Because of this church-centered community I've moved into, I have felt some of my old issues with the church cropping up. Mostly feelings of shame, not belonging and guilt.
It just so happened that a few months ago there was an event I wanted to attend one evening at a church here in town. There was going to be a speaker I wanted to hear and so I made plans (begged) for Josh to watch the kids so I could go. The evening came and while I was nervous to be in a church again, I really wanted to hear the speaker, so I forced myself to be brave.
When Josh and I met and began dating during our junior year of high school, my church was against it. It was preached that we (“Christians”) were not supposed to even be close friends with Mormons, let alone date them. And so I received quite a bit of flack for dating Josh, who was raised Mormon. After our first few dates, before we became an official couple, I spent a day at the beach with my family. The timing was perfect as I was trying to figure out just what I was going to do about the predicament I found myself in. So I spent that sunny spring day sitting on a piece of drift wood at my favorite beach, watching the tide come in and out, contemplating what future I wanted. (Very cliche, I know, but true nonetheless.) I prayed, with an open and honest heart for God to reveal His plan to me. The answer was clear. I was meant to be with Josh. He was the one. Once I had the all clear from Him, I had to deal with everyone else. My parents were easy, they liked Josh and completely trusted my judgment. My grandparents were also easy. Grandpa told me that he didn't like the religious animosity that was being preached to me, and Grandma felt that if I had prayed and God had answered, that was good enough for her.
The church, however… well, the church was a different story. What happened with the church is the most painful event of my young life. The church and I tried, I will give us that. I kept attending, stayed involved, but slowly, things changed. I was turned away when I volunteered for vacation bible school, among other things. Things I had done for years. I was no longer called to baby-sit for families I had grown up watching. It was a slow kind of heartbreak. I didn't want to leave, but I knew I couldn't stay. Josh had become a very important part of my life. I managed to continue attending until fall 2001, just after my senior year had ended. We had been together a year and half, and I knew Josh wasn't going anywhere. I had tried, on several occasions, to bring him to the church, to involve him there, where I had grown, and loved, and learned about the Lord. But somehow it always ended disastrously. He didn't feel welcome there. Honestly, by that point, neither did I.
Eventually my mom decided to take things into her own hands. She couldn't believe some of the things they had been teaching us, and decided to confirm with the pastor that this was our church’s stance on Mormons, whom my mom had always admired as moral, upstanding, family-oriented people. I begged her not to go.
She talked to the pastor and said to him, “But Shelly prayed. And God told her yes.”
His response? “Well, that may be. But we told her no.”
And so it was that ten years of memories, adventures & friendship ended, breaking my heart and ruining my ability to trust in organized religion.
I didn't know any of the words.
That was it. I didn't know the worship songs.
And that undid me.
When I attended church (from ages 8 to 18) I always knew all the songs. Worship music was my thing, and my voice was the gift God gave me. So to come and stand in a pew, watching the words flash by on the screen and not know the tune or the next verse, felt like I was in a foreign land instead of at home as I should have felt.
Honestly, I started to get angry. I could have become a worship leader. I could be using my voice for Christ. I could have been a Children's ministry leader, teaching songs about Jesus to children. I could be standing here, singing with the boldest voice among the crowd. And instead, I was fumbling, awkward and nearly crying.
Anger, luckily, is not a feeling I am comfortable with. So I thought, and wrestled with it a bit, and came to the conclusion that being angry is not how I want to feel.
"Bitterness, resentment and anger
have no place in a heart as beautiful as yours."
That is so powerful and so accurate. I couldn't just be sad that I lost people whom I had considered family, I also had to face the fact that our separation was exactly what they sought. TerKeurst follows that truth with this one, "Grace given when it feels least deserved is the only antidote for bitter rot."
So as much as anger and resentment and bitterness tried to well up inside me, I knew, and I've always known, that being bitter is not what will make me feel better. Grace & forgiveness, gratitude for the years we did have together, and a big deep breath are the only things I can offer this situation that will make it palatable.
I have to admit that I have told myself for years that I deserved to be rejected by my old church when really I didn't. Thinking I deserved it made it hurt less than knowing I did nothing wrong. Thankfully God's promise to me is that He will draw near to the one who has had her heart shattered and deliver her from exposed grief to victory. Psalm 34:18
So here I am, sixteen years, two big moves, and four kids later, living in victory with my amazing husband by my side. From these experiences, I've learned there are many ways to serve God and I don't have to attend church to be of value to Him. I can live this life, singing his praises, even if I don't know the words.