Saying Good-bye to Church…for now

There is no tension like that which occurs when I, as an adult, married for 20 years, mother of three, spends more than 24 hours consistently with my or my husband’s family of origin. The tricky balance happens while managing the expectations of each people group: the parents, the grown siblings, the children, the husband, the nieces/nephews, and most difficult…those of myself. I get caught between seeking out my own needs, to stay safe internally and sane, with the desire to be a hospitable host, entertainer and conversant. I have not found the solution to this strain, other than to manage my own needs most of all. For an introvert, this can look rather selfish on the outside, as I hole myself in the little corner of my house that provides me with a brief sense of relief. As a 42 year old, as much as I feel I’ve made little headway in this land of fog, I do know that I have grown.

As a college student, when this process really began, I would return home for breaks, longing for the comforts of home: good food, safety, familiarity, laundry facilities. Yet, even after being gone for a short time, I noticed that I didn’t quite belong anymore. Life in my family’s home did not stop for me, I felt a bit like an outsider.  Now that I have been out of the nest for over 20 years, I can say I have reached a differentiated state, where as an adult, I am learning who I am, what feeds me, exploring boundaries and respecting differences. The process, however, has not  been ideal, pretty or comfortable.

 Early in our marriage, my husband and I would have our worst times while with extended family. He would gravitate toward the old patterns of his youth, and I would do the same…trying to navigate the minefield of how to differentiate as a couple and as grown adults, while with people who have provided and nurtured life. There were many tears shed, particularly as I felt  pulled in every direction, trying to please each party entirely. Thankfully, after almost a quarter century, we have found a happy medium and a united front.

 I often wonder if this might be part of my tension with church. Just as my church served me well throughout my formative years…protecting, teaching, showing and guiding…I believe I am in the process of differentiation. The church was faithfully present during the traumatic events of my youth. I was known and deeply loved. I could say that church saved me, it provided identity, safety and clear boundaries. As I reflect, I realize now that much of my devotion to God was defined by church involvement.

I have left the faith of my youth. When I attend church now, or get with certain Christians, I feel tension. The “proving” component of my faith, the earning and the doing, needs to take a backseat.

I long to rest in the work of the Holy Spirit, in and through me. As much as I crave the comfort and safety of the people, the songs, the messages, I am still learning what it means to walk by faith, in my own expression.  I want to live in the knowledge and confidence that His love for me is sure. I want my work to be characterized by love, justice and humility. I want to live my faith out by listening, waiting, and resting.

It’s time to hang up the credentials of being a professional church-going Christian.

Spirit matters

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you.  John 16:7

This has been a long winter of questions, of seeking, of long-held assumptions and beliefs being flipped and turned. Growing up under the spotlighted fishbowl of a pastor’s home, one learns how to do the right stuff, be the right way, believe the right things (some don’t..but I did, people pleaser that I am). And I wouldn’t say it was all placed on me by the dominating force of The Church (enter big deep voice) or of Religion. No, I truly believed this was my Calling. I desired to please, honor, glorify and praise God, which meant I chose well. I chose to follow the rules, I didn’t dance with my now husband at prom, I didn’t go to the theater (very often), I certainly didn’t cuss, didn’t drink alcohol, smoke or do drugs. I worked hard, was kind (mostly), was a Bible Study Leader in college, attended church all Sundays, prayed, read the Bible (even bored out of my mind), waited until marriage (barely) to have sex. I was quite the good girl and so thankful that I didn’t have to undo any major poor choices.

There is a flipside to all of this..guilt, fear, condemnation. Grace, redemption, freedom…all foreign concepts. These good-girl rules prevented the full experience of beauty and life in the Spirit. I was gifted at finding fault in others and really great at finding fault in myself. Any little thing could potentially bring the wrath of whatever and whomever.

Surprisingly, however, I discovered that in some ways living by Grace is actually harder. I did difficult  things and made tough choices in my quest for holiness (perfection) but it was spelled out…do this, do that, certainly don’t associate with that group, etc. Living by Grace or the Spirit is tricky. Sometimes there isn’t a way to define the next thing to do, or to validate a choice, or to define if I’m good with God or not.

Church…all things church…have been the source of my personal winter. It started when my youngest brother came out as gay. I didn’t wrestle in loving him, but I wrestled with the “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing. I lived with it for a time, but knew that he longed to be loved as a whole person, not in parts. He deserved to be accepted for being human, my brother, my parents’ child, friend, musician and brilliant man. It felt disingenuous to part and parcel him out in pieces…love this piece, hate this piece. Good grief, I practice the “sins” of gluttony and greed, people weren’t telling me they could only love bits and pieces of me. So why him?

I started viewing the church differently…seeing that only certain things are discussed and other things very much aren’t..or if they are, certainly not with an affirming or even loving sense. Sure, anyone can attend, but really? Can they really be fully LGBT in church? Can any of us really be fully ourselves in church or Christian circles? Fully honest? Fully authentic? Heaven forbid I honestly discuss with someone my frustration and anger at the Bible. And we think we have the authority to lord certain scriptures over people for their various “poor choices”. I’m not saying all churches are this way…certainly I have been in places and with groups of people that listen and respond with not only grace, but something even more important…understanding!

Living by Grace and in the Spirit is messy. The above scripture really challenges me, as I read it I recognize how essential the Spirit is for us. The Spirit is in us, leading, guiding, commenting, affirming, challenging. If left unchecked, my inner dialogue has the potential to take me to dark, hopeless places. When I slow down, sit quietly, surrender in the moment, I hear hope. I hear kindness, patience. I hear “I love you so much”. I hear, “You’re good..I’ve got this..I know..hang on.” I hear, “Why are you working so hard? What is your goal or motivation here? How about a little rest?” Granted, there are times where I do have to challenge this happy spirit voice.  Richard Rohr says in Falling Upward: “The Holy Spirit is always entirely for us, more than we are for ourselves, it seems. She speaks in our favor against the negative voices that judge and condemn us. This gives us all such hope-now that we do not have to do life all by ourselves, or even do life perfectly ‘right’ “.

Living by the Spirit means there is almost no black and white. Things are gray. Most issues and choices are complex and have multiple approaches from which we can get a better understanding. To me, this is Grace. This tells me that I’m not God…it’s not my job to judge, condemn or think I have the answers for or about a particular person or situation. The Holy Spirit dwells in each of us, and as unique beings, there are infinite expressions. I hear so frequently, “I just wish Jesus had been specific about the issues we face today like homosexuality or women in the church”. Some people believe Scripture is clear here, but I have to question if that is the case when it calls us to cast out instead of include, when we hear it saying, “Yes, but”.  

What if The Church was characterized as a place of safe seeking, of grace, mercy and freedom? What if we, as a body of believers lived this out? What if we checked our fear? It seems we are more known for our fear of Hell and striving for Heaven than by much else. We mistakenly think we operate best with a list of do’s and don’ts, rather than in the trust and faith in the God of the Universe, the Holy Spirit living in us. How would Jesus be viewed if instead of determining who’s in and who’s out, we love, we see people as people…created in God’s beautiful image, recognizing none of us are better or worse than another? What if we sought to understand through listening? What if we chose to see and sought to love all people? What if, as a Church, we started dialoguing thoughtfully about the hard-to-understand issues in our culture today? What if we agree to disagree respectfully, but we still continue the dialogue?

I believe this is our only hope.