One of the more significant ways my faith and views of God have been altered in these last several years has been the eroding and refining of what I am certain about. There are still of course things that I am certain about when it comes to God and the spiritual world, and in some ways this surprises me given the thorough nature of the stepping back and questioning everything I have done lately. But certainty remains.
The things I am less certain about are what God will do and how he does it. And thus how the world works, and in some ways how I am to respond. I traveled my faith journey thus far from the perspective that God meets my needs, and the acting and providing and healing he does is for my betterment. I still believe this, but differently now. Increasingly I am seeing that that point of view is woefully inadequate. God does not ignore my needs, he most certainly meets them, and promises to continue doing so. But contrary to my previous worldview (and to oversimplify it for the sake of expressing what I see changing), God is not a partially broken vending machine where I can push buttons to get what I want/need (wherever that line is), where some buttons work decently and others not at all, or dispense something other than what I put my dollar in for.
Instead I find recently that God is a waiting room, down the hall from the vending machine, with only me in the room and not much in the way of reading material. The receptionist’s window is closed, and the sign on the door is obscured, but behind the frosted glass there is movement, and the occasional muffled voice which I mostly take to be saying just keep waiting, I’ll be with you shortly, but I can’t be sure what the words actually are. But the door I came in has shrunk to an impossible opening, and the food in the vending machine has spoiled by now anyway, so I will wait.
I moved to Cincinnati with a hundred visions, and found here a hundred revisions. I can only hope that through them my faith is more real.
We broke up with our church this week.
It’s a strange thing I suppose. We each wrote emails to the folks it seemed appropriate to write, and tried to explain as best we could how we had been attending a year, had made more than cursory attempts at getting involved, including two small groups, worship band and kids ministry, and hadn’t come out with any friends to speak of. I can’t really get into who to attribute that to, since just about everyone at the church, including most notably us, has small children and therefore remarkably little social energy. And that’s not really the point of this entry anyway.
The point is this: I realized it’s not a church we’re looking for, it’s community. We’re not looking for a Sunday morning experience, except as far as it is a part of the community experience. We didn’t leave this church, or any other that we attended for any length of time these last four years, because we were looking for better worship, or more Bible-centered preaching, or any other way of doing Sunday morning church better. We’re looking for relationship, thats’ all. We’re looking for a community that’s focused on dialogue more than dispensing truth, cultivating community more than putting on a good Sunday morning event, and navigating the journey more than defining the destination. People who use the word “and” where most others say “but”, and who can handle the long term and extensive mess that honesty creates.
And truthfully, we could take or leave Sunday morning. I’ve gone to churches I’ve loved, and others I haven’t, and I’m frankly not sold on the Sunday morning event in itself. There are many things good about it, and other things not so much. Today for me the Sunday morning event/celebration/gatahering/worship/service/call it what you will seems to be a place for people who are either already in the club or people that the people in the club hope are hoping they can be in the club too. On stage it can be very much like Letterman, where the band fires off a few songs before the monologue starts. But in the end it’s not an event that is created to involve people deeper in relationship. True enough, any gathering of dozens or hundreds of people by definition isn’t going to engender intimacy, and it’s impossible for that to be the focus of a church’s large gatherings. But for a religion based on ultimate love I would think it would be easier for a stranger in the crowd to identify the on-ramp to resources that could be personal and helpful.
In my experience here the churches have been consumer-oriented. It’s plain to see the effort and skill that goes into the sound, the lights, the music, the talk, the decorations on the stage, the choice of offering baskets. None of these helps me. Not an entire waste, perhaps, but entirely not the point of church. What I haven’t found yet is authenticity – individual authenticity I’ve seen in certain folks, including pastors, but corporate authenticity has proven entirely elusive. Maybe I’m being impossibly idealistic here, but if this sort of church doesn’t exist then someone should start one.
There’s a lot of conversation going around about a movement of people that’s been labeled many different things – you can take your pick from “the new face of religion in America”, or “a new way to do church”, or “A new kind of Christian“, or “the new Christians“, or the more socio-religious sounding label, “emergent“. I can’t claim to be up to speed on the different viewpoints and contributors out there, though I could probably name some names, but I can safely locate myself somewhere smack in the middle of that conversation as a person who’s become disillusioned with the popular expression of Christianity in America to the point that I avoid identifying myself as a Christian in mixed company.
I recognize that my stance has evolved reactively in some ways, as I’ve identified what kind of Christian I’m not and what sort of things I don’t do relative to what most people seem to believe or expect of Christians, including people who identify themselves as such. I wrote in a previous post how I’ve left the organized church recently as the center of my faith journey, and struck out on a new path that includes church as a habit and resource but which I hope opens me up to a more diverse and personally authentic experience of God in ways that looking to the/a church first and foremost in my pursuit of God precluded me from.
