Sometimes Leaving Is Just the Beginning

The Sunday that changed everything started like any other —wrangling kids into their car seats and rushing to leave the house on time. But as we drove the seven minutes to church, a fist of anxiety squeezed the middle of my chest, making it hard to breathe.

We dropped the kids off at Sunday school, and my husband and I walked into the sanctuary. I started crying and shaking. As we slid into our seats, the knot in my chest tightened. The coffee in my hand sloshed precariously, and I nudged my husband to show him how much my hands shook. Tears streamed down my face.

“Are you okay?” he asked gently.

I laughed quietly through my tears and shook my head. “I don’t even know why I am crying. I can’t stop.”

I looked around at all of the beautiful people in that room. My heart broke just a bit as a phrase nudged my heart: “You don’t belong here.” 

The phrase echoed urgently. Tears came harder.

I turned and whispered, “I have to go.”

So I left. I walked outside to sit on a bench underneath a bright blue sky and waited for my family to come out after the service ended.

While that moment both looked and felt like the end of my faith, that is not how my story goes. There is More.

In Hosea, God says: “I will allure her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”

While panic attacks and a crumbling faith don’t feel very alluring, they led me to my wilderness story, a place with few answers or guarantees and a quiet where I could learn to listen.

Fast forward a few months: I was still not going to church; my faith was defined by raging questions; and I had just put in my notice to quit the lawyer job that I dreaded.

I found myself in a beautiful and cozy room. May sunlight streamed through bright windows. With nervous anticipation, I was about to enter into my first silent retreat.

Before my retreat began, I met with a woman for spiritual direction. “Your application screamed of anxiety,” she noted. I nodded; tears filled my eyes. She listened gently as I spilled out all of the questions that I couldn’t find answers to.

“Jess, what is the one question that you need for today?”

My mind filtered through a swarm of questions like: What do I need to believe about Jesus? Where should I go to church? If I’m not going to be a lawyer, what should I be? Why can’t I pray? What am I supposed to do with the Bible?

In a moment of clarity, I remembered a quote I read recently in John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara. “[M]any people wonder where they should be and what they should do, when in fact they should be more concerned about how to be.”

“How am I supposed to be? That’s it. That’s my question,” I answered.

My new friend’s eyes sparkled when she heard my answer. “That’s a good question,” she said as she hugged me and slipped out the door.

I turned around to face the empty room with my new question, and I felt a nudge: “Move out of your head and into your heart.” That nudge felt important, so I sat on the couch to write the phrase in my journal.

Setting down my pen, I picked up O’Donohue’s book To Bless the Space Between Us. I opened it to a random page and landed immediately on these words: “The state of one’s heart inevitably shapes one’s life; it is ultimately the place where everything is decided.” Goosebumps rippled across my arms. I was paying attention.

In that quiet afternoon, three more nudges dropped into my heart as I sat with my question. How am I supposed to be?

Be still,” I wrote in my journal. I was just discovering that my soul thrives with contemplative practices, that I can pray without words.

In stillness, I quit trying so hard to find my answers. I began learning to listen and pay attention to the way that God shows up in my world.

After a while, I ventured out into the backyard’s dappled light for a slow prayer of walking in a labyrinth.

Be slow.” The second nudge settled into my heart as my feet traced the bricks winding in the grass.

I didn’t like this one. I would prefer a quick answer, a grand vision, or a tidy checklist of next steps. It’s been over five years, and I’m still waiting to go back to church. Two years ago, I started the process of training to be a spiritual director, but what that will look like remains to be seen. I still have questions about Jesus, but we’re getting along better these days.

Transformation is a slow, gradual, and spiraling process.

The final nudge of that afternoon landed with more mystery. “Be spacious.

“What does that mean?” My husband asked after I told him about my day.

“I don’t know.” I replied. 

But spaciousness started popping up all over the place when I looked for it.

I found it in Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: “The bottom line of the Gospel is that most of us have to hit some kind of bottom before we even start the real spiritual journey. Up to that point, it is mostly religion…. At the bottom, … [y]ou just want to breathe fresh air. The true Gospel is always fresh air and spacious breathing room.”

Henri Nouwen writes about creating sacred space in your life so that God can act: “By creating sacred space, you reserve a part of yourself and prevent your life from being completely filled up, occupied, or preoccupied.” I know now that leaving church and leaving my job created this sacred space in my life.

Being spacious is letting God out of the God-box I had constructed. God was never trapped inside of it anyways.

Spaciousness is a state of heart. It is making room for other people to be just who they are. I don’t need to fix them or try to refashion them like me.

Being spacious means belonging in my life right now. Beyond all I know or think I know, there is More—and I’ll always find God waiting for me there.

Photo by Philipp Berndt on Unsplash

Jessica L. Sanborn

Jessica L. Sanborn

Writer at J. L. Sanborn
I am a homebody, a lover of beautiful words, changing seasons, and soul-deep conversation. Every day, I tell my 3 kids that I'm lucky to be their mom. I'm married to someone who has always been comfortable in his own skin and gives me space to be just who I am, whoever that might be at the time. Today, I am just getting used to the idea of calling myself a spiritual director.
Jessica L. Sanborn

Latest posts by Jessica L. Sanborn (see all)