When I was about eight years old, my life fell apart. I instinctively knew that there was only one safe place for me. Although I didn’t feel safe anywhere else, I knew that each night, when the lights were turned out, I could lie in the very center of my double bed –where no mean hands could reach me—and God would sit with me while I cried.
God has always been a safe place for me.
I always hoped that church would be a safe place for me, too. I mean, it’s made up of God’s people, right? But it never has been. My earliest memories of church are of having to hide my hurts to live up to the expectations of people. And when you add to that the hateful things that were occasionally inflicted upon our family—no, church was never a safe place.
When I grew up, I hoped that leaving my pastor-Dad’s church, I could finally feel safe in church. I hoped that I could just be myself and not have to perform. I hoped that I would be loved and accepted. I found a church and dove in headfirst. I taught Sunday School, was assistant director for the choir, volunteered in the nursery, and worked with the youth group. I NEVER said “no” and I went out of my way to be the best church member that anyone had ever experienced. And then, one night, a fellow twenty-something volunteer confided in me that he had inappropriate feelings for a fifteen-year-old in the youth group. Having been a victim of abuse myself, I did the only thing I could do—I went to the youth pastor and told him. He thanked me and told me he would take care of it. And then, my “safe place” crashed down around me.
The weekend of my twenty-first birthday, I got hit with a horrific stomach virus. I was throwing up everything but my toenails. To say the least, I felt wretched. The youth pastor and his wife called me and asked me to come to their house to talk. I told them I was sick, but they insisted that it couldn’t wait. They wanted me to come anyway. And when I arrived, they unloaded on me. They had gone to the other youth volunteer and told him what I had said. He flatly denied it. They took his word for it and called me in to tell me that I was a liar. Further, they told me that if I pursued the issue, they would stand me up in front of the church and tell the congregation that I was a liar.
I felt that I had no recourse. I quietly left the church and never went back. Ever. Eight months later, we all learned that the adult and the teen did have a brief sexual relationship. I lived in that town for another several years, saw staff members from that church numerous times. None of them ever apologized for how I had been treated. In fact, I was told by a couple of people that it was believed that I was “backslidden” because I’d left the church. I lost every friend that I’d had for the previous two years that I had lived in the town and attended the church.
No, church was never a safe place for me.
For years, I’ve felt like I had to defend the church.
Oh, I’m so sorry you’ve been hurt by the church!
I’m so sorry you were treated that way!
I hate that you’ve been abused and neglected and forgotten!
Honestly, I’m tired of defending the very institution that has hurt me the most in my life.
Yet, I know that church was created by God. And I know that God loves the church—wounded and messy and screwed up as it is.
But you know what, I’m wounded and messy and screwed up, and God loves me, too. So, maybe I’m being too judgmental…
This week, I’ve given counsel to three people from three separate churches who are being or have been kicked in the teeth by churches and/or church people.
It makes me want to scream!
Where is our safe place?!
For me, my safe place is curled up on a double bed alone with my Bible, legal pad, and laptop. It’s sitting at the dinner table or the bar with any of a variety of my friends—who represent different faiths and beliefs, but who respect and accept where I am and love me exactly there. It’s sitting wounded, next to a fellow wounded friend, holding his hand and saying, “It’s okay to be where you are. God loves you there.”
Some days, I feel guilty that I’m not currently attending a church. What a horrible example I am! But at the same time, I recognize that maybe, for me, it’s more important to heal a bit first. Maybe my example right now is just loving God each day, wherever I am, whatever I do, and however I feel and sharing that love with the people who share my life, in spite of the fact that I don’t feel welcome in God’s house right now.
And so I’ll tell myself—and I’ll tell you—what I told my dear friend earlier this week: It’s okay to be where you are. God loves you there.