Communities have sprung up around this premise, exploring the possibility that the spiritual life proclaimed and ushered in by Jesus can be pursued outside of an organized and codified religion. It’s an extension in a way of Luther’s assertion that God can be pursued by individuals independent of the ministration of the ordained, where again there is a cultural recognition that there’s more to faith and finding God than is evident (or arguably possible) in the exclusive context of a local organized church. I’m not knocking organization itself, or leadership in the context of an assembled group of people of like pursuit. Without leaders and organization any movement is doomed to fail, whether necessary and helpful or not. Even rebellions or other causes that reject these establishments still have their de facto leaders and make efforts to share common beliefs. It seems though that faith that finds its source in an organization is lacking.
I read The Alchemist recently, a simple parable-like story of one boy’s pursuit of his dreams and exploration of spirituality. While not categorically a Christian book, it inspired me in my pursuit of faith at a point in my life when I needed it most desperately, when my general happiness was already forfeit and my dreams were in jeopardy. What struck me most was the tale’s straightforward view of the supernatural and spirituality, and the simplicity of the boy’s passion in his pursuit of what he felt mattered most. It seems to me as though the one is a catalyst for the other – when spiritual things are uncluttered by religion and unaffected by doubt or apathy, but simply allowed to be, and to be as real as gravity or love or time which are impervious to how fervently they are believed in, then apprehending and pursuing spiritual things and the deeper dreams and passions of life is as straightforward a process as living, and living with eyes open for the opportunities that inevitably present themselves. Life becomes rich and meaningful, and laden with daily significance.
I was about to write a paragraph relating this world view to Christianity but it seems paradoxical to the point of this post. It’s what I’m after – relating to God in a way that is uncontrived though it may involve habit or ritual, and significant to my daily life though the nature of the pursuit itself is unearthly. I don’t think this approach is incompatible with the Christian faith; I hope instead that it leads to a deeper appreciation of who God is and how then to live.
I was thinking today of the pattern in my life of leaving things and people behind. Sometimes it’s a painful process, sometimes a natural one; sometimes it’s both. It seems a normal thing for people to move on, to grow out of something, to go a different way from someone. And, taken in itself, leaving seems like a detrimental habit – one that while necessary needs also to be balanced with the habit of staying. The band that coined the title of this post seems to have meant it in the negative:
I come from a long line of leavers
Out of the garden gate with an apple in their hands
I expect and i believe
You’re gonna run out of love
You’re gonna give me the shove
‘Cause that’s the thing that lovers do
Then there’s you
Leaving, in its good incarnation is growth, in its bad incarnation fear or bitterness. Staying in its good form is commitment; in its bad form it’s stagnancy or, again, fear.
I’ve left behind many things. Homes, for one – the buildings and rooms, the towns and schools, the neighbors and friends. We moved several times growing up; then there was college where I moved about once a year, and even after I was married the pattern continued – we’re gearing up for our sixth move in just over six years of marriage, including one across the country. This one is meant to be the last for a very long time, which in itself will be something new to get used to.
There are the friends I’ve left behind. I was accused once by a high school girlfriend of being “the kind of guy” who abandons friends. To some extent she was right – I was quick to depart a friendship when I had been hurt deeply, and quicker still when I had new friends I was making. On the other hand, she said this when I was trying to break up with her, so take her words as you will. I am by nature an avoider of conflict, which motivated many of my leavings. It wasn’t until I found friendships that for one reason or another I wanted to keep more than I wanted to avoid the conflict that arose that I screwed up my courage, prepared myself to hurt, and plunged into the process of learning how to fight well.
Even so, the leaving continued. I went through an intense several years between college through the first years of marriage when I began to face the shortcomings of my own heart, and the shortcomings of others against it. In the middle of this process I found myself leaving two more close friends not because of anything they did so much as my resentment of the unhealthy patterns I discovered in myself that were playing out in my relationships with them. I couldn’t deal with the challenge of disentangling myself from the bad while retaining the good. Still, I’m thankful to be able to say that one of these friends I count now one of the people who knows me and loves me best, thanks in part to the determination we both found later on down the road to reconnect and navigate the conflict.
I could go on – the female friendships I stepped back from when I began dating Amber, or the high school and college classmates who by way of course were left behind. There’s another category of leaving that’s been on my mind recently though, one that’s a bit more amorphous and elusive – the leaving behind of paradigms and beliefs along the way in my spiritual journey. Like most people who spent their childhood Sundays in church, I left behind the habit of church and the blind compliance with what was then only my parents’ faith once I reached college, where I soon found my own reason to embrace faith and return to Christian community. Over the next eight years or so I left several of these communities and some of the paradigms or beliefs they embodied as I outgrew and/or became disillusioned with them – taking with me, I hope, the traits they demonstrated that I found valuable.
There was the conservative evangelical college community which showed me the value of committed faith-based community in the first place, but which I left when I found their bottom-line expression of faith essentially to be getting into theological arguments with strangers (and friends). Then one summer was the Pentacostal community in Nashville which gave voice to the bold and passionate side of my nature, and which I left when they shut down because nothing they were bold or passionate about had happened.
