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Stepping Stones to Grace: There Are No Wasted Church Experiences

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In my last post, I talked about Church XYZ – a church we thought would be our church home, but ended up being a less-than-ideal fit for our family. I think that I knew it wasn’t working long before my husband did.

So now, I have to tell you the story of a church detour we took for a time. A detour that helped to heal our broken hearts – even just a little.

In April of 2013, three days after moving to North Carolina, I took a leap by going to a local MOMS group that someone had invited me to. I knew that it was April, and groups like this would be ending for the summer. I had no friends, knowing no one in our new town but my in-laws. I knew that having a 2 1/2 year old, I would NEED friends to make it through our first summer there.

And so, I jumped. 

For the next year and a half, I faithfully attended MOMS-group-church each Thursday. Every time, embraced just as I was. This weekly outing for my son and I was an oasis as we were able to get OUT OF THE HOUSE and around friends. Surprisingly, Ezra did fairly well in their highly-structured childcare setting.

I desperately wanted this to be our church home, but my husband was not a fan of the idea of a more liberal seeker-sensitive congregation. So we settled in over at Church XYZ, and I tried to be content.

In September of 2014, the issues we were having over at Church XYZ were really starting to be a lot more obvious and unavoidable. My husband was becoming more open to the idea of looking around at other churches. The new “discipleship pastor” at MOMS-group-church spoke in early September, sharing the church’s ongoing vision for discipleship through small groups.

While sitting there drinking my coffee, I started texting Russ. “I really think you would like this guy. He says there are new small groups starting up in a few weeks.

I was really surprised when he asked me to get more information. This discipleship pastor took my email address and told me that he felt like he had the perfect brand-new group for us. That weekend, we went to our first small group meeting.

I’ll never forget the moment when we bowed for prayer around the backyard grill, and the group leader prayed, “God? You rock! You are just so awesome, and we love you so much.”

I was hooked.

The following month, when Russ was fired from his job, our group that had known us not more than six weeks slipped us a check for over $1000. We were in awe. Their generosity served to highlight the deficit of support we were experiencing at Church XYZ.

In October of 2014, while we were still actively attending Church XYZ, I visited MOMS-group-church on a Sunday morning. When I got home, I wrote the following post and saved it as a draft. I had a feeling that eventually, I would post it. I just didn’t know when. Now, it’s time.

October 12, 2014

I’m wearing blue jeans. To church. On a Sunday morning. For the first time ever, I think.

And it’s not that I couldn’t before…at our church. Plenty of other people do it. But I couldn’t. Because I didn’t feel safe.

This feeling, of not feeling safe, has been growing steadily over the last year. I wish I could pinpoint why. Exactly who. Exactly what.

All I know is that it still feels too much like the past. The way the halls smell like 50,000 Sundays worth of old, stale coffee. At first it was comforting because it’s what I had always known. It smelled Baptist, like the halls of the church I walked through on the way to chapel at Christian school. But then, in time, it wasn’t so comforting anymore.

The way the floors creak, the way the pew feels hard on my back and there’s no where to put my feet up…

The way we sing Blessed Be The Name of the Lord and I want to dance or raise my hand, but feel like an invisible straight jacket is holding me still.

It’s not for lack of trying. This place, a compromise for us, seemed to be the answer to years worth of church pain.

There were moments when it felt safe. Like when they hosted Zumba in the fellowship hall and the church women danced to the YMCA. Or when the contemporary Christian radio station brought their van out to VBS and broadcasted from the church parking lot.

But then there were the moments when it didn’t feel safe anymore. When I knew the choir was on camera, and I had to grin and bear it. They wanted people to look happy for the internet live stream, but I wasn’t feeling it. Or when the missionaries got up to speak, and it felt like I was just back in college all over again. Or when I tried to be vulnerable in a women’s group and I came away feeling misunderstood at best – attacked at worst.

Or when our small group – the one we were “hosting” but not leading – got disbanded without anyone discussing it with us, and instead of being incensed, I was relieved. Because even there, in my own living room, I hadn’t felt safe.

But there’s a place across town I feel safe. I felt safe from the moment I walked in after being invited by a near stranger. The way they embraced me into a group for MOMS. The way the coffee wasn’t stale, the topics were fresh, and the smiles were real.

I wanted to visit MOMS-group-church, but Russ wasn’t ready.

So we went to the compromise church because that’s where God led us – as a couple – because it’s not all about me.

Every week in MOMS I looked up to the windows where there was a blue sign in the window…a circle…God does BIG things in small groups. Join in. Get connected.

And I told Russ, but he wasn’t ready. So I waited. And when he was lonely, I would mention it again, but he still wasn’t ready.

Finally, a year and a half later, I’m sitting there again, staring at the sign while the “Discipleship Pastor” shares the church’s vision for small groups. I text him and this time he says that he’s ready for me to get more information. Three days later we are walking into the home of strangers, and when we leave we feel like we have gained friends. He says, “This was awesome,” and I want to say, “I told you so.” But I know that, somehow, God’s timing is perfect. Even in this. Because a year and a half ago, this group wasn’t this group.

And so every Wednesday we go. And while I hate going out at night, I look forward to this. We sit on comfy couches in a warm room, and I tell them that I don’t really pray for people because I have a hard time reconciling intercessory prayer with the sovereignty of God. And they get it. They encourage me.

My vulnerability didn’t come back to bite me. I feel safe.

