Graduation and moving and finding a new church
First baby and first home church
Those things I believed then
About special needs and adoption and those things I believed
Moving and community-searching
Being broken meant…
New house, new church… new wounds
New church again and new wounds
Healing (therapy, medication, selfness…)
The new stuff… who am I?
I’m writing about my journey as me. As Rachel. The whole me. The person I expected to be is not who I am. The person I was told to be, I am not. The person I tried to be, is impossible. Who am I? I have always been me, but I don’t stay the same.
I have experienced a lot of growth lately and I’m struggling to understand what it means and who I am now. To get to know myself better, I am using this blog to do a process of deconstruction and reconstruction… or perhaps it’s better to say that I’ve undergone maintenance (deconstruction and reconstruction) and am now doing an inventory and inspection. I need to name and observe my story to see better where I am now. This is for me.
My adult years are so much more complex than my young years. And I’ve wrestled with and “unpacked” them so much more than recent years. I can review my childhood and put experiences in little “boxes” that make sense to me and which help me to understand why I am who I am now. It’s MUCH harder as I write this next chapter. I’ll probably over-generalize and forget important people and events and offend or hurt people in the process. I’ll do my best to be genuine and honest, because in this process, that’s important for me.
I began my story here – explaining how I became a questioner at a young age. I got as far as my marriage to Brian, my best friend and sincere, loving soul.
After a year of marriage, Brian graduated college, we bought a house in a new town, and I became pregnant! Where Brian’s family was seriously risk-averse and lacked confidence in any of our choices, I remember thinking more along the lines of, “Finally, life is getting a move on!” I was excited and alive, Brian had a much better job than we’d had until then, and life was good.
It was good (GOOD) to spend time together with Brian in our own bubble of acceptance and love and mutual respect. It was a season of validation for me, that there wasn’t anything wrong with us, that we could do this adult thing, that I was desirable and beautiful and smart.
I assumed that most mainstream churches were going to be “fine” since none were perfect and most weren’t going to be as problematic as those I’d been to before. We attended a local Calvary Chapel, because they were just minutes from our house, and attempted to get plugged in, both to the community and to the leadership. It fell really flat. I felt like a number and though it was comforting and familiar to worship there, I was never known. I wasn’t rejected, but neither was I accepted. Our attendance became sporadic.
Our first baby was born. I had developed my first close adult relationship (Hi Hollie!) and followed that strong, tired mama to the place where she had recently found community. There was nobody at Calvary Chapel to tell that we were leaving… and they didn’t have a cry room for those of us with colicky babies, so we just switched. I met my first mama friends! There is something so neat about relationships built from shared experiences. This church had components of many of my earlier churches, but felt so much healthier. Many homeschool families attended, but there was also a private school in the building. Many people had large families, but nobody was expected to “have lots of kids or be less-than.” It was moderately sized, but the pastor took time to learn our names and accepted when we invited him to dinner. This was my first ever and so far my only HOME church. I had my first two babies while there, did short term foster care, and went through our first special needs international adoption process while going there.
There were a lot of things that I believed when I was there. Most of them actively taught at this church. Some I still agree with, but not others. I think many of these beliefs are integral to the conservative white, middle-class Christian’s experience:
Being an involved parent important and valuable
You should nurse your baby discreetly
Being a sincere, church-following parent will reduce the likelihood of your child getting into trouble, turning away from the faith, etc.
Be responsible with your finances and you’ll be okay financially
Be responsible with ______ and you’ll be okay ______
Prayer is powerful
Be diligent with important disciplines
Be intentional about praying for each other
Living a non heterosexual lifestyle is a sin
People who sin by living a non heterosexual lifestyle should experience church discipline, up to and including exclusion from church services and activities
By exclusion, climate change, racism, disability rights, and other progressive social issues are not serious issues
I’m not sure if I can think of more right now. Suffice to say – it was a place where we were supported and welcomed, encouraged and blessed. However, there was very little diversity (of any kind) within the church and I saw struggling people shamed by members of the church for their struggles and little acceptance of anybody who could not hack the expected behaviors and lifestyles. Mental health struggles, chronic illness, and poverty were thing that we should be able to rise above. Our children should be able to sit politely with us in church if we wanted. They should be able to participate in Sunday School. It was and still is a beautiful church family… but I don’t know that my family today would be welcome there.
Let me move on and get back to my story about ME.
Brian and I decided early on to pursue “social justice” in the form of adoption. We provided foster care briefly for several short placements. We went through trainings that opened our eyes to the reality of much deeper social needs than we ever expected to be a part of our lives. And then we decided to pursue adoption.
At one point, we considered adopting a little boy whose file showed a severely neglected little boy in Bulgaria…. only 10 or 15 pounds at five years old. We brought his file into an offered prayer time with elders at church to ask for prayer. This situation was outside of all of our experience and they prayed for us. And… they counseled us to be cautious. They cautioned us about the ramifications on our family to bring somebody so broken into it. They were right, of course. But they were also wrong. At one point, we were asked, “Why don’t you adopt a child that can make more of a difference for the kingdom?” THAT, I was dumbfounded by. Unless dumbfounded means speechless, because I wasn’t and I choked out an admonition that none of us is more or less valuable or important to God!!!
