The past year was exhausting for Lindsey and me. We needed some space to breathe. In the words of the old song, we felt broken and spilled out, and the last thing we needed to do was to pour out more of ourselves in this moment. When we first returned to our old church, the youth minister said, “We’re so glad you’re here. For now, just rest. Let us know when you’re ready to get involved.” I was skeptical when I heard it. This church has a strong creative arts focus, full of many talented people, who also knew of my talents, so I held my breath, wondering how long it would be before someone asked me to serve. Yet Lindsey and I did exactly as he said. We sat in a pew, we worshipped, we waited. And we watched.
For the first few weeks, I think I secretly wanted to find some major character flaw in church leadership. In a dark and distant part of my soul, a part that has not yet been exposed to the Light, maybe I even longed for a scandal. Something tangible that could be my “get out of church free card.” A final nail in the religious coffin I had stored in the back yard, alongside other old church hurts and memorials to days gone by, when imperfect people acted in imperfect ways, and left me offended.
I tried to help the cause by giving them every opportunity to judge me or to criticize me. I offered to share my history with the youth pastor one night, as we sat in my living room. I offered to tell him everything, to “confess my sins.” That would surely keep me from being invited to “use my gifts” again. But he wasn’t interested. He didn’t want to know. “It’s been more than three years, Steve. And I can see the fruit of your counseling and therapy. Your marriage is proof. I don’t need to know this, unless you have some deep need to get it off your chest.” I didn’t. In my fear, I was grateful and somehow frustrated. This wasn’t the usual feedback from church people.
As hard as I tried to prove myself unworthy of engaging in this faith community, I was never shown the door. This community is different. And I’m different, too. Ten years away from this church where I grew up did us both some good. The church has matured like a precious grandparent, no longer concerned with fruitless arguments or immature judgment. But it’s not just them. I’ve done some growing up, too. I’m no longer expecting the church to be the driving force to my faith. Instead, I’m looking for a safe place to belong, to lay down my burdens, and rest. I’m looking for an imperfect community, committed to wrestling with the ways of grace, and they’re looking to provide one. It’s a really good fit.
A few weeks ago, the associate pastor greeted me one Sunday morning during the song service and asked me to come speak to a group of ministry students. I was shocked and honored. I was also more nervous than I could possibly explain. Again, I tried to offer my list of failures and ministry mishaps, but I was pleasantly surprised when my shame collided with the grace this man has experienced. He expressed faith in me and only asked me to tell them what Jesus has done in my life. This man has known me since I was nine-years-old. Yet he still wanted me to come speak to the students he is leading.
The night before I was due to speak, laying in bed next to Lindsey, I started to cry. Inside, I was cowering like a small child in a corner, afraid of my own shadow. “Vulnerability is the courage to show up and be seen,” says Brene’ Brown. Showing up and being seen and not having any control over the outcome.
What could I possibly tell these students that they don’t already know? And what on earth could we possibly have in common? What I knew how to do was craft a script, rehearse it tirelessly, have some slick one-liners, make them laugh a little, and prepare for a powerful altar call. A dose of hysterics. A dash of theatrics. And a few cherry-picked Scriptures, for good measure. But that’s the old me. That’s the Steve Austin who lived the lie, who put on a show. I wanted the real me to show up the next day.
So I did. The new me showed up and told the truth. I shared what God had done in me in the three and a half years since my suicide attempt. I told them what it’s like to find God after a big failure in ministry and life. To meet God after my marriage nearly collapsed. I told them it’s okay to wrestle. Struggles don’t disqualify us from God’s community. In the words of Brennan Manning, I no longer “compare my insides to everyone else’s outsides.”
I was my authentic self. No one-liners, no theatrics. I left the smoke and mirrors behind. I simply stood, read my notes, cried a little, and shared God as I see Him, who loves me in the midst of every storm and who patiently helps me peel back layers of shame and guilt and fear and performance. The God who doesn’t need me to be perfect.
As I prepared to leave that day, several students approached me and told me their stories. Many of them said “me too” in their own struggles. In fact, countless people (several I’ve known my entire life) have approached me at the altars or hallways of our church and thanked me for sharing about my childhood abuse and suicide attempt. I thought my story would separate me from the group, but it’s actually where I connect with them the most. I am shocked, relieved, and honored to find a community where people are free to wrestle and share their truth.
My family is finding belonging in a community of believers who understand the messiness of grace and the goodness of God. I have found a community who wants both your gifts and your weaknesses. It’s the perfect place for me.
Want to read more? Check out, “It Really Sucks to Be a Christian Right Now” on HuffPost.