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After Church: Widening
what happens when we explore?
I want to pause here, as we come to the fourth phase of the After Church series, to remind us that this series, the phases of exiting institutional Christian or church spaces, is not a linear journey.
If it’s helpful, here’s the image of the four realms of resistance from my book Living Resistance, a reminder that we live in seasons and cycles:
As I share in so much of my writing, we are seasonal people, labyrinthine, really. We journey across switchbacks, around and around, back and forth, here and there, repeating things from the past, moving on, finding new ways, switching back again, learning something new, it could go on and on…
Just as the last phase, grieving, is cyclical, and a space we may inhabit for years, so too is this current phase we find ourselves in, a really important space of unlearning, learning, and exploring, a space of w i d e n i n g .
I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.
I circle around God, that primordial tower.
I have been circling for thousands of years,
And I still don't know: am I a falcon,
A storm, or a great song?
There is a beautiful expansiveness that comes when we step out of institutional spaces. We feel this in many ways, because for many of us, institutional church spaces often felt like spiritual prisons.
Once I began to untie myself from the assumptions I’d learned from my childhood faith, I felt free, lighter, like I could finally find myself, and yes, perhaps, God. I’m still working on both, I have not yet, and probably never will, fully arrive.
I am a human being. I am always arriving.
There are so many, many gifts to the widening, and it’s okay to acknowledge that widening and grieving go hand-in-hand, are a kind of ebb and flow of their own.
But giving ourselves permission to step into the exploratory spaces of our spirituality and faith is healing on many levels for many of us.
A lot of my widening/exploratory phase actually began while I was still in church, but it really expanded after we left and I finally gave myself permission to live without being a “church leader”—even if it was only leading a small group, or feeling the need to become a “somebody” in the church, that causes a sense of pressure for a lot of us that we need to be free of to embrace our own widening. Have you experienced this?
When we become free, we find space to start asking questions. What do I hope for in community? What are my hobbies? How can I find others on a similar journey? What books and podcasts and stories might help me on this leg of the journey? Is it okay if this takes me months, years even (yes, friend yes! It’s more than okay!)?
So, as we widen, a few things to be aware of:
don’t appropriate other cultures. This is an important part of widening and exploration— as we grow to understand other ways of viewing The Sacred and our own understandings of spirituality, it’s tempting to want to grab from other beliefs and cultures, to simplify them and learn from them, but that often runs a risk of appropriation. I’ve written about this in Living Resistance a bit if you want to learn more, but it’s always helpful to simply be aware, and especially of religion packaged in easy, digestible forms that have been taken from their contexts and westernized.
trade fear for curiosity. I grew up in a denomination that thrives on fear and othering. When I began to step out of that fear, I found such a depth of beauty, and began to understand that curiosity is a gift we give ourselves and each other, so that we can be open to the unlearning and the learning that is in store for us as we widen.
learn religious and cultural history. It’s always a good idea to step out of indoctrination to figure out how we got there in the first place. Read books on the history of different religions, on the history of colonization in Christianity, visit spaces that give context to what’s happening around the world, pay attention to (and question) news cycles, and learn with others in community.
practice embodiment. It’s so important as we explore alongside the grieving process that we keep practicing embodiment! We have to have moments when we get out of our heads and back into our bodies—we hold so much in this liminal space where we’ve left something we knew and we are waiting to see what’s ahead; give your body space and time to catch up to the season you’re in. Maybe you hire a spiritual director or you go to therapy for the first time, you join a book club or hobby group like cycling or D&D. Make exploration fun!
Expansion, exploration, and widening is a gift.
This last weekend I had my very last speaking event with a group of over 1,000 middle and high schoolers at a Methodist conference in North Carolina, and here’s what I shared with them about the power of curiosity:
It’s important that we connect to our child selves often. This is a practice that my friend Ruthie Lindsey does so well. Ruthie has pictures of her child self around her home, pictures she carries with her, that she speaks to, that she practices loving. There is something about reconnecting with our child selves regularly that is healing on a level we probably can’t always explain, but it opens up love and curiosity in us, and the bravery to ask difficult questions.
What we also learn from our child selves is the value of curiosity. Did you have moments when you were young, moments where you felt totally secure and connected with something in nature, even if it was simply an acorn, ant, or a moment of staring out the window?
I remember moments like this when I was young, playing with grasshoppers, singing as the wind blew by, imaging myself connected to God in a really holy and personal way. I think as we get older, as we learn the ways of society, the ways of a society that thinks of the land as a product to be broken down, traded and bought, we lose that curiosity.
So, now is the time to step into your childlike wonder, let your curiosity guide you, ask what kind of relationship you want to have to God, The Sacred, Mother Earth, and look for spaces that help you hold and explore that in a safe and ethical way.
I can’t wait to see where this leg of the journey takes you, friend.
I can’t wait to see where it’s still taking me.