A few months ago I drafted a blog called "Why Your Pews are Emptying."
It was a vomit sort of blog -- the kind where all your insides fall onto your desk and carpet, and when it's over you're not sure if you or the blog got the worst end of the deal.
I shared it with a friend of mine who kindly pointed out that it was "hyperbolic," to quote him accurately. This was my cue:
"It's not beneficial. Don't post it."
If I'm being honest, I hate being a Christian. I spend most of my days figuring out how to follow Jesus, which is especially hard on the days I'm not sure I know how to believe in Him.
When you're still in mourning
Ten years ago, I had several light bulb moments -- the moments where you're exhausted from crying and the only thing to do is to shower and put on a clean pair of underwear. The Church broke my heart. They murdered the faith I'd known, by way of massacring my friends and family. Even in the midst of running away from the hurt and pain, I knew it'd be 10 years before I could write anything like this. I knew I had 10 years' worth of demons to wrestle after everything was said and done.
I had promised God then, whoever She is, that I would never, ever lie again. And this meant saying very honestly: "I don't know who you are. I don't know if I believe."
With my "salvation" hanging in the balance for the next three years, I was an anxiety-ridden wreck. Without right thinking, without right posture before God, without being full of unshakable certainty, how could I be assured of my salvation?
Over time I learned to live with the unknowns. I was surprised to sense God in moments where I didn't want anything but to be alone. Today, Jesus and I are OK. Instead of resisting him, several years ago I started praying again ... just in case it worked. I'm still not part of a church, and God's OK with that.
Most days I peer in through the Church windows, hoping for the day when I can just relax and feel safe again. I miss that sense of belonging, but it's very hard to take that first step when every day I see so much that reminds me of what my friends, family and I went through.
I want to be part of a glorious Church, a righteous Church, a Church that reflects the patient, steadfast nature of God I've come to know during my time of hiding. I know this whole relationship-driven organized religion thing is bound to be imperfect. But there are things that grieve me, that frighten me about stepping back into the Church waters. Instead of writing them as an indictment for why I stay a safe 300 yards away at all times, I want to share why I wish Church were safe. Why I wish Church were the refuge God intends it to be.
1. I wish our missionaries were believable.
Not a day goes by that I don't come across a new young-20s missionary who's turned missions into a social calling card. I want to believe in your mission, and I would support you -- if you felt even the tiniest bit genuine when I met you in real life. I can't help but think the same thing as others:
"Are you just using me to get a free international vacation?"
I wish today's missionaries looked like the missionaries of previous centuries. People called to a rough life: to lay down their worldly possessions, to lay down personal rights, to give their all for a cause. I see this kind of sacrifice more in people who work with the Peace Corps than most Christian ministries. I wish our pews were full because our missionaries were real.
2. I wish we spoke about sin with compassion.
It's a very convenient tactic for Christian pastors to turn the Good News into the Emotionally Manipulative Message. Far too much of what I hear sounds like the echoes of an abusive husband: someone who consistently reminds you of your worthlessness, and then as a token of mercy says "But I won't hit you today if you're good."
When I first began praying again, it wasn't because someone in the Orthodox church said "You're a sinner, you're the worst, you're despicable in God's sight." They said nothing of the sort. They fixated on God's goodness and faithfulness to humankind. And over time, something changed.
I wish our pews were full because people couldn't resist wanting to know the loving God we pointed them toward.
3. I wish we valued accountability.
There are a lot of troubled churches I've seen that feel like unnecessarily rebellious crusaders. "Someone somewhere didn't like how the old pastor interpreted this Bible verse, so we started a new one and now we can't pay our bills." I wish we were the folks who stopped reinventing Christianity to make us comfortable.
I wish we more readily recognized the difference between a pastor and an opportunist.
I wish we valued community, brotherhood and accountability. In these values, we are able to guard against the tendency for churches to turn into multi-level marketing schemes.
I wish our pews were full because we rejected the fanciful and flashy and instead clung to the sometimes uncomfortable accountability of sound doctrine.
4. I wish we had our spending priorities in line with the Gospel.
I'll be honest: I don't think we need to build another church building. I don't think the United States of America needs another single church. There are plenty of structures, plenty of houses of worship, and that incessant spending makes me think we're actually chasing a distraction from what we're supposed to be doing.
Do we feed the hungry? Do we clothe the naked? Do we fight against injustice? Do we defend the widow and orphan? Do we crusade for dignified wages and working conditions for all persons?
It's really easy to avoid doing all those uncomfortable things when we distract ourselves with spending our money on a new church gymnasium.
I wish our pews were full because people were being sheltered from the storm.
Faithless and therefore trustworthy
Years ago I read a poem that asked, "Will you let yourself be faithless and therefore worthy of trust?" This read like a contradictory sentence. Faith should make you more trustworthy, shouldn't it? Technically, yes. In reality, it doesn't.
I make no great case for my faith by saying I still believe in Jesus, that I still try to follow him even when he feels like an illusion in my mind.
But I think being faithless for a while brought a little bit of integrity that my previous faith was missing. I knew too much, had too much confidence. I was too blessedly assured to be of any earthly good. So, life plopped me on my ass and made me incredibly unassured and insecure and alone. On this uneven ground, with plenty of other offers in front of me, I decided if climbing the Mountain of God was where I could find Truth. I've let go a thousand times. For some reason I keep trying to climb.
Something inside me insists, if you go to the Mountain, you will find God there.