As I walk across the grass, a familiar face greets me. I smile and, after obligatory salutations, move on. I hope no one else sees me. I hope I don’t have to put on this face too many more times.
To avoid any necessary interactions, I put my head down and keep walking. The patch of grass at the front of the church might be a hundred feet long, but as I place one foot in front of the other, it feels like many miles.
My breathing becomes shallow, my heart races, my throat tightens, my stomach is all in knots, and tears threaten to overflow. I don’t belong here, but it’s too late. My ego won’t let me turn around. Pride goes before a fall, they say.
I step into the foyer.
People are talking in small groups, and there is no one I know. I breathe a sigh of relief and quickly look to where the bulletins are — before someone sees me, before someone makes eye contact, before I am seen. I reach out to take one of the leaflets without breaking my stride and manage just two more steps before I hear, “Good morning, happy Sabbath.”
I glance up, giving the most confident smile I can muster, and mumble “Thank you” before scurrying inside the church. I feel sick.
I look for a place to sit. There is only one pew at the back with no one on it. I know it is for parents with small children, so I try to casually walk down the aisle looking for a spare seat, but they all have a Bible or hymnal or something else to “save” it.
I see a couple of faces that I know, and they smile but do not offer to squeeze up and let me sit with them. Why would they? They know me as a confident, friendly person who can find her place in the world. How could they know the turmoil inside me? How could they know how alone I feel, and that I deserve to be alone? How could they know what a horrible, rotten, unworthy sinner I am? I cover it up with nice clothes, a big smile, and the right educated, theological words. How could they know that I am so torn? I desperately want to come in from the cold.
I want to be near the hot coals. I don’t want to be on the outer anymore. I want to be a part of the community of believers again. I want to be genuine. I want to be loved and accepted.
But, and it is a very big but, there is a bigger part of me that doesn’t want any of that. I don’t want them to know what my life has become, who I really am, and how far I have fallen. I don’t want to face people I have hurt, mistakes I have made, people I have let down.* I already hate myself; I can’t cope with everyone else hating me too. I want to leave.
But I’m here. So I take my seat. In the corner, at the back, in the pew that is reserved for others.
Sitting quietly, I open my bulletin and pretend it is the most interesting thing I have ever read. Sunset times, pastor for today, elders, deacons, et cetera, and then I feel my heart sink. It is ordinances (communion). I hate ordinances — another opportunity for rejection. They all go out in lovely, safe little pairs. And for those of us who are alone — who are going solo today, who can’t find anyone to share a seat with — we stand around shuffling our feet and twitching in anticipation, to see if someone will pick us. It’s more painful than being at school waiting to be picked for the sports teams. It’s not a time to share love and communion; it’s a popularity contest. And I know who is going to lose.
I have a renewed, almost impossible-to-ignore desire to leave. God only knows why I don’t.
People come in and start replacing Bibles with bottoms. The song leaders get up, and we sing our first song. More seats fill up. As we finish the first song and start the second, my soul is glad I am here. I love listening to the music, the voices all harmonious and melodious. Here there is no pianist or band to lead out. We simply have our voices, and it is so beautiful. And I have to say I really love the traditional hymns. The words have depth. The melody is easy to follow. I am starting to feel much more relaxed. I don’t even really know this second song, but I don’t care. I close my eyes, and I try to be present.
By the end of the second song, the church is full, and we sing our call to worship. I know the song. I like the song, and I sing.
Then the announcements. Ugh! Really! I know they are important. I know it’s a practical time to have them. But as a non-member of this congregation, they bore me, and my mind wanders. I pull out my phone and look at my emails; nothing new since I last checked half an hour ago. I check Facebook; believe it or not, same deal. So I open Candy Crush.
Then I make a mistake and look up. Someone I highly respect is at the end of the pew, and she smiles and heads between the pews and sits beside me. We embrace. I genuinely love and value this person. I remember hours and hours of long conversations over many meals. I respect her and her friendship, and for a moment, I am filled with warmth and joy — until the inevitable happens. She asks how I am. What can I say?
If I tell her the truth, will she really want to hear it all? Will she accept me, or reject me as I know she should? I’m afraid of both options. I don’t want to talk about my shame. I don’t want to face it myself. And I can’t bear the rejection. If she rejects me, I will have to reject myself. So I smile and say, “Good.” She nods her head and makes to leave. We are in the middle of church, after all. “I’ll catch you,” she says and then heads back to her seat. I smile and nod, and my mind has already started to plot how I am going to get out of this one.
The song leader breaks into my thoughts by announcing the next song of the service. “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today.” I take longer to stand than those around me, and when I do start to sing, barely a sound escapes.
I look around, and I feel open and vulnerable. I inch farther back into the corner, and the back of my knees touch the seat. I am so very conscious of not wanting to be seen. I want to fade into the background, but I do want to be here. I don’t want to be anywhere else. Well, except one place.
I wonder if this is what it will be like in heaven. I know if I get to heaven, it will be a miracle. But I do want to be there. I won’t bother anyone. I’ll stand at the back. I’ll try my best not to be seen. But I so very much want to be there. I want to see Jesus. I don’t really want Him to see me. I don’t deserve for Him to see me, but I desperately want to feel His presence.
A sensation starts to come over me. It is not a vision. I am here; it is still me, in this church. I don’t know how to explain it, but so clearly I know that Jesus is here. He is walking through the congregation and greeting each one. I thought I would feel more afraid, but I don’t. As He gets closer, I still try to shrink behind the people around me, but it’s no use. He comes over to me and embraces me in His arms. He holds me close and says, so that only I can hear, “I see you.”
The final hymn arrives. “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” I sing and cry and praise my Jesus, who has seen me today.
*This is my story, my emotions. I have nothing but love for the people of my church.