had, even if they’d done it right, I understand now what I didn’t then: a church cannot fix me. That glowy, beautiful idea of “community,” even if it were everything I had imagined it to be, could not have done it. I was broken, shattered, and even if they’d tried, all the king’s horses, all the king’s men, they could not have put me together again.

It is God, only and always. It is Christ, not other Christians, who takes our broken pieces into his own skin and absorbs them so that we can be made whole.

God didn’t give me the church I thought that I needed, but he led me to a wonderful therapist named Sarah and to the medicine I needed to realign the neurotransmitters.

There were people, both Christians and not, who came at the right moment and said the true thing, and I could hear his voice through theirs, kind and quiet. There was a long evening walk with the new dog, and the sky was cold, and he came closer. And all those little pieces added up, one by one, to Enough.

There are so many churches, and we pass through on any given Sunday. We engage, or we don’t. We give it time, or we don’t.

We look for God in all the usual places, when all the time he is at the edge of our peripheral vision, working, loving, whispering. Spinning our pain into gold.

23 thoughts on “Church Hunting (2): My Story

  1. So beautifully written – many of these thought resonate with me.

    <3 It is God, only and always. It is Christ, not other Christians, who takes our broken pieces into his own skin and absorbs them so that we can be made whole.

  2. I sense that this post is more about the realities and ravages of depression than about “church.” And it is an incredibly pertinent issue. I say “issue,” as if it is clinical and theoretical. It isn’t. It’s reality is as widespread as it is kept secret…in squeaky clean, Christian church circles. Pastors and people. Me and you.
    But there is hope, not to be found in the people of the church, but the God of the church. You said…
    “And all those little pieces added up, one by one, to Enough.”
    Enough. When we started our church, we established a foundation on several truths, two of which make your point: 1) God is here, and 2) God is enough.
    Simple, but profound for every moment living.
    Now, could we please stop misdefining “church” and then expecting it to live up to our fabricated definition? The church is people dying with Christ for the sake of people dying without Christ. What the 21st Century, North American, Evangelical church has made us think/believe is “church” does us all an incredible disservice, setting us up for dashed expectations. God has invited us to die a little every day, and in so doing, live!

    1. Obviously the depression informed the “church hunting” for me, but I think that most of us who enter a church are looking for some incarnation of God and for belonging. Whether we recognize it or not, regardless of whether it’s clinical or even nameable, we are all broken in our own way.

      I was so informed and defined by church and by youth group in my formative years that I came to expect church to do something it was never meant to do: fix me, fill me, give me purpose. I love those truths you focus on: God is here, God is enough. Beautiful.

  3. Oh, yet another good one. I’m with you, Addie—I think the church is meant to be a family. And of course it falls short… and there can be an incredible amount of pain in the falling.

    I, too, have experienced that growth of realizing the glowy ideal of community is an idol in its own way, and that the final healer is God. He sometimes uses community to heal… and he sometimes lets us grow closer to him through our feelings of alienation. I loved your line about “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men…” Thanks for finding the right words for these things.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Yes, “there can be an incredible amount of pain in the falling.” I have experienced this pain and don’t want to discredit it for others who have had painful interactions with church, but I am also becoming increasingly aware of how normal it is for us all to hurt one another. Not right, but normal…and God is bigger still.

  4. I couldn’t agree more: “a church cannot fix me….It is God, only and always. It is Christ, not other Christians, who takes our broken pieces into his own skin and absorbs them so that we can be made whole.” But church shopping is critically important because I believe a church can break me (and I mean in a bad way). I also believe a church can be hope and faith for me when I don’t have it myself. I’ve been part of churches that have almost motivated me to quit, to never be involved in a church again. I’ve also been part of churches that were my training wheels when soul-vertigo had me so wobbly I wasn’t sure I could ride straight any more. And they were there to prop me up in a good and healthful way (and I’ve known churches that could crush those wobbling). There were times when I had no hope or faith (significant job loss in an awful economy, child turned drug dealer and user, marriage seeming to crumble, those kinds of things) and they had hope and faith for me. [Side note: I am immensely happy about that. I can’t claim credit or think that it was my hope or faith that led to all things working out well. I can’t tell other people that if they just have enough faith and hope, all things will work out well. I do tell them they need to be part of a sincere and real church community so others can believe and have hope for them when they can’t, and that they can do the same for others]. They kept God after me so that God, through Christ, could take my life, a puzzle bought at the garage sale with pieces missing and invent the missing pieces to make things whole again for me.

    A good ten year old book on the topic. Dave Burchett, When Bad Christians Happen to Good People.

    1. Saw him this week at Festival of Faith and Writing. You totally should have been there. 🙂

  5. I know theology is tiresome, but…
    “Going to church” is at the core of our problems. Let’s never say those words, back to back, again. It only became a reality when the state officially aligned itself with the church and the hierarchy of human pride was created and rooted. Using this language gives us permission to dismiss ourselves from “being the church.” We don’t get to choose our family, they are blood ties…the blood of Jesus.
    As long as “church” is something I can attend or leave, and there are options on every corner, as if church is geography, we will shop, hunt, remain aloof and evaluating, and be disappointed and, worse, a disappointment, every time.
    But if our relationship with believers isn’t questioned or evaluated, and if every believer’s heart and eyes and resources are focused on those yet-to-believe, then we are the children of God, together, with our brokenness as central to it all as is our mission. Afterall, mysteriously, Jesus chose the weak to accomplish His purpose (1 Cor. 1).

    1. Yes, I agree that the phrase “going to church” misses it entirely. All of us belong to each other and to God. We are part of one another. Certainly there are no perfect “churches” only the Church herself, perfect only through the lens of God’s love. And yet, I wonder if there are ways to know and live this in an honest and authentic way, and yet also choose healthy communities for ourselves, places that will help us to become the most loving, least cynical versions of ourselves.

  6. Thank You. I struggle with all this so often, coming back to it no matter what. I want church to be so many things. It feels broken, and so do I.

  7. Honest. Real.

    If we as people commit to those 2 things, the rest will take care of itself. Its inspiring to see you on that journey, thanks Addie.

  8. “Spinning our pain into gold.” Amen, sister.

    Your story is beautiful, Addie. Thanks for sharing the pain and the mess and the redemption.

  9. “God didn’t give me the church I thought that I needed, but he led me to a
    wonderful therapist named Sarah and to the medicine I needed to realign
    the neurotransmitters.” This. THIS is (one part of) why I love you. Because you recognize and say aloud that mental illness IS a thing. Being a Christian doesn’t automatically just “solve” it. Being in a church, reading the Bible, whatever other spiritual activity doesn’t magically take it away.

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top