Rachelle Houlbrook, Lynnette Van Bruggen, Angeline Schellenberg, and Suhail Stephen share reflections about their experience of God in our church.
Amy shared the following the first time we ever gathered on a Sunday. It was a sunny morning, September 13, 2020, on the grass behind Sargent Park School.
So about two years ago, I thought I may be done with church forever. Done with God? No way – our relationship was just getting good. I wasn’t done with God or spiritual conversation or community with other believers. But church? I just didn’t know if I’d be able to do it again. I felt freed by leaving church and was really happy with my decision. I had many friends with whom I shared spiritual conversation and a sense of community, I had a Spiritual Director that I loved and saw regularly, and I had a real and deepening relationship with God which is something I never truly had before. God was telling me that this time away from church, itself, was good.
Going back earlier than that, to just before I turned 40, I had a lot of thoughts swimming through my head about why I believed what I believed. For my whole life, I had feared using my intellect with my faith – I didn’t know it at the time but I think I was afraid my faith wouldn’t stand up. And the thought of losing faith was completely tied up together in fear of losing family, friends and my church community – basically, all of my comforts. So I didn’t even entertain it. But God had started coming at me LOUDER and I couldn’t suppress those thoughts any longer.
During that time, there were a few things that happened simultaneously.
1. I began to meet with a friend almost daily – Kathy had been a missionary for 20 years and had somewhat recently moved back to Winnipeg; the woman KNOWS her bible.
2. I ordered dozens books on Amazon about theology and Christianity – a wide variety with some more conservative and some more liberally minded than what would have been taught in my church growing up. I was constantly reading and studying.
3. My thirst to read the bible became unquenchable – I read the whole bible, front to back in about 8 – 10 weeks; after work, on weekends, for hours at a time – it’s all I wanted to do. I was moved to just read it through – not to get stopped up by trying to understand phrasing or background or how translations were made – just to read it.
After reading the whole bible through in that short time, it became SO clear to me that I had gotten it wrong. I was shocked by the Jesus I found in the bible… This Jesus was SO MUCH BETTER! Reading it through from front to back like that – the Holy Spirit opened my eyes and revealed to me this overarching and beautiful message of grace.
How was this not the message I had been hearing over and over for 40 years? How had I gotten so tied up in being the right kind of Christian who did the right kinds of things and judged anyone whose life experience wasn’t the same as my own? How in the world did I think that an Evangelical church in a city in the middle of Canada had “figured it all out” better than any other church in the rest of the world? Did I really believe that all this stuff I heard preached that was intended to make us into the “right kind” of Christian? Was that stuff actually biblical? Or even relevant? Why were these the things that seemed so important to Christians? The messaging I received always seemed to be about how I could make myself better.
The whole idea of someone telling me how I (a person who no one else had ever been before) should be hearing from God started to look unhealthy, even perverse to me. God was making it clear to me that this was not the way He wanted me to know Him. It wasn’t how I wanted to do relationship with Him but, even more importantly, HE was telling me that it wasn’t how HE wanted to do relationship with me.
He wanted REAL, deep and meaningful relationship with me – that’s how He created me to be on purpose – it wasn’t a mistake. The way I thought and acted and lived wasn’t all a mistake! That was revelatory!
Through the couple of years that I did not attend church, I was at peace, knowing that being away from something that had been bad for me was OK with God. He knows me and what is good for me. He continued to fulfill my needs and our relationship got stronger and better as time went by. This did not, however, mean that all the people in my life felt OK with me not going to church.
In fact, I had to battle a lot of discomfort from well-meaning friends and family who didn’t understand why I couldn’t just go to church, like I always had. In the few times I went to services over my time away from church, I left feeling terrible. I didn’t know why church made me feel so badly but in retrospect I think a part of it is that the messages I was hearing preached were ones I associated with having hampered my understanding of who the Real Jesus was and how God really wanted to have a relationship with me.
I felt robbed and saddened to think of little Amy, even as a child, thinking that she had to work harder to be the right kind of Christian.
As someone who is a Highly Sensitive Person, an INFJ-T and a 4 on the Enneagram, I am (first, obviously, hyper self-aware and into introspection, and secondly) wired for deep and meaningful conversation and relationship. It is integral to who I am and how I relate to God. Coming to my own conclusions, based on the intelligence God has given me and healthy discernment within relationship with several Christian friends, my Spiritual Director, and my therapist, is how I get the most out of my relationship with God. Deep and meaningful relationship – that’s what I’m made for.
Receiving messaging that encouraged my weaknesses wasn’t ever the right fit for me, but it took me a long time to figure that out AND to figure out that church was where that was primarily coming from. But God screamed loud enough and He got me out of something that was unhealthy for me. I had counted on other people to tell me what God was telling me and let them pick the things I needed to hear and how I should hear them.
But God did not create me to be the kind of person who lives that way and when the time was right, He pulled me out of there. Against what I would have picked with my mind if I was the one leading the show. But a true mix of head and heart is the tension that I know Jesus wants us to live in. That’s what I like about West End Abbey – we’re not told how to experience God, we’re taught how to listen with our heart, mind and body.
My Spiritual Director knew about West End Abbey when it first began as a contemplative church. She thought it may be just the right kind of fit for me since I loved the contemplative practices she had shared with me. So I emailed Suhail, got a favourable response, and showed up at their house that very evening for a gathering. I only visited three times before I got sick for weeks on end and then the COVID shut down happened so my experience with West End Abbey is almost solely based on screen time. But that still hasn’t hampered how I have experienced relationship.
The first time I attended this unnamed church, I had a feeling of warmth. There is truth here – there is no doubt about that, it’s not a free-for-all. But there is room and space for the Holy Spirit to do the work within each of us during our time together. We’re encouraged to contemplate and listen and to understand how important that is. The nurturing I have experienced here has been integral in growing my relationships; I have become stronger in who I AM and how Christ lives IN ME by attending this church.
The emphasis on contemplation and listening to God was sorely missing in my life before I started Spiritual Direction and finding West End Abbey was finding a place to do that WITH other people. This church would have seemed SUPER intimidating to the Amy of four years ago. And that’s ok – God equally had grace for four-years-ago Amy.
West End Abbey is a place where I show up – the real Amy shows up, not the Amy who looks like the “right kind” of Christian but is a spiraling mess on the inside. It’s a place where we can go deep and there is a total lack of judgement. Here, I feel that we all truly Come As We Are and not with the pre-conceived idea of who we SHOULD be.
Simply, this church is a tremendous blessing and feels like a gift from God that was created specifically and directly for me. For The Right Now Amy. I wouldn’t have dreamed I would find a community like this and it blows my mind that it came in the package of “church.” It is a beautiful gift.