A month goes by, and I tell him that, because he works this Sunday, I’m going to visit. He says, “Yeah, definitely do that!” and I am surprised.

This morning, I’m driving there in the rain, in my jeans and boots. I am late. I have felt guilty and shameful all morning, because I’m cheating on my church again and what would they think if they knew?

I ask myself, “Why does this continue to be so hard?”

The clock in my car hits 9:15. I say dammit under my breath. Then I realized I’ve just cursed about being late for church. How ironic.

I enter the childcare area, and I hear the music. It is loud. For an instant I’m scared. What if I can’t do this? Russ would be anxious because the music is so loud.

I drop Ezra off in childcare, hit the bathroom (even though I’m late), and enter the sanctuary. It’s dark and modern. I don’t know where to sit, but then I see a couple from our small group with an empty seat behind them. I slip in and try to sing along to  a song I don’t know. I feel awkward and out of place.

But then the song is over and another begins. This time, the rhythm and chords are familiar.

Oh no. He couldn’t have. He can’t be this good to me. 

I had wondered a few times over the past week, even on the way to church that morning, if this would happen. If God would make His presence known to me, again, in such a specific way. I mean, of all the modern praise and worship songs that could be sung – for this one to be picked on my first Sunday there – that would have to be Him.

While the drums continue with their steady, familiar rhythm, before any singing has happened, the words pop up on the screen, and I am already coming undone.

You are good, you are good, when there’s nothing good in me. 

And just like at the PWOCI conference, and just like at Allume, I try to sing, but can’t – because I’m crying too hard. The notes and words that do make it out of my mouth sound like that of a dying goat. I bow my head and just keep crying.

You are here, you are here, in your presence I’m made whole…

I know that He is here. Even though I’m in jeans. Even though I’m cheating on my church (again). Even though I cursed on the way to church. And even though I’m a complete wreck of a Christian, He is here. He loves me. And I’m exactly where He wants me to be.

Somehow I regain composure, and I start singing again for the second chorus. This time my body is moving and my right hand is raised. It feels both foreign and right all at the same time.

Here I feel safe. I feel safe to cry. Safe to dance. Safe to worship in whatever way feels right at the time. Even writing that sentence terrifies me because I wonder if it’s wrong.

The preaching begins. I put my booted feet up on the chair in front of me. I settle in with the Bible on my iPhone resting on my jeans, and I enjoy feeling safe here in this moment.

The following summer, when we finally decided to not go back to Church XYZ, we ended up across town at MOMS-group-church. A Sunday here, a Sunday there.

Honestly? I was content with the dark auditorium, the praise band, and the coffee bar. Another lifetime, maybe that would have been our church home. But God knew that feeling safe and cozy all the time in my blue jeans wasn’t ultimately what I needed out of church. He knew that I needed theology that goes beyond “God, You rock!” and a message that goes beyond, “Come as you are.”

Which is why He gave me Russ.

Russ never was 100% comfortable with MOMS-group-church. It was the little things that irked him, like when they would read out of the Message. Like when he went out for “fellowship” with the guys, and he was the only one not drinking.

The music was too loud. The auditorium was too dark. It was too crowded. (Huge triggers for a disabled vet with severe anxiety.)

Our small group took a break for the summer 2015. A lot changed that summer. We had Little Brother. We found our church home. More on that to come tomorrow. 

MOMS-group-church will always hold a special place in my heart, as will so many of the moms I met there.

(Side note: I haven’t really been back to MOMS group since I had Little Brother, because I’m in a different place in life now and need different things. I don’t need to take three hours out of my Thursday mornings to find sanity and hope any more. The time Ezra is in school is super precious to me, and I savor every moment I can stay at home in my pajamas or make it to the Y to exercise.)

I am so thankful for the year we spent with that small group of believers. I’m thankful for the tangible support that they gave us when Russ lost his job that kept us afloat. I am thankful for the baby gifts they gave us at the baby shower they helped my mother-in-law throw for me. I’m thankful for the emails, the texts, and the calls they sent our way during what was a very lonely time in our lives.

I see the discipleship pastor from MOMS-group-church at the Y all the time. I don’t think he recognizes me, and my arms are always full of children, so I’ve never tried to talk to him.

But, maybe next time I see him, I’ll tell him thanks. Thanks for speaking to MOMS group. Thanks for connecting us to a group of believers that ended up being a beautiful stepping stone for us. 

Stepping Stones to Grace: There Are No Wasted Church Experiences

To read the rest of the posts in this series, visit the landing page for Grace: How a Recovering Legalist Moves Forward in Faith. To receive future posts by email, check the “Messy Faith” box under “Subscribe” in the right sidebar. I would also love to have you following along with this series on Facebook, at Beautiful Messy Faith.

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One Comment

  • Debi

    AMEN Aprille,

    Thank you for sharing your journey. I related to much of what you had to say. I have been in the same church for 38yrs and we have been absent for the last 4 years but God keeps pulling me back and laying it on my heart that’s where I need to be. I use to feel comfortable and safe there. The feeling is no longer there. I’m sure its because I no longer feel apart and there have been so many changes in membership. It’s like a new church that have no idea of who I am or that I have worked in every position except Pastor and Deacon every day I was in church whch was every time the doors were open or a business needed to be discussed especially since my husband is a Deacon.

    Again Thank you for sharing,
    God Bless You Aprille and your family,
    Hugs, Debi

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