Leaving Church: Guest Post by Tara Pohlkotte

by | Nov 15, 2012 | Uncategorized

For six weeks, we’re exploring the question, “How do we walk out our faith in the midst of pain, suffering, disappointment, and loneliness,” with a book club discussion on Thursdays about Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. Today Tara Pohlkotte shares her story inspired from Chapters 2-4. Tara is a kindred spirit, a weaver of beautiful word poetry that helps me see differently, a generous and kind heart. I know you will be as inspired by her as much as I am.

I grew up cradled in other people’s faith.

In a small pine church in Northern Minnesota
my grandpa held me up on top of a pew, my back pressed to his chest.
I could feel the hymn rise through the length of his body, reverberating into mine.

I felt so safe there.

Held by his miner foreman hands.
Hands make thick for the life they had made,
for the responsibility they carried

and yet, soft –
with my heart
with the land
with the spirit.

There in his hands,
my body learned the timbers of song
and I would watch the trees outside the church windows.

Trees with their heads bending,
shifting their branches,
leaves whispering their own benedictions

and my heart joined in the chorus of all creation.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes about her first being aware of a divine presence,
long before she first had a vocabulary for such things, describing:

“As hard as I have tried to remember the exact moment when I fell in love with God, I cannot do it. My earliest memories are bathed in a kind of golden light that seemed to embrace me as surely as my mother’s arms. The Divine Presence was strongest outdoors, and most palpable when I was alone. When I think of my first cathedral, I am back in a field behind my parents’ house in Kansas, with every stalk of prairie grass lit from within…My skin is happy on the black dirt, which speaks the language by bones understand. If I roll over and think only about the places on my back that are touching the ground, then pretty soon I cannot tell whether I am pressing down on the earth or the earth is pressing up on me….

Because I was not brought up in church, I had no religious language for what happened in that golden-lit field or in any of the other woods or fields that followed it. I had no picture in my mind of a fantastic-looking old man named God who lived in heaven above my head. I did not know to close my eyes and bow my head to speak to this God, and I certainly did not know that there was anything wrong with that field or what I experienced in it. If anyone had tried to tell me that creation was fallen or that I should care more for heaven than earth, I would have gone off to lie in the sweet grass by myself.” {Chapter 3}

When I read this passage
hot tears began to roll the length of my face
“yes” is all I could whisper.

See, my soul rarely feels full of the Divine Presence in a room full of people.

I need an open sky,
a pine needled floor,
with the wind laying hands on me.

A place prayer doesn’t require words –
where prayer is a posture,
a constant heart-state.

When a sob, or a whoop of delight is all that breaks forth,
and I know that I am known.
Not just by name, but by the way my hair smells warmed by the sun.

Even as a child I had a hard time connecting the benedictions I could hear rustling in the leaves
to the worksheets filled out during Sunday School.

It felt as though the wonder and vastness of a Creator
was being distilled down to little more than a history lesson.
The messy act of forgiveness, the hot passionate pursuit of love – missing.

I still feel an urgency within myself to avoid most tired Christian phraseology.
These catch-phrases, like other words used by people who have a history of being oppressors,
keep people away, perhaps wounded by those that spoke those words before, instead of drawing in.

Within these statements I feel the constraints of man-made religion.
A Jesus: white skinned, brown bearded, simply robed, complete with a felt backing
to be stuck on my life in convenient truths.

Barbara did not need to know the name of worship,
there between the blades of sweet grass,
her soul lifted, and she was communing with her maker.

She did not need to be told to bow her head, fold her hands to speak to God.
She clutched God’s breast when she felt the soil at her back,
She was aware of creation greater than herself, and with it, she felt oneness.

I believe we do an expansive God an injustice when we distill His presence into prescribed formulas.
We need not be afraid of the individuality of each person’s road, each person’s version of Jesus.
Understand that Church can be found many places: A corn field, a living room, an amphitheater.

When we stop to listen to one another, truly listen to their life,
not wasting our interaction with them by making character or morality assessments,

we get the amazing opportunity of laying our bodies out on the ground together.
Marveling at how expansive the sky above us really is –
and sit amazed,

that for all that expanse, that ol’ sun finds us still.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you still experience God in the same places you did as a child? How has this grown or changed?

