I’ve always been a big chicken.
At the ripe old age of 45, I can honestly say that I’ve never toilet papered a house or shoe polished a car. I was always terrified of getting caught. I’m the kind of person who would never dream of walking out the “in” door at Walmart.
I’ve never willingly broken the rules. Well, other than speeding.
Oh, and that one time in 8th grade when I decided to roam the halls with some popular kids, thinking it would make me cool.
Yeah. It didn’t.
I’m a rule follower.
As such, I’ve never been one to seek out danger. I’m not a risk taker. I like feeling safe.
But all too many times, I’ve sacrificed myself and my better judgment to stay where I wasn’t safe. Usually out of fear of what others — even those who mistreated and, dare I say it, even abused me — might think.
When You’re Unsafe
It’s been said that the body doesn’t lie. These ancient systems within our bones, the fight or flight response, the release of adrenaline and cortisol, the way our brains can instinctively fly into defense mode — these are all part of our intricate design. When the body triggers a response, something is going on. It may be a real or perceived threat, but the body is responding to something.
Nearly four years ago, my body went into overdrive defense mode and — like Balaam’s donkey — sat down in the middle of a dusty road and refused to budge. And I, foolish as Balaam, thought that beating it with a stick was somehow the answer.
How I worked, how I tried, how I prayed. I would force this flesh and bone into submission if necessary, I would.
And yet still, I would command my lungs to breathe and they would respond, “when we’re ready.” Which never seemed to be soon enough.
I was at the mercy of this system of veins and nerves and sinews and cells. They had given me my chance and I had blown all kinds of gaskets and stripped all the gears. My body insisted on going into auto-pilot repair mode.
A friend called it “spiritual life support” and I suppose that’s as perfect a term as any to describe what I went through.
Sometimes we stay in unsafe situations because of what’s expected. Maybe we stay because we want to prove a point, want others to think we’re strong. We want to outlast those who would love to watch us fold. We stay because we’re just that stubborn.
I found myself in an unsafe situation in a workplace many years ago.
That time I did the hard thing when my body started to give me signals, and I left.
But when it happened to me at church I was blindsided.
I didn’t feel safe anymore, but all my upbringing and experience and expectations convinced me that I needed to stay. My desire to do the “Christian” thing, to be good and do God’s will and “turn the other cheek” convinced me to stay.
So I stayed.
Miserable, yes. Afraid, yes. Determined to stick it out to the end, yes. Convinced that I could overcome the insurmountable odds, yes.
- Even though I began having panic attacks on Saturday nights, I stayed.
- Even though my heart rate became elevated and my breathing shallow when I drove into the parking lot, I stayed.
- Even though my vocal cords shut down inside the building walls and refused to sing a note, I stayed.
I stayed until my body couldn’t take any more.
I don’t understand God’s ways. I don’t know why He chooses to move the way He does or when He does. I earnestly wish that He could somehow work His changes and bring about spiritual growth without the pain of pruning and refining and reshaping. But that’s not usually how He does things.
My church experience was painful. It was painful because I loved the church so much. It was a huge part of my life, my family’s life. It was a central part of who we were and I wanted to never leave. I assumed we would be there forever.
But it became an unsafe place for me.
I couldn’t be myself anymore. I couldn’t relax. My little boy couldn’t be himself. I had to be on alert, on guard, always ready for the next big thing. I was terrified of making a mistake. I was even more terrified that my son would make one. It was like waiting for a bomb to drop.
I gave it more effort than I ever should have, but in the end, I couldn’t keep it up.
When my lungs and my voice stopped functioning, I finally had to quit.
- I didn’t leave because I wanted to.
- I didn’t leave because I quit trying.
- I didn’t even leave because I was emotionally upset, although I certainly was.
No. The honest truth is, I left because I couldn’t breathe.
And to stay in a place where you can no longer breathe, well, that’s unsafe.
A Safe Place
Now I’m in a place I never thought I’d be. We are in a new church, one with a different denomination and different ways of doing things. I am learning.
But I am also breathing.
It is not a perfect church. There are no perfect churches. The people in it are not perfect. I don’t expect them to be.
But it feels safe. It’s a safe place to be. . . and to be myself.
And for that I am grateful.
What about you? Have you ever had to leave a place or situation because you were unsafe? Or, like me, have you ever stayed longer than you should have? I’d love to hear your stories in the comment section below.