I had gotten my two kids and myself dressed for church and finished filling two huge cookie jars for the church coffee hour. Other than the presence of some more-than-usual tension in my chest, I would’ve thought it was any other Sunday morning.
But then, everything went wrong. The dog escaped. My kids (six and four at the time) went out to find the dog and were playing on top of the car. I started to cry and my chest got tighter. My whole body ached. I was intimately familiar with panic attacks but had never had one last this long. In the past, panic attacks had always lasted thirty to forty-five seconds, so I thought if I just kept breathing it would pass. But as the timer hit five minutes, I wasn’t sure this one would. I tried to go outside and get the kids, praying the dog wouldn’t get hit on the busy road in front of our house, but I couldn’t even walk through the door. It was like there was a force field keeping me inside.
I was helpless to help myself. And I was helpless to care for my kids.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a moment that changed my faith forever.
Anxiety and depression have been part of my life since childhood, but the strain of single parenting after being widowed a few years before had pushed my capacity and mental health to their limits. I figured I was just exhausted and spent the week recovering.
And as soon as I started to get ready for church the next week, the panic returned.
It returned every Sunday morning for weeks.
I couldn’t go to church.
I couldn’t read the Bible.
Even hymns and worship songs paralyzed me.
Every way I knew to be a Christian was suddenly triggering my anxiety, and I couldn’t figure out why.
My Christian life has changed many times over the course of my life — from childhood faith to passionate curiosity as a young adult. My understanding of hope and faithfulness shifted when my dad died at fifty-two and then again when my husband died at thirty-two (I was twenty-eight and pregnant with our second kid at the time). Suffering, grief, and loss refine our faith in ways that Bible study, sermons, and prayer aren’t meant to.
But this was different.
This felt like my faith was part of the problem.
I happened to be in seminary at the time, studying spiritual formation, and I became obsessively curious about how people have practiced their Christian faith around the world and across centuries. I discovered the practices I thought were non-negotiable (in-depth Bible study and lengthy academic sermons) were only two very small slices of pepperoni on the very large pizza that is the Christian faith.
I learned about the Desert Fathers and Mothers who lived out in the middle of nowhere, steeped in the presence of God, being filled with wisdom and devoted to prayer.
I learned about the first century Jewish Christians who didn’t hold church services as we understand them now but who opened their homes to each other, shared meals, and supported each other in the face of political oppression.
There are so many classics in Christian wisdom and writings that are about knowing God and being surrounded by God’s presence like a cloud. There were people who devoted their life to God by washing dishes, by praying for strangers, and by growing food.
I had always thought of my faith as a relationship with God, but I realized that the ways I had actually lived out my faith had more to do with knowing about God than actually knowing God. The ways I had been a Christian all had to do with effort: How often was I praying? Was I reading my Bible enough? Were my notes from Sunday’s sermon sufficient to really cement the info into my brain?
I had built a faith that depended only on my ability to act and do, to learn and to know.
But now I couldn’t do any of those things. Did that mean I couldn’t be a faithful Christian anymore?
I stepped back from my responsibilities at church while I thought it through.
If deep study of the Bible was a foundation of my faith, did that mean I believed people who couldn’t read or had intellectual disabilities couldn’t love or be loved by God?
If academic, lengthy sermons were that important, did that mean that people whose health, job, or location made Sunday morning church inaccessible couldn’t really be Christians?
I knew instinctively that those things could not be true. After all, we are promised that nothing can remove us from the love of God.
I realized, like a knife to the heart, that what I had said I believed and the ways I had been practicing my faith hadn’t been the same.
I sought out opportunities to practice contemplation and silence and to learn more about other ways of being a Christian. I learned about mysticism (which is all about leaning into the mystery of the Holy Spirit, not the new age boogey man I’d been warned against) and discovered the ways my understanding of God had gotten all out of whack.
So I let it all go.
I stopped trying to force myself to go to church.
I read fiction and noticed when the Spirit stirred inside me.
I visited liturgical churches whose prayers and recitations and use of the physical body and space made me feel connected to myself in a way I had never experienced. I felt a sense of belonging to the greater Church in ways I had never appreciated before.
My prayers became inhales and exhales instead of words.
I felt like I was more grounded, more sturdy in myself and in my faith than I had ever been. And at the same time, I felt freer, growing tall like a sunflower, facing the sun, blossoming brighter and bigger than I realized was possible.
And it was in these last few years I’ve realized my faith can only go as deep as I am willing to let my theology spread wide. If I truly believe God’s love is for everyone, then I must practice a faith that abides with that truth. Any shame or exhaustion I felt because of my faith has disappeared because I’m no longer trying to practice faith in a way that can’t accommodate the demands of my mental health and grief.
Maybe the greatest surprise of all is that my faith has become more than something I do or knowledge I acquire. My faith has become a new way of being — of relating to God, of interacting with the world and people around me, and, most profoundly, of showing grace to myself even with a mind and a heart as unreliable as mine.