As originally posted at katechristensenmartin.com
For the past three years now I've been serving as a pastor at my church here in San Diego. Actually, I co-founded the church in my living room along with my husband and a group of friends- the dearest people on Planet Earth. Each of us as worn out as the next, none of us knowing exactly why we were showing up to create a new version of the very thing that wore us out in the first place and all of us equally passionate about gathering together to do something inexplicable. The church, you see, had been both a home to us and a place we'd been exiled from. Still, we felt this pull, an agony really, to keep her alive. If the doors kept swinging shut on us, we'd be the damn doorkeepers ourselves. Maybe it was a bit haughty of us, definitely a little audacious, and most assuredly dangerous. What if we too became irresponsible doorkeepers? What if in our eagerness to become a place of healing for the wounded, we only inflicted more wounds?
Perhaps the most terrifying thing I've ever done in my life is to say yes to church planting. So you can imagine the passion that outweighs that kind of risk, can't you? If you'll put your ass on the line for something that's personally wounded you, you must believe in it something fierce. I do. It's still inexplicable, really. And I've shied away from talking about it because it's still so raw for me. I think, if I'm completely honest, I'm scared shitless to talk about (or write about) church and pastoring and God and Jesus and the Bible. There's still some deep-seated fear in me about my place to say such things, especially as I stand in a place of leadership at my own church. It dawned on me today, though, that my leadership is lacking if I can't tell the truth about my experience and the way it's shaped me. If I can't tell you about my doubts and my fears and my sometimes still very jaded view of the Church then my leadership is actually missing a crucial element to it- honesty. If I tell you what I really think about the Church and God and Jesus and the Bible, will you think less of me as a pastor? Maybe, but you might also find yourself in my stories. And that, my friends, is my job- I tell the truth and let Spirit do with it as she must. Come hell or high water. Besides, I think part of my fear is still just this age old belief that maybe I'm not allowed to say what I think and that is some bullshit everyone needs me to rise above.
In the beginning, the Church felt so safe to me. As a young child, school never felt safe to me; I spent most of my childhood in survival mode; week to week I'd make my way through school days hoping and praying my childhood away because then I wouldn't have to endure school any more. At school I felt utterly stupid, I believed I was broken because I couldn't meet the expectations of the system, I felt stressed out and anxious, I felt preyed upon by aggressive boys, and unprotected by the adults I was told to trust. At church, however, I felt a refuge from all of that escaping and surviving and numbing and dying inside. I could meet the expectations of my church: believe. Don't ask questions. Just believe. Do as you're told. That felt safe to me at the time. I didn't have to take any tests and no one had to know what I thought. I could just keep quiet and belong. Church was my actual sanctuary. I ran around with my best friends creating imaginary worlds and laughing hysterically about nothing and believing I was the safest I could ever be, tucked inside the walls of my church. I mostly ignored the confusing messages about my femininity, about how I was inherently inferior to my male counterpart, and the terrifying fate of my soul if I didn't quite buy into the belief system I was sold. As a kid I only cared that I had a place to be where I could make people happy with the right answers and no questions. I even clung to the terrifying theology because it was a system I could adhere to: believe and belong. I got this.
As a teenager, though, church began to feel less like a safety net and more like a chore, a chore with dire consequences attached at that. Believe the right things or spend all of eternity in conscious, physical torment and separation from everyone and everything you love. That didn't feel safe. Also, you're responsible for everyone around you believing the right thing too so that they don't also burn forever. Really didn't feel safe. And don't forget, men are the leaders, women are to submit quietly. So. Not. Safe. As a young child, I mostly kept those messages tucked neatly away in a compartment to the side so I could focus on all of that safety I felt in a building I loved with people I loved-belonging. But adolescence brought all of those terrifying messages to the forefront because life got even scarier than math tests. When I was thirteen years old my Mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and underwent dangerous brain surgery. Facing the mortality of the most important person in my life, the person who tethered me to this planet with her love and ferocity, it sent me off the rails. I couldn't compartmentalize anything any more. All of those messages that tormented me in the back of my mind became unbearable anxiety at the forefront of everything I did. I couldn't hold the tension. I could no longer be quiet so I could no longer belong. This was my first break up with the Church. I wasn't allowed to break up with the Church physically so I still showed up multiple times a week but I detached. I separated myself mentally and decided that the one place I used to find belonging was now just another place to be an outcast.
I had so many questions. The more questions I had, the worse I felt about my own worth and value as a person. That's how much we detest questions in our ever so certain, modern churches. We cause young people to question their inherent value as human beings in the name of certainty. Thou shalt not ask why the hell things are the way they are. Thou shalt accept the timeless truths handed down to you by old, white dudes. These are the rules. Even in the face of the most terrifying, unexplainable tragedies, we must be steady in our belief, our belief in doctrine. So what if your life falls completely apart? You have your theology. That's how I felt, anyway, as a teenager wondering how to live without her Mom. I just couldn't find any peace or strength or hope in the doctrine of the church and I started to realize that the church=doctrine. I wanted to rage but I was told to pray. I wanted to fall apart but I was told to have faith. I needed someone to validate my pain for me but all I found was unwavering faith in a faraway god who punished people for their thoughts.
When Mom finally passed away just as I entered what they call adulthood, all of my doubts and rage and rebellion were tucked neatly back inside of their compartments. It was like my Mother's passing shook my ground too much and I needed the foundation of my childhood. I dug my heels back into the doctrine of the church. I believed again, with fervor. Living my life without my Mom felt like the most terrifying and dangerous feat so I clung to the illusion of safety I found in the Church and her doctrine. It was also at this time that I fell in love with Colby and we were married just a short year and a half after Mom's funeral. I was thrilled to be a pastor's wife and to build my life around the church. My children would grow up the same way I did, at church three times a week and believing all of the right things.
There was only one problem: those nagging questions and doubts never really went away. Adulthood is freaking hard. I tried so desperately to keep everything neat and tidy but despite my best efforts, life was messier than the Church's answers. My marriage couldn't be restored to health by adhering to strict gender roles, believe it or not. My depression couldn't be cured by just the right amount of prayer and trusting God. My doubts couldn't be erased by studying the Bible more frequently and diligently. I broke up with the Church for the second time but again I kept showing up to her house anyway, this time because I was married to a pastor. I felt like an imposter going through all of the motions but not really buying any of it. You can imagine how in some twisted way, I felt relieved when eventually we were kicked out of church. It was searing pain and a breath of fresh air all in the same moment. Maybe then we could finally just be normal people. Sleeping in on Sundays sounded heavenly.
The thing about my journey is that it was always meaningful as hell. Everything is. My turbulent relationship with the Church was always leading me somewhere. The more uncomfortable I became with the Church, the more passionate I became about the Church, strangely and without realizing it. Eventually, it became ever so clear to me that all of those years of feeling like a misfit in school and then finding safety in church and then finding that I wasn't actually safe in church, those years were a gift because they taught me to be the Church myself. If the institution of the Church wasn't a safe place for all people, I'd make myself a safe place for all people. Our wounds deliver to us our passions. My aching brought me to my life's work-opening up space for people. And ultimately what I've learned is that there's no such thing as a doorkeeper, anyway, because where God's concerned there aren't even any doors.