Monday, March 18, 2013

Church 2: Some Wee Clarifications

The trouble with such a big topic as Church, especially through the eyes of a personal history, is the inevitable gaping holes left that can cause questions and the raising of eyebrows. As the majority look much better with our eyebrows calmly settled in our faces I thought I'd revisit the topic. Now that the dust has settled 'round the corners of my mind I find myself with a bit more to say. I did try to change the topic entirely, go back to paint colors or a poem about mountains of lovely snow -- or something equally benign -- but it wouldn't let me. So I succumbed.


The first wee clarification is the line about disillusionment with church being a "go-to topic of conversation for those brave and enlightened enough to face the reality". Now I meant that almost entirely tongue-in-cheek. There ARE a lot of people, generally Christians, talking about this. But I'm not sure about the level of courage involved here, and the "enlightened" part is most certainly in jest. Tinged with a sarcastic hue, even. It seems that those talking about disillusionment with church are either bemoaning the mass youth exodus, complete with statistical charts and blame flying here and there, or conversely, standing with arms folded and eyes rolling...and blame flying.
Frustration about going to church, and especially criticism of the conservative evangelical "old guard", is a hot topic of conversation. It sells Christian magazines. Books on the subject are popular. I'm not brave or enlightened by discussing it, but it does resound with me, and there are reasons for that which may be able to shed some light.

Matters of Size

A lot of what I've felt about the small local church is precisely because it IS as small, local, church.
Small means there are a lot of jobs to do and not many bodies to do them. It means you might be teaching Sunday School, shoveling the sidewalks, and playing the piano all in the same service. It means that you wash the dishes by hand after a potluck meal, scraping a hundred dirty plates and running after people in the parking lot saying, "Hey! I think this is your casserole lid."
It means that if you aren't there, you are missed. Mm-hmmm.
I've attended much larger churches, and one mega-church, in different places we've lived. You're not likely to get worked to death, and not likely to be missed. Not at the 9 o'clock service? Well they probably went to the 11 o'clock. Or the Saturday Night. It's easy to go to church and not see a single person you know! Oh the FREEDOM! Ha ha.
 I did teach Sunday School and was involved in a home bible study and Women's Ministry group at the mega-church, so I know if you put in a bit of effort you won't get lost or over-looked. I am not critical of big churches, because their bigness almost always means they were doing something right, something needed, and were blessed with the huge responsibility to care for those who came.  

The Good Stuff

The church was where I heard about Jesus and how God sent Him to take my place, to pay for sin. I heard about the cross and how He was willing to sacrifice it all, His very life, so I could live in freedom and hope. At the age of 5 I understood what I needed to understand, and I told God that I believed Him and thanked Him. And so I started my pilgrim's progress there, upstairs in a cold, too-brightly-lit Sunday School room.
The church pulpit, a monstrous wooden thing, is what I stood behind when I read from my Bible these words, "Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day".  I was shaking with nerves; it was the day of my baptism and I was 12 years old.
The stage is where I stood to sing my first solo, "Jesus, Name Above All Names", when I was 9.
I took lessons at the piano as a teenager, puzzling out the intricacies of hymn harmonies and chord progressions. (It's a puzzle I've never exactly put together. Why change chords for every syllable?) Later as a young adult I brought choruses from far and wide and introduced them at that same piano.
I could go on and on. It's special stuff, life-changing and important, and I remember. I honor the loving and caring people who looked after me in Sunday school and Jr. church, who gave me a Kleenex for my runny nose and sacrificed their time and energy. Perhaps they too, were wondering about why they were there. Or their mind miles away, thinking about what they would rather be doing.
In my personal disappointments with church I do not want to show disrespect to those who served me or those I am serving now.


So What?

This church actually sounds pretty good! What's not to love?
It is healthy to have some honesty. You can temper it with kindness, but just say it. Is church a safe place to be yourself? Can you actually say a real and honest sentence to anyone there? If you can, then that is great. I do not doubt that there are people who truly love going to church, they do feel like themselves there, and it is the highlight of their week. I haven't experienced joy in church for a long time myself, but I know it's out there.
But if not, when are the layers going to peel back? If we immerse ourselves farther and farther into programs and "getting things done" and never ask (or listen to) some hard questions, I think death by drowning is inevitable. The next generation will be dealing with our bloated spiritual corpses. Or we'll be dealing with theirs.
If you have a real problem, would you go to your local church for help?
Why not?
For some former church-goers and others, the wounds are too deep. They can't be wrapped in phrases, verses, or even good arguments from a blog. Your pain is real and you feel it like a slap even driving by a church. Layers of disgust and mistrust wall in your heart, a concrete barrier that would involve some demolition to break through. Church is the very LAST place you would go if and when your world falls apart.
What if a few of those I just mentioned are sitting in the pew? Sitting there in body, standing for the songs, but so far away...
What do we do with that? Do we provide the space to feel? To ask an unanswerable question, raw with implication?
I'm thinking out loud. I don't know exactly how to change it.  
Except for that saying about doing things the same way and expecting different isn't always better, but it could be a start.
What are you going to do with your hard questions?
I'll tell you what I did. I stuffed them away so far and deep down I thought they'd never have the nerve to surface. And they leaked out over the years, poisoning me, toxifying my soul and hardening my heart.
 Don't do that; it's so destructive to everything you love or will love. Find someone you can be true with. Tell that safe person what you really think.
Do you think God is not leading and guiding you this very minute? His Spirit speaks. He draws us, loves us, puts seeds of hope into our minds and hearts, counsels us along paths that, though strange and foreign soil, are leading away from dark, shadowy hollows toward marvelous light. He knows shortcuts through and away from the enemies of our souls.
The church is not meant to feel like prison.The church is meant to be Love shown on earth, an open doorway. A place of peace and truth. Where the lost are found and the wounded can heal, and those with ice-cold hearts and concrete walls begin to feel.

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