I had convinced myself that I didn’t believe in God, that religion was a joke and a way for people to justify their bad behavior that happens between Sundays. It wasn’t a theory I came to lightly, but for years I have had a hard time even looking at bible verses, let alone subscribing to the philosophy behind them. I was hurt, broken, and felt betrayed by a religion that I had built my life around.
There are very few people that I have shared this part of my life with, the part of me that gave up on trying to understand why a higher power that I had been told to pray to and also had been planning the hardest times of my life, supposedly from the time I was born. I have been very selective with those that hear my story, both because I wasn’t sure I actually believed it and also because of how personal of a decision it was for me to walk away.
Before Justin’s diagnosis in 2011, I had been an active member of my childhood church. I grew up going to service on Sunday morning, was an angel in the Christmas Eve pageant, was an active youth group member, and continued mission work well into my college years. It was that building where I met my husband and built our relationship, it is where we were married, and was an extension of my home. When, after only 15 months of marriage, at the age of 28, Justin was diagnosed with lymphoma my faith flatlined. The more that I had heard that “it was all in God’s plan” the more hurt I felt, and couldn’t come to understand why anyone should have to endure that kind of pain. Associating struggle and pain with the faith I had invested so much in broke my heart, instead of turning to my faith to help pull me out of the struggle, I cemented myself in the stance that it was all a joke. I didn’t fault anyone for believing, but for me, it no longer made sense.
The few people that I felt safe enough to share this with were supportive, understanding, and let me dwell in my feelings. I felt no judgement or push from them. They listened, shared their story, and encouraged me to stay positive. Even in my positive space, when I felt comfortable with the decision I had made, I felt doubt lingering in my resolve. I would hear someone mention staying strong in their faith, hear scripture, see someone lift themselves up through their relationship with God and it made me wonder how they stayed so committed and optimistic. I began to contemplate visiting a Sunday service, sitting way in the back of the sanctuary, hopefully unnoticed, just to see how it felt to be back in that space. The only time I got the courage to go was to attend a funeral for a family friend, someone taken from this earth way too soon. Not the best way to break through the wall that I put up. That was fourteen months ago.
Last week when Justin’s grandfather asked if we would attend that Sunday’s service where he would be honored as a veteran, I said yes with no hesitation. Of course we would go and stand with his grandfather. Inside I was curious of how I would feel walking back into the building that I know so well, conspicuously attending a service we’ve missed for the better part of the last five years. We sat with Justin’s family, stood up in front of the sanctuary behind his grandfather while he was honored, and listened to one of my favorite people give her second sermon as the Head Pastor of the congregation. In the midst of my anger, my hurt, and my avoidance, I forgot how much I enjoyed to listen to her preach. She has an incredible way to make you feel like you’re having a one-on-one conversation, magically she picks up on the single topic that has been weighing heavily on your heart and mind. It seems like she is just up there chatting, those of us that know her know she spent countless late nights preparing for this very moment. Her opportunity to reach all of us in the room, and inspire us to keep moving forward for the week ahead.
On this particular Sunday, a little unexpectedly, it was like she was speaking right at me. I had forgotten about her ability to pull you in, read your mind, and put you at ease. With the presidential election finally over, we were a country divided, and a country in need of love, kindness, and understanding. I had walked into the sanctuary that morning feeling drained and unsure of our future, scared of the actions being brought to light after such a polarizing electoral process. She shared a story from her own personal life, about a time where she was asked “What’s your story?” and had the opportunity to not only share, but learn about the culture of the life of the serviceman sitting next to her. It was an opportunity for understanding. If only we could all go through life look and speaking to understand, we might not feel so divided. If we could “knock ourselves out with kindness and love” we might be able to break down the walls in between us. I smiled, made a note on my bulletin, and felt a little thawed from my time away.
I am still not sure that I have all the answers, maybe no one does, but I know that going through life feeling betrayed isn’t going to inspire anything other than frustration and anger. I refuse to live my life in that way, and I absolutely refuse to create those feelings for myself. On a beautiful November morning, I felt a little less hurt and a little inspired by the message put forth to the congregation. Knocking ourselves out with kindness and love.