2. Are there statements in the Christian faith that you find too snug or restrictive?

3. Are there statements in the Christian faith, or passage of a book, etc., that encircles a whole of an experience for you? That when you first heard or read it, like I read Barbara’s passage, you thought – “That’s it!”

4. Barbara talks about helping people being an extremely large motivator in her vocation. Do you identify with this? What motivates you?

Tara Pohlkotte
Mama of two sweet souls.
Lover of simple beauty.

You can keep in touch with Tara at her blog: Pohlkotte Press, or her writer’s Facebook Page.

Join the conversation in the comments and on the Facebook page at Redemptions Beauty Book Club. If your a blogger and you’ve written a post about walking out your faith in the midst of difficult circumstance, add you link in the comments.

Subscribe for Shelly’s stories and free resources here: https://shellymillerwriter.com/free-resources/


  1. kelliwoodford

    Tara, you always wow me. This is no exception.

    Love what you said about “tired Christian phraseology” that keeps people away instead of drawing them in. I have known that same hesitation. But have wept silently, instead, for I fail to find another language that would carry my heart. Because when you’ve seen that He’s *more* than a blond, blue-eyed, Arian Jesus with felt backing “to be stuck on my life in convenient truths” (BAM, baby!) or Someone to confine to a book that can collect dust on a coffee table . . . what words are there?

    And yet, you encourage me to find them, friend. For somehow you always communicate Him so effectively. Thank you for sharing your gift.

    • tara pohlkotte

      oh Kelli – yes.yes.yes. words are so hard to wrap around such expansiveness. such an initmate figure in our lives. It’s like trying to describe a sunset or the way a group of 20,000 runners at the starting line makes you feel. These are concepts that so deep to the heart that sheer words become difficult. I’m not saying that ALL words current in Christian society, and in ALL situations should we not use them. I just feel we should open our vocabulary up surrounding our faiths, because when i’ve become intentional in doing so, I realized just how more my understanding of what I believe has bloomed inside me. Pushes me not to fall back on phrases instead of hearts. No matter what launguage we use to express ourselves in, there is beauty there. We each pick up a verse to this song…

  2. hopefulleigh

    Yes, yes, yes. Beautifully expressed, Tara.

    • tara pohlkotte

      thanks, Leigh. so happy you are here.

  3. Jillie

    Hi Tara…enjoyed your post very much. I remember as a girl, laying flat-out in my neighbour’s field of rye, feeling the sun’s warmth full on my face, basking in the wide-open, silent in the silence. I had absolutely no frame of reference for a God ‘up there’ who made it all, or Who might love little ‘ole me. I remember thinking that there must be ‘more up there’ above those cottony clouds. I wondered if ‘anybody’ saw me there? It would not be until years and years later that He would speak directly into my heart. Living a life of shame, He told me very clearly, “You were made for better than this.” And I knew He was there…and I knew He was real…and I knew He saw me.
    When I first read Barbara’s description of her laying there, it so reminded me of that day when I, too, lay looking for Someone to see me. To love me.

    • tara pohlkotte

      what a beautiful way to first experience God. and perhaps one of the most powerful truthes to be heard within us: “And I knew He was there…and I knew He was real…and I knew He saw me.” – – thank you so much for sharing this here.

  4. simplystriving

    Okay, first a confession: I haven’t finished chapter 4 yet! But I remember reading that passage in chapter 3 and thinking I didn’t need to read any further. I’m so glad you called it out, Tara.

    and I loved your thoughts. as always.

    I grew up in northern MN, too. in a church with pine tongue and groove on the walls and the ceiling. the crooked altar proudly displaying the story told in its knots. and what I loved most about it was it was the same smell outside as it was in. only richer.

    And now, I’m waiting to be asked to stop teaching Sunday School. I teach the 4 and 5 year olds and have a tendency to throw the curriculum aside. Sure, I mention the stories, but talk more about their hearts. because the message told in each of these ancient stories translates into a childlike faith perfectly. and maybe I want those children to teach me how to get back what they haven’t lost…

    • tara pohlkotte

      Nicole – it makes perfect sense to me that you are from where my family is from. 🙂 yes. to talk about hearts. about keeping the innocence and wonderment instilled in them – my children are reopening a whole big world to me too.

