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.
—Emily Dickinson, Poem 324
It's Christmas Eve day today: the time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. My family has a tradition of observing this holiday by going to a beautiful candlelit service at church and singing hymns of rejoicing. Joy to the world, the Lord has come. But I don't feel joy. I don't feel like celebrating much. And I don't go to those candlelit church services anymore, because I know that all I will feel is pain, sadness, and anxiety.
As I mentioned in last week's blog post, Christianity has been a huge part of my identity for most of my life. Part of that identity meant going to church regularly. Not just for Christmas or Sunday church services, but for extra community gatherings: Bible studies, worship band practice, and various other things. In a lot of ways, my faith in God was tightly interwoven with going to church; I couldn't envision a faith with out it. So, I guess it makes sense that when I finally left the church*, my faith started unraveling.
A few years ago, I went to a friend's church for a special evening service. It was a Lutheran church—the kind I grew up going to. That evening was the first time I had stepped inside a church in several years (with the exception of weddings and funerals). I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be fine but, as soon as the congregation started singing hymns, I had a nervous breakdown. A wave of sadness and anxiety came over me. The tears started pouring out. The people around me probably thought I was crazy. Or, perhaps, they thought I was moved to tears by the power of God: happy tears, spiritual tears. But my tears were neither happy nor spiritual. I was overwhelmed—I wanted to get out of there—but I didn't want to disappoint the friends who invited me, so I stayed. I stayed and tried to self-soothe; and I tried to push down the pain that had surfaced.
Maybe I should go back a little further and explain. Several years before that breakdown, I left the church for good. I left even though it was a part of my life since before I could walk. I left because there was this thing that happened. And, after that thing, church stopped feeling safe to me. Church stopped feeling like community to me. Church stopped feeling like a place where I belonged. Instead, all I could feel at church was pain, sadness, and anxiety. I started experiencing severe panic attacks at church. And, to this day, I haven't been able to set foot in a church without having one. So, I chose to walk away. I walked away because I needed to take care of myself and my own mental health, and I could no longer do that while going to church.
After leaving the church, I began a sort of spiritual "remodeling". I tore down everything I believed in and started rebuilding from scratch. I questioned the church. I questioned my religion and its theologies. I questioned what faith meant to me. But, I learned that the process of questioning and letting go wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. And, though it feels like I've let go of so much, my faith isn't empty quite yet. I'm still asking questions; still trying to figure out what I believe. I could choose to feel bad about this (or worry about the state of my soul) but, instead, I'm choosing to give myself grace—the grace to messily figure things out on my own, without a church to guide me.
I still mourn what I've lost in this process. I feel nostalgic for the built-in community that I found at church. Christmas and Sundays feel emptier. But, even with the sadness and emptiness, I think I would still make the same decision. I had to do it to take care of myself and put my own well-being first.
On this almost-Christmas day, I want to end by saying this; to those who feel empty on this day: you're not alone. To those who feel sadness instead of joy: you're not alone. To those who feel anxiety instead of comfort: you're not alone. To those who feel pain instead of healing: you're not alone. And to those who are in that messy rebuilding phase like me: you're not alone. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself grace. Remember to take care of yourself.
*It should be noted that when I say "the church", I mean churches in general.