Do you ever have a blog post that just keeps spinning around in your head? For me, they usually appear in the early morning, when I am out walking the dogs. I find myself composing and by the time I get home and am faced with the up and demanding kidlets and the requirements of the day, much of what I wanted to say is gone. In this case, this post has been bouncing around in my head for a while for forgive me, I'm going to give it a try.
I've been struggling on the subject of church for a while now. I should probably define that more clearly. I have no trouble with the greater "church" - the fellowship of all believers, the world over, who all join together to glorify and worship God and to join together in our belief in a risen saviour. I'm good with that kind of church. Like so many these days, though, it's the local church that causes me so much confusion and guilt.
Some of it comes from a few blog posts I have read lately, especially these two:
This one by Geoff Seurat and and this one that appeared in Christianity Today. They both hit on exactly the area with which I have been struggling for a while now.
I am lucky in one sense. I grew up with parents who were church outlaws, which meant that early on, I was able to separate church from Christians. I knew that the people who made up the church were human beings and fallible and that whatever they did, it didn't mean that God was any less. We were always outsiders - my parents' social justice politics and commitment to the message of the Sermon on the Mount made a lot of people uncomfortable. They were always a bit "weird" to some people and the churches we attended always had wonderful ministers of integrity who blessed us with the message of love and compassion (and left-wing politics and anti-war positions!) While we were always different, I learned early that you could be part of the church and yet not always agree. We were not typical and my parents often were viewed as outsiders or rebels. As a child, I was o.k. with that because for me, church was my grandma passing Lifesavers down the pew to us during the sermon and music that I loved and the smell of candles during Advent. It was a safe place to be told by old ladies that we were special and I was too small to know and understand how hard it can be to not be truly accepted at church.
I hit my teenage years and I hit that lack of acceptance at church hard. We went to an inner-city mainline church. I don't know what those kids actually believed but the kids in the youth group that I knew never showed any signs of faith and youth group was purely social. We didn't talk about faith and Christian music was for weird kids. I was an introvert and I wasn't especially interested in their kind of partying so it wasn't long until I left. Luckily for me, a Lutheran pastor with a gentle yet challenging midweek Communion service on campus in university led me to start thinking that church, in some form, would be something that I might want or even need, as part of my life.
I met my husband and got to see a new side of church - a side that impressed me a bit but also scared me a lot. He grew up in the Salvation Army and for him, church was his extended family. People lived there - there were always activities and they all camped together and played together and lived life together. That sense of belonging that I had always felt was missing? It was there, all right, if I was willing to fit the mould. Sadly for me, my parents strong teaching that certain aspects of the Gospel message couldn't be ignored, even if they were inconvenient, kept me from feeling like I really belonged. While the people were kind and truly committed to the message that EVERYONE mattered to God, I just couldn't fit in a church (remember, I was a big city kid who had only ever attended mainline churches and this was hard core small town) where everyone had to hold the same views and those views meant that a great deal of the world was condemned. You didn't ask questions and you didn't disagree with the party line. I had grown up with the love message but without the legalistic, anti-gay, end-times theology which scared the crap out of me when I ran into it (and, which I might add, has largely left Dh's parents church in the twenty+ years we have been together).
Since then, Dh and I have wandered a bit. We attended a terrific city church for several years. It was a mainline church with many of the mainline problems (such as being trapped in 1948 in many ways and it was struggling to be relevant to its challenged, changing urban neighbourhood). What saved that church was a minister who was willing to let things move in the way that they needed to and several amazing Filipino families with a faith so deep and so overarching that it brought us all in. Then, we moved out of the city and it got harder again. We tried several churches where we were the only people under 70, a couple that, after quite a few weeks, nobody had spoken to us and finally, one that we thought might be "the one" until someone made what turned out to be an untrue allegation against the minister that led to the dissolution of his ministry and the breakdown of his family and a congregation that was so quick to judge that Dh said that he could never go back - he said he felt like people would start shouting, "Crucify Him!" during the service.
I started to really question whether I would ever find my tribe and to be honest, as I get older, I am finding that more and more important to me. I've come to the conclusion that I will never entirely belong in a church - my parents have taught me to question too much and to study too much and a theology that is too easy or too black and white or too trite or too judgemental just doesn't feel like God to me. Yup, I am judgemental but when I sit in a church and I hear a message that is self-congradulatory or condemning of others or factually incorrect (that one REALLY gets me, I can't handle that - I come from a tradition of pastor as teacher and if the teacher doesn't have his facts straight, something is wrong here), I feel like I am choking. I have decided, to a large extend, that my "tribe" is online - there are several Christian bloggers, like Rachel Held Evans, Megan at SortaCrunchy, Sarah Bessey and, to a lesser extend, Donald Miller (whose book, Searching for God Knows What was the biggest faith "Aha!" moment of my life - his message that the Bible needs to be seen relationally or it becomes everything that its critics accuse it of being) have helped me to see that I am not entirely crazy and that wonderful people with deep faith walks CAN have issues with the church. I have joined an online Bible study group that I adore and while I regret that I am not as active in that as I want to be, those women are mentors and models to me and I learn so much from them. I am not alone and it's o.k. to be shocked by the disconnect between Christians and church.