  5. Jennifer Camp

    Tara, these words you share from Taylor’s book here are the ones that sung sweet music into my heart, too. Hers and yours open me up to thinking about my childhood and my knowing who I was–and feeling His presence–before things got a bit confusing. In my teenage years God, for me, became a Father of rules, and not relationship. I grew up running far and long into my dad’s almond orchard, and laying down flat on cool brown earth to watch the branches dance above me. I love how God finds us–and reminds us how we find Him–and how He is in all things. But it takes us letting Him show us, remind us, how He uniquely created us to love HIm–for each of us to see and feel and hear Him best. Thank you for blessing me here today.

    • tara pohlkotte

      yes, he finds us and reminds us. we need to be open to the ways in which this is done – and in understanding that he pursues us and calls us each differently. it’s so great reading all the different ways people first felt God in their bones. This human experience is so wide.

  6. Danelle

    All of this, every word, I am nodding along. This Tara :” I believe we do an expansive God an injustice when we distill his Presence into prescribed formulas.” Oh goodness. Thank you for writing my heart. The reason that I can’t pinpoint my denomination is that I find Him best in so many different places, because He seeks me, because He finds me and feeds me right where I am in this moment. He knows who hears Him best in the fields and who hears Him best in the chapel. Yes, even the auditorium, the mega church. Yes. Amen.
    I love you Tara. I could go on and on. You always do this though. You bless me so much friend. I am sorry it has taken me so long to get here today. It has been a day. But I love this post. Love!
    And the “convenient Jesus complete with the felt backing”. I know. I know. . . .

    • tara pohlkotte

      first of all, never ever apologize for when and where you can comment. the grace of your words of encouragement Danelle always blow me away. there are few people who love as wide and deep as you do. second of all, i think your non-denomination situation {ha.} is beautiful. You are really seeking, really looking and I have no doubt in this quest you get in up to your chin of the divine.

  7. lynndmorrissey

    Tara, how lovely that Shelly has invited such a truly gifted author as you to share her blogspace today. Your ethereally descriptive words are filled with timbres and textures of sounds and senses that transported me right there, right into the world of God’s glorious creation. It’s no wonder that you felt Him there, because as the psalmist says, the wordless heavens declare God’s glory and display His handiwork. Amazingly, without speech, they still reveal knowledge of our Creator. The splendor of His world causes us to bow our heads, much as those tremulous trees you so breathtakingly described, bent low in benediction. What a beautiful, worshiping wordsmith you are, Tara! I, personally, have felt so close to the Lord when I am unutterably moved by nature—sometimes when I am walking alone in the woods or mountains, where I am reminded of His glorious grandeur. I would add that while we can worship our Creator in creation, unless we know Him through His Word we cannot possibly know Him in His vastness. Without His Word, I would not have known His many names, which reveal His multi-faceted character, about His redemptive love through His gift of Christ Jesus and His atoning death, or about my own sinfulness. (And I learned a lot of this in Sunday School and might have filled in some worksheets simply to help me learn; I’m not sure. 🙂 And without His Word and His Church, I would never be held accountable. I agree that Christians should show Christ’s love to all people and not diminish the Gospel with formulaic Christianese, but it’s important *both* to show love and speak truth, the deep truths of the Bible (what Ms. Taylor may be calling “religious language”—I’m not sure because she doesn’t identify it). You say you need a place where prayer doesn’t require words. There are times when we simply feel at peace and one with God, where words are unnecessary or when our angst or joy are so great, that we find them difficult to articulate. It’s then that the Holy Spirit utters groans on our behalf, too deeply for words. But Jesus Himself teaches us to pray *with words*, and it’s only words, like those the psalmists used, that can articulate the intricacies of our hearts and our particular emotions, questions, doubts, praises, or requests. We need words with which to worship the Word, Jesus Christ, and the God who chose to give us words for expressing our love for Him and to petition Him. The Psalms offer us examples of how to pray expressively with a sincere and honest heart. I agree that we should avoid man-made religion and “Christian cliché.” We worship as God Himself prescribes, in spirit and in truth. And truth is found as articulated on the pages of Scripture. I do believe that God relates to us individually, and it’s vital to commune with Him personally with all our hearts, souls, *and* minds. But I wonder about speaking of someone’s individual “version of Jesus.” Jesus is presented clearly on the pages of Scripture. To create our own personal “version” of Him could be untrue. Beyond an individual knowledge and worship of God, it is so important to worship as the Church. I don’t believe that the church is a building, but a body of worshiping believers. I would gently not agree that Church can be found in the places you suggest—a corn field, a living room, and amphitheater, unless this is where believers gather together to worship in spirit and in truth. From you wording, I wasn’t sure what you meant. And when we worship aright, we won’t be making character assessments which, as you so wisely suggest, are not for us to determine. We all come broken, together, to be restored by God. We also come because He tells us (in Hebrews) not to forsake our assembling together. And God is uniquely present where two or three (or more 🙂 ) are gathered in His name. Both individual and corporate worship are indispensable. One feeds the other. I quote a friend: “We need corporate worship and the means of grace that we encounter there (the scriptures, prayers, and sacraments) to reveal to us as powerfully as possible what we cannot experience in nature alone and what we would never know on our own. But we also need private worship so that faith becomes a living, daily reality and not merely a checklist of things we do mechanically once or twice a week. Ps. 73:17 shows how the psalmist’s despair was radically changed into hope and joy because of his experience in the sanctuary, i.e., in the context of corporate worship that *God Himself* established to give Himself to us in Word and sacrament in the community of the people of God.” I apologize for the length of this post, but I wanted to give you the highest compliment I could by saying (as I so often say about Shelly’s writing), that you really make me think, Tara. How I appreciate your transparent heart and consummate love for our Savior. It shows with every single word you pen.

