Middle section, second pew from the front, left side.
That's where my family sat every Sunday morning. It provided easy access to the stage for my pastor dad, who was always positioned closest to the aisle. It gave me a sense of being under the watchful gaze of the whole congregation: significant, but scrutinized.
Sunday church attendance was non-negotiable, though I don't remember the four of us kids ever really putting up a fight. Some of us would actually make the church trek twice on Sundays once our evening service started up. When I moved to Vancouver I immediately found two new churches to attend, later paring it down to one. This eventually led to being hired as a pastor, which obviously only intensified my church involvement.
Two years ago, I could have counted the church-less Sundays of my thirty-year life on my fingers. (Okay, maybe my fingers and toes.) But after Danice and I told our churches we were gay and planned to marry, resulting in the loss of our jobs as pastors... we became church-avoiding heathens.
I didn't want to be seen as a heathen. Coming out as an LGBTQ+ Christian made me feel more scrutinized than I had ever felt as a pastor's kid. In the eyes of many onlookers, I was a walking paradox, an impossibility, destined to eventually abandon either my queerness or my faith. To avoid shame, and for the honor of the whole queer Christian tribe, I wanted to prove them wrong, to be the best gosh-darned gay Christian they'd ever seen.... which would seem to require church-going.
But it was just too emotionally exhausting for Danice and I to keep attending the churches where we had pastored, to witness them continuing on with business as usual after our pastoral roles ended. Walking through those doors brought a confused rush of sadness, anger, self-pity, disappointment, helplessness, failure, and loss. These same emotions could be allergically triggered even by seemingly innocuous things, like hearing a worship song we once loved, or someone's use of a Christian cliche. In our raw condition, the idea of finding a new church (and enduring the awkward small talk and back-pew-sitting) was even more daunting, especially since it carried the risk of further rejection, or becoming the unwitting catalyst for yet another church's argument about “the gays.”
Realizing our quandary, I had this idea to start a house church with our roommates and friends. At first we had every intention of doing this. We took turns cooking elaborate Sunday morning breakfasts for each other, and prayed together from “Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.” But honestly, the prayer part felt forced. After a couple months, we just ate elaborate breakfasts together. By then, people had stopped asking so much about the state of our gay souls. Our transition to so-called heathendom was complete.
It took one year and one cross-country move for me to be ready to seek out church again – I'm now falling in love with a quirky little congregation in Toronto. But during my year of churchlessness, I learned many things.
I learned that listening to and obeying my body when it begs me to remove myself from an unbearably triggering environment is not necessarily the same thing as running away. Choosing to leave can actually provide the space you need to process what you're feeling and to begin to heal, which you may not have been able to do if you had gritted your teeth and stayed.
I learned that it's hard work to distinguish the voice of the Shepherd from competing voices of shame and fear, from the thieves who seek to kill and destroy (John 10), from the nagging guilt of being a backslider. But if you listen carefully, the Shepherd does speak, yes, even outside the church.
I learned to treasure safe people who give you permission to be real, to doubt everything, to be angry at God, and generally not have it all together; and I learned that being the perfect gay Christian is overrated, not to mention impossible.
I learned that taking a break from church can give you the valuable perspective of an outsider, and empathy with others who find themselves outside the church walls. Since Jesus spent most of his ministry outside the temple, this might not be such a bad thing.
I learned that while church participation and other regular spiritual practices can provide good and necessary scaffolding for a life of faith, that same scaffolding can easily become something you lean on, like a crutch - something you use to prove and prop up your faith before others. Time away can strengthen your legs.
I was reminded that the Church is bigger than buildings and congregations. I was reminded that while God loves the Church, and while She's a big part of God's mission in the world, God is also bigger than the Church, and God won't be limited by Her failings in God's efforts to find and love you.
But mostly, I learned that cooking elaborate breakfasts with good friends can be a deliciously effective way to heal and reconnect with God. Especially squash pancakes, with candied pecans, pomegranate seeds, and maple syrup.
So, whether you're LGBTQ+ or not...
if you spent Easter Sunday feeling guilty for not going to church, or if you actually made it to the sanctuary, but had to fake a smile and muster superhuman strength just to sing the alleluias;
if you, or someone you love, has recently been excluded, shamed, or betrayed by church people, or has been the victim of spiritual abuse or back-room church power-plays;
if your faith is deconstructing itself and you're not sure how the pieces will come back together (or whether they'll come together in ways your church will accept);
or if you still love God but you just can't talk to God or God's people right now...
...know that you're not alone, and know that you're okay. Stay open to being surprised by God, and pursue love and healing, no matter where the pursuit leads you.
And if someone you love is experiencing these things, please resist jumping to conclusions, or rushing to defend your God or your church. Ask questions; listen; acknowledge pain. Make an extra effort to hang out and be present - this can be a lonely time. Remember, not all who wander are lost. Some wanderers end up discovering more of God out there than they ever knew possible.