As my small group discussed tonight, one of the questions asked us to talk about a time in our lives when Christ had “restored our soul”.
For me it wasn’t hard to think of the time. I’d just returned from Africa for the first time. The trip had been challenging in so many ways – encountering unimaginable poverty, stretching my comfort zones in ministry, learning to deal with people who I didn’t get along with – so many lessons in such a short time.
As I returned to American culture, I was filled with doubt and confusion and anger. The church I was attending was going through a campaign to raise money to build a new building, and I felt tremendous conflict within my heart as I thought back to worshiping in a burned out truck in the slums of Eastleigh. For a while, I physically couldn’t deal with going to church on Sunday mornings. I couldn’t deal with the masses of people who just didn’t seem to understand the realities of the world as I’d seen it, and who seemed more concerned with their comfortable lifestyles than with helping others. I raged inside when people talked about how God “provides everything everyone needs” – trying to reconcile that with the visions burned in my mind. I wanted those people to go sit in trash piles with starving children and tell them that God was providing everything they needed, or that they should just “have faith”. It seemed to me hypocrisy on a grand scale.
At the same time, I underwent profound spiritual changes. I began to question many of the ideas and beliefs I’d grown up with, and began to wonder about their consistency. I had difficulties reconciling the things I’d grown up with to the things I’d encountered, and didn’t know what to make of any of it. Each answer left me with dozens of new questions, and I began to seriously doubt whether any of it was worth the effort.
It seemed to me that church was about the last place I was going to find the answers I wanted. When I did go, week after week there were sermons that seemed to do nothing but give the same formulaic answers I’d heard for 20 years, never really acknowledging that there was something going on in my head that seemed vastly different from everyone else. Whenever I did talk to people about how I felt, they generally tried to “fix me” by giving me some set of Bible verses I could go read to understand why I was wrong and tell me how I could return to the straight and narrow.
I don’t know how close I was, really, to packing it all up and deciding that it wasn’t worth it. I never reached a point where I decided it was “the last time…”, but I did spend several weeks away, not really certain if I would come back.
As I look back, I’m fairly certain the thing that kept me going was three people – Traci, James, and Kelly – who provided a safe place for me to talk, complain, question, and doubt without fear of judgment or retaliation. Their desire to listen and journey alongside me instead of trying to “fix me” right away proved to be exactly what I needed. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t had that, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be writing this right now.
As we explore what it means to have a relational dynamic within our churches, I think it’s important that we remember to create such safe places. I’m not sure that it’s possible to do that on any kind of large group level, but I hope we can brainstorm effective ways to create a culture that fosters such relationships between people.