    • tara pohlkotte

      Oh, thank you so much for joining this conversation. I think we come at the same points from different angles, which is the beauty of these conversations and ultimately the beauty of creation; which is the overlying purpose of my piece. I see us saying the same thing, just using our own heart spaces to say it, and it makes me smile for the grandure of this human experience, and the beautiful loving way you’ve expressed part of your heart with me. My intent was not to say that one way of anything is better than another; it’s to speak for the forks in the road that ultimately all lead us home. I agree to some extent that we need words to worship, but I believe that focusing on sheer words can limit true worship. More than sheer words, it is the heartspace that is important. The words of worship spring from that. And I fully believe worship can come in a whisper of “I love you” over your sleeping baby’s eyelashes, “Hi, how are ya?” to a person who is habitually unloved, as well as the way your breath can catch in your chest when you look up in your car windshield and are blindsided by the beauty of the sunrise; as Barbara Brown Taylor speaks to in another book of hers, there are “alters in the world” everywhere in which we can bring our praise, our love, our hearts. Words can be spoken without true worship. What I am learning is the prayer of the spirit, of falling into the understanding of being fully known. To the point of my meaning behind versions of Jesus, even when we use a fundamental basis for our knowledge of Jesus, the Bible, you and I in our individual minds and heart will form different pictures of this man, this God. For the daughter with no father, perhaps either God the father will compel her or repel her, so she brings to her knowledge of her God, herself. The Gospels are a great example of this as well. Within each book we get a different picture of Jesus, as seen through the eyes of the individual who loved him. So let’s set aside the diagrams for eactly how He looks, and just get to the heart of His purpose, to draw people to God and to love like crazy. My heart just sits heavy from the opposition from side to side regarding how we should be doing this thing, as if any of us truly know. We can read the Bible and can discern much, and yet, we are still limited to our own human understanding, vantage points. Loving one another as we all try to sort it out should be our main goal, not being “right” or “wrong”. You just expressed that type of love by replying to me, of expressing yourself, seeing a portion of my heart in return. I have found God in the church, and still have a strong tie to my roots there, as well as finding him in the open field. God can be found in all places, inside a church or out. He is both known and mystery. There is such scary and messy beauty in that truth. I’m so desperately happy to be walking this path home with you.

      • lynndmorrissey

        And I thank you, Tara, for your gracious response. May God bless you richly as you worship Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Glory be to God!

    • tara pohlkotte

      “We are broken people walking together towards the promise of wholeness.” um. mind if i get that pressed into my skin? whew. you’ve got it. I have as part of the header of my blog the quote of Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.” it’s my mantra. it’s my passion. and you, darlin’ got it all wrapped up in your one sentence there. LOVED reading your story. I can’t wait to look around more.

  8. elizabethfstewart

    Beautiful post, Tara. You made me remember some childhood moments with God that I had forgotten. Yes, it’s easier for me to hear Him alone, in the beauty of His creation.

    • tara pohlkotte

      remembering some of those lost early memories can be precious indeed. …There’s just something about being in creation isn’t there?


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