Loneliness Among Crossed Arms and Casseroles Part One: Reflections on ‘Searching for Sunday’ by Rachel Held Evans

[NOTE: This series is available as both a printable PDF and an e-book file on the Downloads page.]

 

Part One: Together with Arms Crossed

 

Conversations with people leaving the church

I have had more conversations with people leaving a church than I can count.

Some have been considering switching their participation from one church to another.

Some have been leaving the church without leaving the faith, stepping away from participation in community.

Some have been leaving the faith altogether.

Though I’ve participated in seven different church communities, until a few years ago I had never switched churches for any reason other than moving to a different city. Staying is important to me, though it has some limits.

Every time someone tells me they are considering leaving our shared community it feels like a gut punch. Sometimes life is simply taking them elsewhere, like it has for me on several occasions. I get that and I don’t begrudge people moving on with their lives. But it still hurts.

More often people consider leaving because something about the church bothers them. The liturgy may be too high or too low, the church may be too involved or not involved enough in their justice issue of choice, the theology preached may be not “biblical” enough or too “literal,” or the leadership may be too authoritative or not authoritative enough. I’ve heard all of these and many more.

When I hear people narrate the issues they’re having with the church sometimes I agree with their critique and sometimes I don’t. As I listen, though, I begin splitting into two selves. My analytical self participates in the conversation in the way it’s presented, thinking through the liturgical or justice or theological or leadership issues at hand. At the same time my emotional self is inwardly asking: “Are you going to leave me just like everyone else?”

I have had lots of practice in the art of losing people. I know how to suck it up, to endure, and to wall myself off a bit more so it hurts less next time. I’m less practiced at being present and available to the people that stay. By walling myself off have I left them?

Sometimes people leaving our church are those that I know well, those I consider close friends. Their leaving will not so much mean a break in our friendship, only that we won’t see each other frequently so we won’t participate in each others’ lives as much.

Sometimes the people considering leaving are people I don’t know well, but I had hoped to develop friendships with them. Sometimes they’re people who I had hoped could be there for my kids in ways that I can’t be as a single father raising teenage girls. What I’m mourning is the potential healing they could have offered to my deep sense of being alone.

 

I read Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday several months ago for a book discussion and one phrase has haunted me since then. Describing a period when she had left one church and was exploring other churches with a less than gracious spirit she says, “I sat in the pew with arms crossed.” (p. 87)

This posture, sitting in a space where people have gathered to worship, learn, remember, and share while maintaining a guarded defensive attitude, was so familiar. It’s how we stand aloof from those around us when we withhold ourselves from full participation because of some problem we have with a church. I’ve seen so many people participate in life together that way. I have participated in life with others that way.

Sharing stories

In Searching for Sunday, Evans chronicles her experiences in and out of church communities. Personal narratives from her own joys and struggles with the church are interspersed with vignettes inspired by the seven sacraments recognized by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. These include reflections on stories from the bible, church history, and contemporary stories of people leading beautiful lives of reconciliation. It’s about the church but it’s not a work on ecclesiology or a sociological analysis of Evangelicalism. It’s creative nonfiction, a practice of telling factual stories beautifully, and it invites us into the story to connect her experiences with our own.

I’m grateful for this book. It takes courage to share our stories, opening our choices up to the scrutiny of others. Evans is honest about the way the church has judged and rejected her and those she loves. She is also honest about the good things life in the church has given her. And, importantly, she’s very honest about ways that she herself has judged and rejected those in the church.

At the end of the chapter “Vote Yes on One,” the turning point in the book when she gives up on the church of her youth, she expresses her gut level reaction as she leaves: “Who will bring us casseroles when we have a baby?”

As I read this I cried along with her. Churches often provide the sustenance of food in times of need, the food of lives given for one another and the tangible food of chicken smothered in cream-of-mushroom soup. At the exact same time churches can reject and exclude, succumbing to fear, crossing our arms and turning our backs on those we consider a threat. As with the “Vote Yes on One” campaign described in the book, sometimes those we turn our back on are vulnerable outsiders whose lives have been characterized by bullying and rejection already.

It is the next section of the book, where Evans chronicles the process of visiting an array of churches to seek a new community, that she describes her posture of being in the pew with arms crossed. She is self-aware about it, recognizing the fear and pride that kept her detached, unwilling to be available and vulnerable to the various communities she visited. This is how I tend to respond when I feel I’ve been abandoned or rejected by others.

As my marriage was ending I think my pastor recognized this possibility in me. Praying over me, he asked that I could maintain a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone, referencing Ezekiel 36:26. This is one of the hardest things to do in the face of abandonment.

Marriage and church

Maybe it’s strange to connect marriage and the church. Entering and exiting the life of a church is often done much more lightly than entering and exiting a marriage. It’s certainly a different kind of commitment. Paul uses the image of marriage when describing the church, but he is describing the relationship between the Messiah and the church community rather than our relationship to one another.