Brian and I spent a lot of time in prayer. And eventually, we were impressed that we should adopt TWO CHILDREN with disability from an orphanage in Bulgaria. It went against everything conservative… it was highly risky. Risky. We could be broken. We could lose the ability to maintain the image of a family who has it together. We would be spending a boat-load of money for just two tiny, broken souls. Inefficient. Not guaranteed. Risky.
And we said yes. They said, “I don’t think it’s wise, but we’ll support you.” We felt loved. I have no advice for anybody considering stepping into risky, scary, life-altering, possibly catastrophic waters except…. suffering and struggling and failure do not mean *wrong.* Serious and never to be done flippantly, but it’s not a-Christian to do hard things. I’m pretty sure most of my Christian heroes lived in the midst of suffering and trial.
Anyway, a week before we flew to Bulgaria, one of our sons-to-be died unexpectedly. Held forever in my heart and never in my arms. The repeated cautions to play it safe felt cold and distant from the love of Jesus when the lack of action caused and continues to cause these children to suffer and die.
A month after our adopted son got home, I became pregnant unexpectedly. And 6ish months after adopting Jordan, while hugely pregnant, we moved over an hour away and lost contact with our church family. We were well beyond over-extended… my son’s special needs meant he was overwhelmed by leaving the house or any changes whatsoever to his routine among other things. We planned to find a church and a supportive community near our new home.
Brian had a huge relief in terms of work stress because of the move and our homeowner stress was also reduced by renting. We had two 2-year-olds and a 5-year old and I was due to give birth any day. Finding a rental and moving homes was very challenging and we arrived totally spent. I was struggling with depression, but didn’t know that’s what it was. I was still trying to do the things that I expected of myself as a homemaker, mother, wife, and citizen. I put out a lot of effort (for years) to develop relationships with local church communities. Brian’s parents were more supportive than early in our marriage… but not available for practical support. It was around this time that my Dad gained freedom from the Two by Two church and in the spiritual-life-explosion between my parents, they moved to Africa for several years to support some communities there! So yeah, they weren’t available to help either.
Burn-out hit and it hit hard.
Before I talk about burnout… and failures by churches and congregations, it’s important that I acknowledge the gift of love and acceptance by individuals at different times. If I don’t mention you, it’s not because your love wasn’t felt. It’s because the part of my story that I’m digging through today is the hard parts. The broken parts. It’s as much about what things were NOT as much as things that were. Hang in there with me. I’m processing this as I go.
We limped. We started attending one congregation, but we got some weird, unhealthy vibes from some leaders and decided we should try elsewhere. (I question whether that was the right choice, but it’s the choice we made.) We visited SO MANY churches for one or more weeks. When we bought a house a year later, we began attending another church due to proximity and a wish for a local community.
Despite all my efforts, we were terribly isolated. Relationships aren’t built in a day. And I discovered that most churches are neither equipped nor supportive in any manner of families that are struggling. At most, it’s acceptable to talk about that stuff in a small group, but don’t bring your upset into the sanctuary. God’s acceptance of our imperfection was sometimes preached, but only as an excuse for not being able to serve. “You’re not Jesus” the church people would say, “You can’t do it all.” Or, “That’s not my gifting” or “Maybe __ can help you, I’ve heard they have some experience with that.” There were “God bless yous” and “You should ask for help” and “Please take your children out of the service” and when we cried for help, nobody came.
Well, I shouldn’t say nobody. Our pantheist neighbor invited our children to play outside in her yard and kept an eye on them when they were outside and was so kind and supportive, babysitting my kids when I asked. Also, before they left for Uganda, my dad came and helped with the kids when Brian and I were too sick to get out of bed. When I went to the chiropractor, somebody who worked there offered to watch my four babies while I was adjusted. The church we almost became a part of sent us meals when my baby was born, even though we were strangers to them. The atheist mother of a friend of mine came and entertained my “big kids” for a few hours multiple times.
It’s not fair to blame church for our suffering. We chose a really hard road. And it’s not fair to say that we were abandoned by church, because we didn’t have established relationships here in the new town. But we struggled to find those who had patience for our long-term struggles and suffering… or who could interact with us with acceptance. Very rarely did we find practical support. Often, we had church leaders and members deliberately push us away. Often, we were a desired body to sit in the pews, but not somebody who was desired to develop a relationship with or relate with outside of Sunday morning. We learned that it was expected for us to handle our own issues without support or even compassion from the institution that prides itself as being the “hospital for sinners.”
Struggles and suffering became as much a part of my life as success and triumph. And success and triumph began to look different to me. And patience (with people and with experiences) developed in me. And compassion became stronger in me. And many doctrines of the Bible and of faith and of how church should look and behave was stripped down and then stripped down again. What things I put on the list of essential doctrine became fewer and fewer and fewer.
And God. What happened with God? He seemed silent. Quiet. Absent, even. Somewhere in the suffering, faith became an exercise of leaning on truths that God is good and God exists and God loves me. And there have been regular cries to Him of, “I trusted you and I took a leap of faith…. I trust that you’ll catch me before I hit the ground!”
Jesus, take the wheel. This is getting so hard to think through.
To be continued…