I’ve started going to church again. I know, friends from home may be appalled to hear I ever left, but the truth is I had a really bad experience when I got sick last time. I grieved, and I cried, and I wondered how a good and loving God could let me get so sick and maybe even take a mother away from her babies, the little one just a few months old. I railed, and I studied, and I questioned. And I called my minister, the minister of the church I’d attended for years and years, and he had no answers. He talked to me for 20 minutes, for which I’m grateful, and then he said, “I have to go, I’m leaving on vacation.” “Will you call me when you return?” I asked. And he agreed, but he never did call me again. I called him when he returned, and again a week after, and again the week after that, as I got sicker and sicker and scared-er and scared-er. And he never called again.
People from the church did call, months after that, and they put me on the prayer list and on the (gah!) Angel Tree, and I appreciated it, but I never quite let go the fact that I had been faithful and a churchgoer all my life, and when I needed my church most, when I needed my pastor to come visit and sit with me while I questioned, or reassure me where he could, or even call me back, he wasn’t there for me.
And I left the church.
I never left God. I never stopped believing, I never stopped praying, I never stopped teaching my children the stories of the Book, but I stopped going to church. In fact, I only went there once after that, and nothing happened, and that was closure.
But this spring, something called me back. I can’t say that it was any one thing exactly, but a confluence of factors. A friend sharing her faith in Book Club, and talking with her — really talking — about the historical foundation of our beliefs and how they were reflected (or not) in The Red Tent. Another friend sharing how much she loved her child’s kindergarten, and inviting me to a social event at the church. I didn’t end up going, as I got sick instead, but I was touched by her thoughtfulness. Our kindergarten plans falling through, as the public school we’d anticipated attending for years didn’t hold up under the scrutiny of a simple visit. And then I got cancer. Again.
And we needed — I needed — to be 100% sure that my children would be raised in the faith as I was, and that they would be surrounded by a supportive community if the worst happened, and I was no longer there to guide them. My husband is strong and supportive and always there — but he would need support too. We talked about looking again for a faith community, one with people who talked to each other as they passed, who banded together to support the elderly and those in need, and one where we could use our gifts and help others. One that loved children, and had throngs of children on Sundays, and supportive parents who looked out for each other’s little ones. One where we felt closer to God instead of farther away.
We found one. On our very first visit, we found one. We found a church with a service where children were truly welcomed. Where babies were walked in the aisles and toddlers asked questions of their mamas and preschoolers held hands as they walked up to communion with their daddies. Where children were not an afterthought or noises to be tolerated, but welcomed and loved as children of God.
We fell in love, and we found our church. I signed up for new member classes, and we enrolled our children in the school. We volunteered for the open house committee, for the Halloween party, and for lunch duty. We’re all in.
And this Sunday, I join the church.
I told you that to tell you this. Last night, at Bible study, my friend Santa Maria (isn’t that a beautiful name?) asked a question about a verse she’d read that has always been one of my favorite verses.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whosoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'” – Matthew 16:24-25
In this simple verse, I was reminded of something very important. (And my atheist friends, and friends of other faiths, thanks for hanging in if you’re still here — I love you. You know that, right? I just need to work this out in words today.)
Having faith doesn’t mean that we will never encounter evil. It doesn’t mean that we’re so blessed we’ll never get sick, even very sick. It doesn’t mean we’ll never get depressed, suffer from post-partum depression, or be hurt by others. It doesn’t mean that at all. We all have our burdens, our difficulties, our struggles that we must find our way through. (I can hear one of the adults from my youth saying with a sigh and a Southern accent, “We all have our crosses to bear.”) Is it hard to leave it behind and persevere? Sure it is. It’s hard beyond words. And maybe, just maybe, that’s because some struggles are so big that we can’t just leave them behind and walk away.
As hard as I try to pretend I’m healthy, I still sleep every afternoon so I can be awake to put my kids to bed at night. As hard as I try to move beyond illness and talk about other things — anything else — with my friends, the cancer is still there, and still eating away at me even as we laugh or cry or chat about kindergarten drama. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe — and I’m no priest, so please bear with me as I work this out in my head and heart — maybe the burdens are still there. But instead of focusing on them and wailing over what has happened to us, we are to instead take them up, sling them over our shoulders, and follow the path that He has laid for us.
And with this post, I know I risk losing readers. But I promised to always tell you the truth — my truth — about how cancer is changing me, and keeping that promise means more to me than pageviews. Today, I’m taking the risk, slinging the cancer worries over my shoulder, and trying to return to the right path. Thanks for listening, and for all the prayers that have been said on my behalf over the past few years. I don’t deserve it, but I appreciate it with all my heart, and I wanted you to know that it’s working.