On Sunday, my friend Paula Williams and I were invited to share our story from 2015. It was a special time to reflect on our friendship, but mostly to consider the beautiful and thorough ways in which God worked through doubt, questions, pain and waiting. Here’s the text of what I said, you can also watch the video and hear from the five others. If you need some church, this video may satisfy your longing. If you don’t have time, our segment begins at 22:00.
My name is Jen Jepsen. My husband Eric and I plus our three children Brooks, Claire and Andrew have been attending Highlands Church for 8 months. I live in Boulder County.
I was raised a pastor’s kid in a small evangelical denomination. Church is in my blood, it is the family business. I love the church. I believe in the church. I see the beauty of the church as God’s expression of goodness, love and healing.
Somewhere along the way, I realized many churches stopped meeting people where they were, in their suffering and pain, their questions and confusion. The good news of the gospel muted by the shoulds and musts, the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s.
In the Fall of 2014 Eric and I left the church, choosing to remove ourselves for a time. No longer would we pledge loyalty to an organization that could not actively support entire populations. The lack of inclusion of LGBT peoples, the failure to discuss white privilege and racism, the inability for women to lead, amongst other things – fueled our choice to remove ourselves from a regular church body. The disparity between the all-encompassing love of God and the church’s lack of expression of this supposed love required us to step back, to reevaluate how we felt called to living out our life of faith. We could not reconcile our growing hearts of compassion and empathy with the silence and fear.
Unable to find a congregation nearby, the idea to start our own church began to simmer. Something, anything. We needed a place where all were welcome, fear checked at the door, condemnation nonexistent. A place where faith exploration and questions were safe, worship and love unconditional. Many conversations with friends and family, revealed we had company. Others longing for and needing the same thing.
One week after finally admitting this desire out loud, I learned of Paul’s transition to Paula. Paul was a regular preacher at our church, yet we had not seen him for some time. I knew I needed to reach out, Eric saying the words, “You know you have to do this, right?” My stomach in my throat I wrote her an email, to which she responded immediately. I could only imagine her pain, for I knew none of this was ideal. I questioned her, if she had found a church, for this was the one I would attend, too.
Paula, Eric and I met for coffee. She shared the pain of her experiences, her rejection from Christians and the church. Her defenses up. Her heart broken. Ours broken, also. Her faith in tiny pieces. We discussed with her the idea of starting our own congregation in Boulder County. She said, and I quote: “Do not start a church. It will suck your soul!”
I heeded her advice, and put the starting-a-church idea on a high shelf. She and I formed a good and true friendship. A friendship of mutual support and encouragement. She aiding me in my calling, my presence assisting her with hers, how to live this life as Paula.
The dream of church, the idea that church could be free from fear and judgment, a place where people practiced the art of loving well, where things were worked out in grace, while simultaneously recognizing the inherent messiness of humanity. My dream of church was not pie in the sky thinking, my notion was not foolish. I wanted to choose church and Paula did, too.
Paula learned of Highlands through a local pastor friend. One Sunday in Spring, my family came for the first time. The beauty of this place settled deep within, my insides calm for the first time in church since as long as I can remember.
We attended when we could. I texted Paula, “You need to come. You will love it. I cannot even believe this place!”