But the image of entering life together “in Christ” as entering into a new family occurs throughout the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples that if they lose family by following him they will gain even more family in the process. Paul, John, James, Peter, et al. use familial terms for the community of Jesus followers constantly, referring to them (and by extension us) as brothers and sisters or as their children. If we read these as simply polite terms of endearment we erase the fact that he was writing to people that did not consider themselves siblings of one another. The equality and togetherness implied by “brother and sister” was not readily applied by Jews to Gentiles, masters to slaves, or husbands to wives. This strange new siblinghood that saturates the New Testament has gotten diluted as we’ve individualized salvation and have tried to reinstate the hierarchies that Jesus undermined in his life and teachings.

If there are any lessons to be learned through my experience, though, it is that things falling apart in marriage and in the church feel quite similar. And it’s the posture we assume toward one another that makes all the difference.

Married with arms crossed

I chuckle sadly to myself when I hear my single friends longing for marriage as a cure to their loneliness. In the last several years of my fifteen year marriage I found that it’s possible to be lonelier inside a marriage than outside. My wife was around but she had checked out of our marriage and our family.

She absented herself from us in numerous ways.

As I was working from home and maintaining the household she went from negotiating with me when she wanted to go out with friends after work to simply informing me to not telling me at all when she was going to be absent from the family. My kids gradually stopped asking where she was when she didn’t show up for dinner because they stopped expecting me to know the answer.

She went from participating in life with the friends we had together to treating those that had been our friends as only my friends to actively blocking any contact between me and her separate group of friends.

She went from participating in supporting the family financially to ignoring the bills that needed paying to removing funds from our account right before bills were due.

During this process my wife was so unpleasant to be around, so cold and distant, that people stopped including us in meals, events, day trips, or just hanging out. I tried to host meals or larger get-togethers but managing everything in the household while my wife either didn’t help or actively thwarted my work made entertaining too hard to do with any kind of regularity.

Described this way her actions sound particularly cruel. And whenever we hear one spouse’s description of a marriage falling apart we should always assume there is another side to the story. We each hurt the other. It’s what people in relationships do. I only have my side of the story to tell, though, and I’ve learned that in keeping quiet I have failed to encourage and support others going through similar struggles.

What I experienced as cruelty began with a change of posture. We did have a time in our marriage where problems were something we worked through together. We both had a presumption of staying together and this provided the context for struggling. Then there was a period when she turned away. Each new challenge became something that she stood outside of, judging if it was something worth leaving for or not. She began doing things to look for ways to escape. It was a turn from participant to outside observer to judge. The image of standing with crossed arms, a way of positioning oneself among others while blocking them out, characterized the way she approached me and us.

Still alone

When she finally left, the tension left with her. I could stop walking on eggshells at home. I found myself, though, with no peers that were in the habit of including me in their lives. Which is not to say I didn’t have friends, only that the building and maintaining of friendships was work that I had to do in addition to raising my girls alone.

After she moved out and it became common knowledge in my church, I did not face the kind of judgment that I’ve heard others have faced. With the exception of one person using me and my story to judge the pastor, people offered me encouragement and support. For several months Sunday mornings involved at least one person coming up to me, asking me how I was doing, expressing sympathy, and saying they wanted to have me and my girls over for dinner soon. These dinners rarely materialized.

It’s been half a decade since my marriage ended and building and maintaining deep friendships has remained difficult and often fruitless work. Men my age tend to either rely on friendships developed when they were younger, to place the burden and work of friendship on their spouses, or to be content without deep friendships. I also have a knack for developing friendships with people right when they are beginning to have children and they cease to have time for anything else.

Saying “I’m lonely” is generally a bad idea for people seeking relationships. It can lead to friendships built from sympathy rather than mutuality. Or it can lead to more rejection as I’m defined as too needy. Yet so many of us exist in states of perpetual loneliness our silence makes us feel like we are the only ones. I now have the great good fortune of being in a community I can trust enough to say “I’m lonely” and people will walk with me in it.  

Perpetual loneliness is so common, both in the church and in our country at large, that it seems like the one thing that truly unites us across all our deep divisions. Or maybe our deep divisions continually build and expand our loneliness. Regardless, I want to explore here two questions I’ve wrestled with in my loneliness:

  1. How can we live differently so that we can begin to heal the epidemic of loneliness around us?
  2. How can we live healing lives for others even within the suffering of our own loneliness?

By addressing these questions I want to consider what could happen if we uncross our arms*, opening ourselves up to one another. I hope you’ll explore this possibility with me in the next two posts.

[Loneliness Among Crossed Arms and Casserole Part Two here]


*In trying to come up with a way to describe the posture that’s the opposite of arms crossed I found that the best candidates had already been taken as song titles by Journey and Creed. I really didn’t want to go there.

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