I still remember quite well the look of my basement office at the house Adrienne and I bought back in 2008. Unfinished but clean with a freshly painted floor and walls, we set up a little covey on one side of the furnace with a few shelves and a desk for the computer. This is where I did most of my writing, and of course all of my internet browsing. It was here where I chatted with my friend Matthew via Facebook, in January of 2009, when he asked me why I still went to church. Matthew and I grew up together, both within the same church, but he had left a couple years prior and moved to Baltimore for graduate school. My response to his question was something along the lines of, “I feel in my heart that it’s true and the only path to spending eternity in Heaven with Jesus.” And as it turns out, the next time I made any type of verbal proclamation of my faith, it was to say that I lost it.
The stories that I’ve heard from others who have left the church in which they grew up have often dealt with the issue of confronting ire and confusion from their family and friends. Seven years ago when I told my wife that I was quitting our church, I had only really begun the process of confessing my unbelief; my parents and siblings needed to know as well.
As tempting as it was to simply let news spread through the gossip chain, that wasn’t hardly fair to anyone. This was to be big news in my family, something that would sting them all the more to hear it from the odd acquaintance at church in the form of, “Hey, sorry to hear about your son burning in hell.” (Whereas that’s phrased a little tongue-and-cheek-like, the sentiment is spot on as far as how members of my former church now see me. At the moment I renounced my faith, as far as any of them are concerned, I am damned for all eternity, and am doubly deserving of scorn for having known about this gift from Jesus and still rejecting it wholesale.)
At the time, the most desirable option was for my wife to deliver the news to the rest of my family the next time she saw them at church. Not surprisingly, she didn’t want to be the messenger for this particular news. And I really can’t say I blamed her. On the night that I told her that I didn’t want to go to church anymore, her response was that that was literally the worst thing I could have said to her, so it stands to reason that she wouldn’t feel all that comfortable repeating it on my behalf. I agreed that it was my responsibility to let my family know about my change of heart and mind, which both alleviated her of having to do so and allowed me to tell them in my own words.
Good idea or not, this still took me months to build up the courage to let everyone else know. My relationship with my wife was going down the drain since I told her I didn’t believe in God anymore, and I was terrified that the same thing would happen with the rest of my family once they found out as well. I had grown up in this church, so I knew full-well what the inner mindset was on the topic of “people of the world,” and of people who had renounced the faith. One example that sticks in my mind was when I was just a young boy and I heard my aunt’s husband talk about his brother who didn’t go to church. The casual disdain that my uncle exhibited for his own brother sits in the back of my mind to this day when I think about how the “believers,” as the people of this church refer to themselves, treat anyone outside the church. When thinking about how to tell my family, I cringed at the memory of my uncle saying with all sincerity that he didn’t care for his brother anymore.
This was the information I was working with when trying to decide the best way to tell my own brothers, sister, and parents that I too didn’t want to go to church anymore, that I wanted to quit the faith, to become an apostate, to be a “person of the world.” None of this looked good. Though we hadn’t divorced yet, the relationship that I had with my wife after confessing my unbelief to her only verified my fears about how the rest of my family might react. But I still had to tell them. So I figured the only sane way to go about this was through email; sure, a tad impersonal, but I could tell everyone at once, could phrase it just right, and I wouldn’t have to go through the personal pain of telling each one individually while looking them in the eye.
Even after writing it, I didn’t actually hit send for at least another week. And then – I waited. Had it gone through? Did anyone change their email address since the last time I’d written to them? How often do they check their email? The downside to this method of communication, when compared to face-to-face, is the wait. And when waiting on something like this, the hours just naturally feel like days.
I don’t know what the initial response was from anyone in my family, but the vast majority of them didn’t respond to the email. My sister-in-law wrote back, verifying that the emails went through, but besides that I only confronted cold silence.
Not very long after this, I met my mother at a restaurant in Floodwood, Minnesota, a town about halfway between where we each lived. It was funny; before either of us got there, I wondered if I should order a beer to set the stage that this was a different kind of dinner. But knowing how much my mother hated drinking, what with it being against her religion, I decided I didn’t want this to be the time to pick fights.
I don’t know what I was anticipating after I told everyone about my apostasy, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it. There was no intervention or otherwise any other attempt to bring me back into the fold. No wailing and gnashing of teeth, at least not to my face. And I wasn’t banished from the family, either. This dinner with my mother was basically an opportunity for me to let my family know who I now am – a combination of the person they’ve always known and the person who had the audacity to abandon what they’ve always thought is the most precious thing in the world. That’s how I viewed this meeting, at any rate. I may never know what my mother hoped to get out of that dinner. Since this time, it’s mostly been cold silence coming from the family about my apostasy. In the end, I have little doubt that both of us left Floodwood at least a little bit disappointed that evening.
But now that the cat was out of the bag, I had another meeting that was a long time coming; I flew to Baltimore to see my friend Matthew. Here we were, at the end of the summer of 2009, two friends who had known each other since we were small boys, and we were about to do something that we had never done together in all our years of friendship. We got ridiculously drunk.
And not a single disappointment was had.