The next church community I left remains my favorite, and is one that in some ways I’m still leaving four years later. It’s a growing, multi-ethnic church in the heart of Boston whose pastor is a former atheist and playwright and whose motto is “Practical. Spiritual. Fun.” I found it to be all three, and during the course of my time there made some of the best friends I’ve had (and still have). My faith was grown and also challenged – this was that period of time, for example, that a lot of my personal stuff came to the surface. I explored spirituality and emotional healing concurrently, all in the midst of a community of people who were on similar and parallel journeys. I left this one by circumstance, and probably before I was ready to. Boston as you may have heard is an expensive place to raise a family, and at the time Amber gave birth to Hannah, she held the only job in the family. So we had to get the hell out of Dodge, where Dodge was a place that cost a Benjamin and a half per square foot a month to live in and hell was our dwindling bank account.
The line continued in our new town, with several churches not worth going into detail about. And I’m getting tired of making lists anyway. What I’m finding myself leaving recently is church itself. Not the practice of going to church, since I still attend a church that to some extent I enjoy. And not the Church in the global sense of the word, as I haven’t recanted my faith nor abandoned my God journey. But church as the epicenter of that journey – the place where I explore and experiment with my questions of faith, the community I look to for a network of friends to do life with, and the place where in general I expect to be most fulfilled. Churches have served me well in all these areas, and I think will continue to do so. But I mentioned recently I’ve been uncovering more of my own narrow-mindedness lately, and some of this has been due to my never really looking much further than the church in my spiritual journey.
When we had been in Cincinnati only a few months I called a friend in Boston asking him to pray with me about the frustrations we were already facing with churches here, and in the course of our prayer and conversation he suggested church may not be the place we would find connection and purpose in our new location. Prophecy is a subject I’ve explored in great depths in years past, and its successful application still remains an elusive practice to me. But if one (rather lengthy) definition of it could be speaking things that are or will be true on an emotional and/or circumstantial level to people who may or may not believe it, then this is one of the times in my life that I’ve seen it happen.
Here’s my dilemma. I have a passion for seeing lives changed for the better and people healed and freed to worship God and pursue their passions, thus influencing others. As far as I have ever experienced or heard, this happens most (and arguably best) in the setting of an organized faith community, i.e., a church, a conference, a student ministry, and so forth that’s connected to the living God as the source of this healing and empowerment.
However – I’ve been an on-again-off-again church shopper for the past three and a half years and I have found very (very) few churches who embrace this as a primary mission and show evidence in their congregations of its effect. Far more numerous are the ones that claim to be doing this or wanting to be doing this more, but no one’s really on board except the pastor and some of the leaders maybe.
This has brought me much disillusionment (is that a word?) and since I’m not a particularly self-motivated guy has caused me to shelve my passions in the meantime. This then causes all sorts of upheaval in my heart on a daily basis.
Which brings me back to the dilemma: I know church can be this type of healing, empowering community, because I’ve been a part of one that largely was. But good grief, where are the Christians who are committed to this like I want to be?? I feel like if I just had even just a few other like-minded folks around me we could make an incredible impact, but left to myself the best I can do for now is wait and want.
Amber and I have been in the Cincinnati area for three years and some months now and we’ve yet to land in a church that we both feel at home in. Someone I heard once spoke of the different denominations and movements and flavors of churches as analogous to the tribes and clans of the Old Testament Jewish nation – you find your place among those who are family, who are like you.
This isn’t a bad comparison if you ask me, especially in the light of the perpetual insider one-upping among Christian organizations and the perennial migration of a large chunk of Christians from one church to another. Perhaps the point isn’t so much who’s most right, or most accurately embodying the commission of Jesus in the world, but who is most like you – first in beliefs of course, but closely second in family resemblance: the language they speak, or the way they minister.
This doesn’t give license to a consumerist what-can-you-do-for me approach to finding a church though. I heard a joke once where a guy gets rescued from a desert island after having been stranded there for years. Before they fly him away he gives them the tour of his island and the creature comforts he’d devised. There’s his home of course, as well as a park and a bowling alley he’d fashioned.
“Over here,” he continues, “is my church.”
“And what’s the building next to it?” One of his rescuers asks.
“That? That’s the church I used to go to.”
We’ve changed quite a bit in our spiritual journey over these last three years – been changed by the journey is probably more accurate. We arrived in Cincinnati with all sorts of high hopes and ambitions about the sort of things we’d do at whatever new church we arrived at, but we discovered the arriving itself to use up all the energy and motivation we had (compounded of course with the arrival of three children right around that same time period). So it’s felt a bit more like the process has happened to us than that we’ve guided it by our choices.
Still, I can’t escape the ways God has been present in our lives in all of this, and I certainly can’t write this season off as a spiritual loss. This is the kind of experience that I expect to appreciate most in retrospect, like junior high (ok maybe that’s a bit cynical 🙂 ). But it does seem like from further down the road the high times tend to seem not so glamorous, and the low times seem much more valuable.
May we have the grace to enjoy the good parts of this and wait for the understanding of the difficult parts.