A couple of weeks ago, DJ and I drove past a house in a nearby development, and verified for ourselves that it’s empty.
Last night, we went on a date to an Italian restaurant tucked into the hallway of an old strip mall store. We deliberately chose the table halfway down the patio area.
This morning, I walked through an antiques store. I went into every room. As I left, I stuck my tongue out at the building.
We’ve been overwriting personal history lately.
For seven years, we were part of a church that eventually closed. It wasn’t all bad. Few things ever are. But we — and probably everybody else involved — left that place with a lot of hurt and weariness. I’m not actually sure where everyone else went on when we parted ways. For us, we landed at a thriving church with a love for children, and without a fixation on proper authority or the exact right way things have to be done.
After about a year at that church, my numbness wore off, and the panic set in. I haven’t been able to attend church for eighteen months now. I’ve tried a couple of times, like at Easter. I fled halfway through the song service, got in my car, and sobbed. When you’ve been burned, you shy away from anything that feels like flame.
But now — the key people from our old church have moved to another city. We saw that their house is empty and on the market.
As for the Italian restaurant, we’d eaten there once before, with those same people who just moved. It was years ago, and the point was to try to work out differences between us. It wasn’t a rousing success, mainly because the wife couldn’t understand anything I was saying. She never said this, but why would I take exception to the fact that she knew how to parent my children better than I did?
So DJ and I decided to change our association with that restaurant by eating there, sitting at the same table, and rewriting it with something good.
Our old church building is now an antiques store. This morning, I walked through it. Here was where the altar stood. I wasn’t allowed there unless I had specific permission, but DJ served at the altar as a deacon and lead music nearly every Sunday. He also taught catechism after church every week during one season. Church swallowed him up, taking him away from his family even though we were in the same square footage.
Leaving the old sanctuary behind me, I wandered through the kitchen. I spent most of my church time away from the actual worship service. I had to corral two, then three, and finally four children. It was amply communicated to me that they were too noisy, and I should be training them better at home so they could share in the worship experience without hindering the Holy Spirit.
In this dingy old kitchen, I put together snacks for the kids every Sunday, and made sure they didn’t eat the snacks in the carpeted children’s room.
Right, the children’s room. This is where I sat, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, with my kids and a couple of others. Even in this room, with the door shut, the kids would sometimes bang on a toy drum or sing too loudly or squabble, and someone would come tell us we needed to be quiet. I sat in a chair in the corner, tired to death of keeping kids, my soul dying from condemnation and isolation.
I usually brought the kids back in for the end of the service, although nobody seemed to miss me if I didn’t. When church was over, we usually had doughnuts or cupcakes. I felt compelled to rush out to make sure my kids didn’t touch the food or play with the coffee straws or eat chocolate cupcakes anywhere but at the table. As soon as we walked out of the sanctuary, the elders would shut the doors for prayer ministry, and nobody could go back in unless for prayer.
After several weeks, DJ and I got an email: someone had complained about the mess we left in our pew every Sunday when we rushed out after our children. It was the Lord’s House; could we please clean up our space?
Please keep your children quiet. Please keep your place clean. Please don’t interrupt the liturgy. Please put everything of yourself into the church. Please don’t let your children mess things up. Please don’t hinder the Holy Spirit by being clumsy, tired, flawed, quirky, or disorderly.
Seven years is a long time to try hard and always fail. In the three years since, DJ and I have had to recover in our own ways. Just in the past couple of weeks, though, the old memories have lost a lot of the weight of anger and sorrow. We saw the empty house, ate at the restaurant, and walked through the building. I feel the wounds scabbing over — still tender, but no longer bleeding.
Our kids are still kind of restless in church. DJ still has to figure out how to balance his love for church with his love for his family. I still can’t sit through a whole service. The difference is that the Holy Spirit isn’t quite as fragile as we were led to believe. He doesn’t mind noise and clumsiness. In fact, He can put up with a whole lot more than a tired group of flawed humans ever could.