This past December, I left my church of 20 years and my denomination of 50 years. It was a long time coming, and the reasons were many. There was no scandal or trauma; just a gradual awareness that I was no longer comfortable in what had been my faith-home nearly my entire life.
Apparently my decision is part of a larger exodus of generations leaving the church. One google search populates articles analyzing the demographics and reasons many are leaving their church of origin. But, though many of us are leaving at the same time, we are not leaving together. It is a mass exodus of individuals. And it is a lonely exodus. Not only have I lost the community I once had, I found myself without a community to enter. And yet there was one thing I couldn’t leave behind: a Stubborn Faith that refused to be ignored or abandoned.
Certainly for me, deconstruction from evangelicalism became inevitable when the unholy trinity (so called by Rachel Held Evans), religious nationalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, was embraced by the church in the Trump presidency era. To be fair, the pastor of my church was unique in that he did not communicate the political denomination talking points either directly or indirectly. Nonetheless, even an apolitical stance proved to be political, and the divisions in the church were palpable. Some parishioners stayed; others, like me, left.
After the leaving, comes the grieving. But then what? The thing is, I’ve always been a church girl at heart. Sunday School, youth group, study groups, coffee and bagel fellowship, nursery duty, and just sitting next to my parents in my “assigned pew” every Sunday: these aspects have been markers of my identity.
The pandemic lockdown conveniently granted a sabbatical that delayed the inevitably final, sad, yet amicable, meeting with my pastor. Even in our last prayer together, he had the grace to pray that my leaving would “give space for my faith to grow.” He must have recognized that Stubborn Faith as well. Leaving did give me the opportunity to expand my church experience. I sampled a few streamed services that I never would have been able to visit pre-Zoom era. Unfortunately, the communal experience did not translate through the internet. I could sense the spirit, but not share in it. I walked out again; this time, literally.
My new church was what my son and I called Beach Church. I became a “blue domer,” a term traced to 19th century Romantic poet Percey Shelley that evolved to refer to those who eschewed church to worship in nature, under the “blue dome” of the sky. Just two miles from my Jersey Shore home was a sanctuary where seagulls sang in the choir, the ocean preached the sermon, and the sun’s warmth blessed me with divine love. Here I was, worshipping in God’s original temple of creation with fellow parishioners like Emily Dickinson, whose poetry, written in hymn meter, can be sung to the tune of Amazing Grace:
“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.”
I developed my own Lectio Divina, a daily spiritual practice of reading, prayer meditation, and journaling. The daily meditations of Father Richard Rohr helped to reframe the myopic indoctrination I was detaching from. I studied under contemporary mystics Cynthia Bourgeault and James Finley through online education at Center Action and Contemplation. I adapted ancient gnostic practices of Mary Magdalene and Teresa of Avila. I practiced breath prayer with the mantra “Be still and know that I am God.” Wherever my worship took place, and whatever it looked like, Psalm 46:10 became the through-line prayer of my Stubborn Faith.
I discovered new voices of faith who all pastored me through the global pandemic lockdown and my own private quarantine from evangelical toxic theology. These prophets and teachers and poets and healers ushered me out of the confines of a sharply defined dogmatic God into the wilderness of the expansive divine love of the Holy Spirit. Many of these voices spoke at Evolving Faith, a conference that centers “the wilderness” as its faith metaphor. Sarah Bessey, Jeff Chu, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Jen Hatmaker, Tanya Marlow, Kate Bowler, Barbara Brown Taylor, and others are central to this experience. The globally mandated and self regulated exile became a freedom walk into what turned out to be a rather populated wilderness.
I fortified my InstaGram feed with the cerebral faith art of Scott Erickson and the satiric comics of David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor (and own pieces of both). I joined the Live Kitchen Table Talk of activist Lisa Sharon Harper on Friday nights. I contemplated the meditations of Laura Jean Truman and Sarah Bessey. I discovered the unbridled feminist voice of Julianna Zobrist who invited voices of female deconstruction to share on her feed. When I heard Jules read my story, it was a “welcome to the wilderness” moment for me. And just for down-home levity, I listened to Travis Howard’s Sunday Songs and Stories. I’m not even a country music lover, but Travis converted me every Sunday at noon with his blend of hymns, popular songs, and gosh darn charm.
I discovered podcasts that embraced the full imagination, intelligence, and soul of faith such as Richard Rohr’s Another Name for Everything and Brian McLaren and Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis’ Learning How to See, Tony Caldwell and Audrey Assad’s Jungian approach to faith Archetypal, and Michael Gungor’s The Liturgists. The Liturgists, is not only a podcast, but a community which has recently shifted focus from deconstruction to reconstruction. Gungor has articulated a vision that reimagines the church without abandoning the church. Season 7 is worth a listen and something to keep an eye on.
I discovered the world of true faith social justice activism in the work of Red Letter Christians and others like Freedom Road. These organizations, as well as local charities, gave me a place to redirect my tithe money. When I saw Shane Claiborne and his crew protesting federal executions in below freezing weather broadcasting live from Terre Haute, Indiana, I knew this community which embodied Christ-like passion for justice and was worth my financial support.
In the recent Red Letter Christians book club interview, Kristin Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, suggested we may be at the end of institutional faith and at the beginning of individual faith. Her observation that faith isn’t being deconstructed, but rather “the cultural baggage that has corrupted the faith” certainly describes my own experience of faith reconstruction. I have been fortunate to find real connections–okay, fellowship–through several online writing groups with souls who share both my love for the written word and the ability to wrestle with Stubborn Faith. These cannot be hyperlinked for good reason: these fellow wanderers were found through the serendipity of divine guidance. There is no hyperlink shortcut for that.
Of course, all of this didn’t stop me from visiting a local chapel to reconnect with human communion. Like I said, hopeless church girl, here. And it’s nice to hear the human voice unfiltered by technology, the real time hymns, the occasional interruption of a baby’s coo, and the Holy Spirit’s whisper amid the pleasant distractions of stained glass and semi-comfortable pews. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s two blocks from my other sanctuary, Beach Church.
Easter Sunday is a time when many churches become Blue Domers at least once a year, holding sunrise services to honor the resurrection of Christ. But of course, it more profoundly honors Christ’s power to resurrect our own battered, distorted, dogmatic faith. Perhaps “stubborn” is a divine trait that makes resurrection possible. Stubborn Faith is resurrection faith.
Wherever you are–in church, in the process of leaving, or out–it is possible to keep your faith and find your community. I did. It is out there. It just will look and feel a lot different than what you are used to. All you need is the spirit of inquiry championed by Jesus himself:
“Ask, and it shall be given you;
seek, and ye shall find;
knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth;
and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8
Asking, seeking, knocking: This spirit of inquiry is the very character of Stubborn Faith–a faith that helped me discover ancient wisdom, new pastors, provocative artists, and fellow parishioners in online community groups. In short, Stubborn Faith helped me find that church can be found just about anywhere. I just had to leave church, to find out just how big it is.