My Church Life PTSD (Or, What I Talk About When I’ve Had a Few Too Many)
It’s been a bit of a rough time for me lately. Self-induced of course, you know from my last regular post that I’m having a tiny existential crisis over turning 30, so I’ve been trying to cram as much knowledge in my head before that milestone birthday so that I can tell myself, “Okay, at least you did that in your 20’s.” But when you try to learn data science in one year when you should really allot like 3 or 4 years… I’m definitely in over my head.
So, in honor of St. Patty’s Day, I took to the bottle… and accidentally went way further with that than I intended.
Before I knew it, my wife had to leave to go serve at the church’s evening service, and scared for my well being, she sent one of her friends’ husband to our house to make sure I was okay. They also go to our church, and he’s a super nice guy.
I can’t remember much, but I do remember that the conversation quickly led to the church. And I don’t necessarily mean our church in particular but the “church” as the collective “body of Christ,” if you catch my drift. Think capital “C” Church. It did begin with our particular church but expanded in light of my experiences with other Christian communities, like my Christian university and former church homes. The conversation jumped from topic to topic like…
- How many times I’ve tried volunteering within different parts of our megachurch, only to be passively rejected by not getting a call or email back
- How I tried reaching out to our megachurch’s staff when I was depressed in 2014, and how the only staff member I could reach over email just told me to read some books… over email
- How prissy most worship leaders could be anytime I was the guy running sound and lights backstage
- How another friend’s pastor recently took to Facebook to tell governor JB Pritzker to “Shut up, you fatso”
- How much I didn’t fit in at my Christian university even though I thought that community, of ALL communities, would be the most loving and accepting of a Jesus weirdo like me
And these things led to a sort of secret I’ve been holding onto lately. Given the nature of this blog, it probably won’t surprise you.
You see, I go to a megachurch, so you can easily sit in the big lobby or cafe area without anybody batting an eyelash about why you’re not in service. So for the last four months or so, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I usually take a philosophy/theology book to read in the lobby area while my daughters go to Sunday School and everybody else goes to service.
I have some level of church life PTSD.
I understand the strength of those words and do not mean at all to take them lightly. I don’t mean at all to diminish people with PTSD from things like war or rape, but what I experience is not too far off.
You see, I can’t get through a church service now without having a nearly full blown panic attack. Somewhere after the second or third song, my memories of pain with the church flood me. My breathing becomes labored, my chest tightens, and my eyes dart around looking for the nearest exit. The one time I have been in service this year (when my parents came to visit), I had to take several “bathroom breaks” to let myself out just to breathe, afraid of breaking down in front of my parents and in front of others.
I know, it probably sounds like I’m exaggerating or being dramatic. It surprises me just as much as it probably surprises you. I know that I have issues with the church… I just didn’t realize it would ever get this bad.
Here’s the thing though… I’m not done with faith, and that’s why I’m writing this post.
For as many poor experiences as I’ve had with the church, I could easily let it destroy me and become a cynic. I could tell you how bad the Church is and why you should never step foot in another Church building. It wouldn’t be too difficult for me to become the poster boy of what happens when church life goes wrong.
But that would be a denial of He who hums within me.
As often as I’ve been angry with the Church and wanted to be angry with God, this God still shows up in my darkest hour. This God won’t stop rearing his head with love and hope at the end of every dimly lit alleyway. This God reminds me that he is still here in spite of how his children have hurt me.
Even from a young age, I’ve always felt the presence of God at times, more or less. Sometimes I would let myself believe that yes, this was indeed God whereas other times, I would scorn myself for labeling the chemical reactions within my body to be called “God.” After all, truthfully, how do we know that God is nothing more than a coincidentally firing of the synapses within our brains?
I can’t answer that today. I’ll probably never be able to answer that fully. But what I can say is that the deeper I get into my studies, the more I find this same God we read about in the Bible. Maybe not the same way the biblical authors understood him (because the biblical authors themselves were interpreting their experiences through their own lenses), but something close enough. I even make note in the review about my friend Austin’s book that I still find the God of the Bible even when studying up on other religions. (That’s another post for another day.)
My point is that you can’t let your church life define how you live your faith life. If you can’t step foot in a church because of how you were treated in another church, that’s okay by me. Thanks to advancements in technology and transportation, we have so many more ways of connecting with one another that, frankly, a church isn’t really necessary anymore.
Don’t let me be the one to say that a church is useless, however. I do believe a church can still serve a good purpose; I’ve just been unlucky in my experiences. I know my wife still gets a lot from her community of friends, and I’ll continue to attend our church to help my daughters grow spiritually since I’m woefully ignorant about how to raise little girls in faith. (I’m guessing that sharing my drunken woes to them probably isn’t a good idea.)
Anyway, I hope my experiences help you to bridge that gap that may exist in your own life. The church can be a really messy place, but just because it is messy doesn’t mean that your faith life has to be. If you don’t know where to begin, I might suggest doing some private study to begin with. The following few books have really changed my life, and maybe they’ll help you, too.
- What is the Bible? by Rob Bell
- The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns
- Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
- Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
- A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber
And if reading isn’t your thing, you might check out these other multimedia sources, like…
- The Robcast: A podcast with Rob Bell; start with the recent Largo show episodes featuring Elizabeth Gilbert
- Everything is Spiritual: A longform talk by Rob Bell you can find on YouTube (There are two versions; both worth watching)
- The Holy Shift Tour: This was a talk given by Rob Bell in a number of cities last year; you can find the audio download to that here (Can you tell I love Rob Bell?)
- The Bible for Normal People: A podcast hosted by Pete Enns and Jared Byas covering a number of different topics
- You Made It Weird: A podcast hosted by Pete Holmes, it normally features comedians, but there are some really great episodes, including the ones with the FORBs (aka “Friends of Rob Bell”). My favorite episodes include Rob Bell (duh), Richard Rohr, Michael Gungor, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Ryan Holiday.
I hope all these things breathe a new breath of life into your faith. Take it from somebody who has had the weirdest relationship with the church, the church doesn’t have to be your saving grace. Thanks to this wonderful thing called the internet, we can learn about God in a whole new way.
Peace be with you, friends.