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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Ryerse

Seeking the Lost

I made a friend years ago who baffled me with her bluntness. She, with her kids, started coming to the little church my husband pastored. As our friendship deepend, I learned that she had attended a militantly fundamentalist Bible college, married a "preacher boy" who beat her, and left her to face thyroid cancer alone. She built up the courage to divorce him, only to be convicted that God hates divorce and went back and re-married him. He of course went back to abusing her. Finally one night, she had a frank discussion with God. She told me that she just looked up and said, “You know what, God? I have pursued you my whole life. I have tried so hard to hold on to you. Now you are gonna have to just hold on to me.” Her life ever since had been a colorful, sometimes off-color, adventurous, sometimes mis-adventure. But she was living her life. She wasn’t chasing after approval or grace. She just expected it to find her.

She was one of the first people in my life that I felt I could let down my hair with, put my feet up, and stop walking around on tiptoe. At that point, I had been in ministry for a decade, serving multiple churches, and I was doing my best to be the perfect pastor's wife. I made a roast and mashed potatoes every Sunday, hosted Bible studies, attended Ladies Missionary Society meetings and kept the church in fresh flowers and coffee. It was all the life I had imagined, growing up in the fundamentalist/evangelical machine. I stuck close to the script: Attend Christian school, Bible College, marry a pastor, teach in a Christian School, be the church secretary, play the piano… I had done it all. A Pharisee of Pharisees. Blameless according to the law.

“D” gave me a taste of oxygen. The feeling of outside air after being on an airplane. I liked it. In the years that followed, we moved away and planted a church while we deconstructed before deconstruction was cool. This new church ordained me as their co-pastor. My friend came to celebrate my ordination, gifting me with a bracelet that reads, “Fearless.” This church paid me for my work. Gave me dignity. Grace. Freedom.

And then came Covid. My kids began leaving the nest. The brain fog of perimenopause crept in, along with crippling anxiety. For fifteen years, my husband and I had co-pastored the church, simultaneously working other full time jobs, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization, “This is not where I’m supposed to be.” My husband had no desire to go on without me. We asked to retire from the church. It broke my heart to leave and yet, for the first time in my 26 years of married life, I experienced a thing called… a weekend.

And for the first time in my life, I am letting myself ask questions that were much too expensive before. I am letting myself wonder about the whole God thing – to ask out loud if God exists at all and if any of what I had done with my life was actually required, or if I just was programmed to think it was. Someone else has always needed me to believe in God– my parents, my husband, church people. Now, nobody is depending on my beliefs. Until now, pursuing God always seemed like a safe way to spend my life. It promised significance, meaning, approval from others. But now, it is just me and my questions. Out in the wide open spaces of thought and doubt and curiosity and fear and freedom. I feel lost most of the time. No familiar weekly rhythm of church on Sunday morning and friends eating out after church. No reason to dress up. No shoulds of entertaining, or staying on top of relationships lest they decay and cause harm. No building. No office. No title. This terrain is wild and foreign to me. I don’t see any landmarks.

My friend D had a job, back in the day; she worked for the state recruiting and retaining foster parents. It wasn’t long before my husband and I were licensed foster parents, responding to a call one morning. “We have a 3 month old we’d like to place with you. It will probably be a long term placement. Call us back in an hour if you want her.”

Eighteen years later, it was a very long term placement indeed. This child’s life became the catalyst for much of my own most significant growth and expansion. Her circumstances made me ask questions of my faith that I would have never had on my own, safe inside the system of certitude. Stark and honest, I wondered — Why do so many Christian people support babies but not the parents -biological and foster - who care for them? Why did “godless gay couples” seem to be willing to take on the hardest cases while so many “nice white Christians” only wanted healthy infants? Exactly how much of my Christian school education was poisoned by segregationist ideology? How can people say they love my daughter and then call her biological relatives -immigrants at the border- criminals and rapists? How much responsibility can people take for their actions when they have generations of unseen trauma wired into their bodies and brains? Who is really going to address poverty? Because no church I was ever part of could make the slightest dent in it.

One morning a month before she was supposed to leave for college, this child sparked the biggest question of my life. I had awakened in the night with a sick feeling in my gut. Her little dog was whimpering to go out so I got up and opened the back door, but instead he ran to the front door. I was confused and sleepy and telling myself I was being stupid, I went back to bed. But I knew she was gone. I tried to talk myself out of it while I tossed and turned, eventually drifting into a fitful sleep. But in the light of day, she was indeed missing. Her computer and a piece of luggage, gone with her.

We soon triangulated her location, but she refused to talk to us. Not even her siblings. A day, then a week went by. A wall of silence. In the vast absentia, I realized how hard I had pursued this child. How I made bid after bid for connection, only to be pushed back or quietly ignored. I realized how she had stopped addressing me as “Mom”, stopped greeting me after work, and stopped coming downstairs for dinner. Always a plausible reason at the time, but I knew I was being snipped out of her life. Even if her body was in the room at family night, she was somewhere else. She had been somewhere else for a long time. I don’t know her reasons, I can only make guesses.

I sat by the wall of silence for weeks and mourned. I raged. I screamed. I begged. I cried until I made myself sick. I lay awake and felt the weight of that wall on my chest in the dark, certain it would squeeze the life out of me. I reasoned with myself; “You aren’t the first parent to have a kid go a direction you don’t want them to go. She’s clearly in pain to act in such a dramatic way.” But the wall just persisted. “Unbothered.” It was one of my daughter’s favorite words.

I sobbed on the phone with D. “I am so lost.”

And she corrected me. “You FEEL so lost.” You aren’t lost. You are right here.

I wanted to pursue my girl. To go where I knew she was and pick up her small body, wrapped in my arms, and carry her home like I did the first day I met her. I wanted to chase her down with love and gentle messages, wooing her. I wanted to cross whatever the distance was between us with leaps of love and understanding. I wanted her.

I still want her.

For so long, loving God meant chasing something. More reading, more activity, more action. We speak of it so casually…. “I’m just really pursuing God right now.” We’re pursuing more disciples or more programs to make other people “just really pursue God” too. Loving God meant making God accessible and easy for others to find during the long months of the pandemic, even though everyone was stuck at home and God was probably just hanging out at their house too. Always, always tending the connections. Fussing over them, lest they fly apart.

Love could so easily mean pursuing my daughter. Chasing her down and not letting her leave. But it’s a funny thing, when you are lost in a wilderness. The right thing to do is “don’t move.”

Don’t go.

Don’t chase.

Don’t try to find your way.

Stay put and let the search party find you.

And it’s so scary. What if they don’t know you are lost? What if they don’t come looking for you? What if you die in your questions and silence?

But for now. I am not pursuing God. I am not pursuing my daughter. I am staying right here until somebody finds me. I need to know who is holding on to whom.

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Sep 25, 2022

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