I had a conversation yesterday with a friend. She’s married. I’m not anymore. She lives in the South. I definitely do not. She has a fulltime job outside her home. Mine keeps me here, in yoga pants most days and perched at my desk in my dining room. She attends church. I do not.

Despite our differences, it’s this last point that is our greatest place of connection. I, for all intents and purposes, left the church when I left my marriage to the pastor. She still attends, but wishes either that she didn’t have to or that she could find some resonance and affinity within. And for reasons that I completely understand, she still attends, she stays, she tolerates, and often – silently and in isolation – she rages. I listen. I nod. I get it.

I wonder if her situation is unique. But before the question even completely forms in my mind, I already know the answer. She is not. She is just like me. For I was her – in a pew every Sunday; longing to hear something, anything different and knowing that I wouldn’t; caught between my desire for community, a safe and nurturing space for my daughters, the lack-of tension my absence would create in my marriage and my ambivalence, oft’ disdain, and endless frustration over what I witnessed, what I heard, what I felt – or didn’t. There’s no one solution to this bind for her or for me, no all-inclusive answer that mitigates loss on the one hand and offers respite on the other.

There was a day when people attended church and (mostly) agreed with what they heard. They nodded in affirmation. They spoke or interned an “amen” when the message or the music resonated. They embraced friends – aware that they were among their own. And they left the confines of that sacred space feeling stronger, uplifted, encouraged – shoulders squared to the week ahead and grateful for a place and time in which they felt at home.

I suppose I am somewhat jaded, but I no longer believe that church is where I will experience this. Not because the people within are incapable of such, but because the system of beliefs to which I must accede in order to fit in is too incongruous for my soul to survive.

…church has become a spiritual, even a theological struggle for me. I have found it increasingly difficult to sing hymns that celebrate a hierarchical heavenly realm, to recite creeds that feel disconnected from life, to pray liturgies that emphasize salvation through blood, to listen to sermons that preach an exclusive way to God, to participate in sacraments that exclude others, and to find myself confined to a hard pew in a building with no windows to the world outside. ~ Diana Butler Bass, Grounded

And yet, miraculously and gratefully, my soul does survive – and thrive – completely outside of this system (something I disbelieved while still within). I am supported and strengthened by relationship with people who are nothing like me, who do not know the stories of which I speak, who wonder who I am talking about (and why) when I mention the Syrophoenician or the Shunnamite, and who love me still.

Then every once in a while, like this morning, I have a conversation with a woman who gets my every story (including the Syrophoenician and the Shunnamite); we are separated by miles and even similarity, but no less desirous of friendship, kinship, and talk of sacred stuff. I hang up and my soul breathes in a whispered “amen;” I utter an unspoken prayer of gratitude and give a wink-and-a-nod to something that feels akin to grace…maybe even God.

It is heartbreaking to be alone in one’s beliefs or lack thereof, even more so to be surrounded by people who believe (or don’t) far differently than oneself and feel unseen, unheard, unnoticed, unappreciated, un-understood. I am so profoundly aware-and-thankful that this is not my story today. And I hold such a place of tenderness and affinity for those who remain – for a myriad of legitimate reasons – in a story that is even remotely less-than the one they long for. Religious. Relational. In any form.

May we be ones who honestly name heartbreak – first and foremost our own; then on behalf of others. May we be holders and creators of safety and the sacred (even if “only” on the phone). May we be ones who bravely leave spaces that are not safe, do not heal, do not encourage and uplift. If we cannot, at least not yet or not now, may we be ones who boldly bear and bridge the gap, the ravine, the in-between. And may all of us – no matter our location, our circumstances, our beliefs, or the state of our souls, be ones who both receive and offer what is hungered for most, needed most, all that really matters: love and love and love.