Last week we stood outside an empty Sunday school classroom waiting for someone to come and unlock the door. Service started at 9:00 a.m. and it was already 10 after. My kids shifted awkwardly side to side as we looked into the dim room to see a few abandoned baby bouncers and low tables with crayon caddies in their middles. I couldn’t help but emphasize my exhale. I was so tired of not feeling welcome, so tired of deciding how I felt about new places. And I’m sure my kids were tired of it too.
It was no one’s fault. Attendance was simply low at churches these days, and volunteer teacher response even lower. I couldn’t help but miss the Sunday morning life we knew before the pandemic and before we moved here only six months before it began. I missed the church where my son started as a toddler and grew into an elementary school student. The one where I had my second child alongside other moms raising kids in the city, exchanging our parenting comforts and ideals from the ones we grew up with to things like social justice and diversity. I missed those best friends I grew into motherhood with, the women I looked for on Sunday mornings to ask how the baby had nursed last week, what kindergarten placement they received and how they were managing with work. I missed the childcare volunteers who knew my boys by name and knowing the songs from service, recognizing their warm choruses from the parking lot if we were running 10 minutes late.
By the time I realized how long it had been since we logged off the livestream and walked into a brick and mortar church, I felt more like an orphaned mom than a seasoned one. How had I gone from being so soundly connected on the inside of a church community to standing here, locked out? I wondered if my kids would even have a place to nibble a graham cracker over a paper towel while I sang words to hymns I didn’t know, in a service that had already started.
The night before, I was out jogging and took an unplanned turn through a strip of restaurants, right in between tables of chatting girlfriends and flirting lovers. I could hear the rhythm of their excited socializing as I neared, the steady clink of glassware and dishes interrupted by periodic laughter as it rose into the cool air above their candlelit tables on the narrow street. When I had closed the door behind me 20 minutes earlier to clear my head and separate my early evening tasks from my late night ones, I was so deep in my daily responsibilities that it hadn’t even occurred to me it was a Saturday night. I smelled like burned broccoli and Desitin while half the town was wearing lipstick, looking across the table at leisure and life-giving connection for the next three hours, and suddenly I was so lonely I could hardly stand. I almost buckled beside one of their tables for a scrap of what they were sharing, just a sip of whatever they were drinking, a chance to hear the joke and throw my head back in shared laughter.
That social urgency that raises the volume at restaurants and fills the spaces of standing room only had become so foreign to me I might as well have been jogging through a scene in a movie or a play on stage. Had it been that long since I was waiting for one of those tables, glancing at my watch for a date I couldn’t wait to meet? Have I been so bogged down with each day’s logistics that I hadn’t dined out this whole year?
As a teenager, a young adult and even a new mom, I literally survived off that social urgency — the next new connection to prioritize and plan around was my life fuel. I loved the energy of relationships. Each one lit up different parts of me and ultimately helped me keep a pulse on myself. I never had enough dinners or weekends to fit in all the connections I needed to make. And suddenly, on a night near the end of my 30s, that I didn’t even know was a Saturday, I couldn’t remember the last time I had dinner out with any friend.
I was moaning about all this to a girlfriend on Facetime who had also moved away from our urban church of those little kid years, and what she said in response hit me harder than the smell of freshly grilled filet mignon as I jogged through that romantic date night.
“Maybe we’re lucky because we had it,” she said. “I mean, some people never get it. We had those connections and that love, and now we have the text chains and Zoom.”
I didn’t like where she was going with this, but she went on to say that even having each other to vent to online was a blessing, and whoever said our best friends got to live next door? Instead of bemoaning how we don’t have things at the moment, we can marvel at our past and the people in our life that have grown us into who we are today. Just because we don’t have them forever in our midst doesn’t mean they aren’t still ours to hold and enjoy. I couldn’t stop the tears that night as I fell asleep. Gratitude? Was that the emotion I was supposed to be having amidst all this loneliness? Better to have loved and lost than not at all? Seriously, God?
I suppose somewhere in my western, prosperity-tinged doctrinal background, I’ve been led to believe that if my life stages aren’t linear, each one a bit better than the last, or at least turning over a better, making-fast-progress version of myself, then I’m doing something wrong, or something wrong is being done to me. But of course I know that neither our success nor our sanctification is measured by anything resembling a “put together” life or a “well known” status. No relationship gives us any more value. If you’ve been single for what seems like centuries, or never once — not even in middle school— had that “known” feeling in a group of friends, you’re also not doing anything wrong, and you’re no less “on track” in life or seen by God than the most adored woman or Insta influencer of all time. But man, those pangs of self-pity can hit hard, and society’s standards can feel unforgiving, which is why we have to continually remind ourselves of our own.
For now, I’m going to normalize the fluctuation of good things in my life and not count all change as loss by remembering that life moves in seasons, and the permanent accumulation of people or pleasures isn’t what we are really after, it’s how they shape us, and we them, that really matters. That’s what those exciting relationships and connections did for me, they lit up the parts of me that resonated with Jesus in someone else, like a social color-by-number. They challenged me to be a better version of myself and examine my preconceived ideas and how they were affecting others. And all of that I still have.
As with most grief, mine is slowly turning to acceptance. I know the reality of how transient our society has become; it simply isn’t practical to feel connected and known at all times. Maybe I’ll make a new friend who begs for my Friday nights because she just can’t get enough of me, or feel a resurgence of desire from the people who already know me, but in the meantime, when most of my candlelit eye contact and engaging conversation is with the people I’ve birthed, I’m going to resist the urge to think there’s something wrong with me, and I’m going to RSVP no to most of my pity party invitations. I can’t promise you much more than that, but I can offer you a standing date. I can do these lonely bits of life alongside you. We can be alone together. I’ll get us a table for two.