That all being said, though, I am strangely not able to entirely abandon the idea that I want to belong to a local church and that's led to a great deal of struggle for me.
We were members at a wonderful (for us) church not too far from here for several years. The church met in an arena viewing area and it was so uncomplicated - people loved and worships and sang and spent time together and then we packed up until the next week. We loved it and for a while, we really felt that we belonged. There were terrific small groups and we felt part of things and had conversations that I had wanted to have at church for years but hadn't been able to have. Somewhere along the way (after the church was build, I think and after I had my daughter), it changed for me. I couldn't be a part of small groups anymore because of my life and I was becoming more and more involved in work at the church. I wanted to contribute and I wanted to build the church but I also was feeling more and more torn about how to balance life as a working mother and my job and my church commitments. I started to feel that I was sinking and I was trying to tell people that and people weren't hearing me. Maybe it was me not being clear enough but especially during the last two years, when anxiety and overwhelm and, frankly, I think, clinical depression, started to get their claws into me and I kept trying to say that I was struggling, I felt like the message was, "That's too bad… we need you to come to this meeting or arrange for someone to cover Sunday school" or, even worse, at times, "Well, maybe you are just too busy and you need to focus more on church", or, worst of all, "Well, I used to feel that way so I quit my job and now I'm a stay at home mom and I'm so fulfilled and life is great" (and, I have to say it, the mom who said that skips church for most of the winter because her kids are at hockey). It felt as if the contributions I was making outside of church didn't count (I have baked for the town A.A. meeting for the last four years, EVERY SINGLE WEEK, I have arranged major food/money donations for two different families with children with critical illnesses and I have tried to maintain my job and my family). Also, as the demands of being a mother increased and I tried to balance my desire to be a committed mom to my kids with the finding a way to be active in the church, that there just wasn't a place for me anymore.
So, here's my dilemma. When I read the blog posts above (and in some conversations at church), I have really come away with the message that it is selfishness to say that I am not getting what I need from church. To misquote a famous quotation, I "shouldn't ask what my church can do for me but only what I can do for my church." I feel such guilt but at the same time, I can't help but feel that I came to a point where my experience of the local church was actually moving me further from God rather than closer. I was never in worship because I was either teaching Sunday School or in the nursery with LB, who hated the nursery and wouldn't be left. I couldn't attend a small group because they were all at times that didn't work for me. I was being asked to attend meetings and plan things when I had been emphatic that I wasn't able to serve in that way. Nobody asked me how I was doing, often few people spoke to me about anything other than church and I felt like an outsider. I was hurt and I was overwhelmed and I was feeling very, very, very invisible. It has really led me to ask the question, "Am I allowed to get anything out of church? Is it too selfish to want a tiny bit for me?"
I don't know the answer to that question yet. We've taken a break to worship elsewhere for the last several months and so far, it's really helped. My kids love where we are going and BOTH of them go to Children's programming and I am getting to hear powerful preaching that leaves me changed and recharged. I am helping out with several things but I also feel, at least at this point, like it's o.k. for me to say that I can't do more at this stage of my life. I am attending a monthly women's group (that meets Friday night after our kids are down so I don't feel like I am taking away from my kids). We have attended several family activities so I don't feel like I have to choose between family and church. It's not perfect - this church has some conservative views that I struggle to accept and I haven't decided how much I can disagree before I have to go somewhere else. I think the fact that this church comes out of a Mennonite tradition and values a lack of conflict and peace between believers goes a long way to help me because I do feel as though I won't be kicked out for believing that God loves gay people and that salvation is not mine to give out and that I choose to not make judgements on who is saved and who isn't (although there are a few "angry white men" types who will give me a dirty look). I do miss the fact that while I had issues with my previous church, when a friend put her lesbian boss whose life partner was dying of brain cancer on the prayer list, nobody batted an eyelash and the prayers offered were heartfelt and compassionate - I'm not sure how that would be received in our new church. My problem right now is that I still carry a load of guilt because I do worry that I have been too selfish in leaving the other church and that I have been too focused on what church can give me. I'd love to love the local church and most of all, I'd love to feel like the local church accepts me. I just don't know whether that will ever happen.
I guess I just have to decide how much it matters to me and to God… Is it wrong to feel like I deserve to feel a sense of belonging at church?