This is not going to be a 'pretty' post. I have stuff on my mind, it's pretty much all muddled up, and I really don't know how it's going to come out or whether it'll make a lot of sense. It's likely also going to be long...'cause frankly you know me at least a bit by now and when have I ever not been long-winded.
So here goes...first with a little background.
Other than for a couple of rebellious years in my twenties, I have been a church-goer all of my life: I grew up in a Mennonites Brethren culture and congregation; I found my soul largely through the Alliance denomination that I spent a decade of my life being a part of in my thirties; and Geoff and I found ourselves back within the Mennonite Brethren community when we moved back to this province. I've never been a 'church hopper' - I tend to want to hang around long term in a church, despite difficult times and despite the fact that sometimes the grass looks a little greener somewhere else. I've also been involved in quite a lot of church volunteer work for most of my life...until the past number of years, really. I suppose it would be fair to say that church, in virtually every aspect, is part of who I am today...for better and for worse.
Despite having acknowledged the denominations of churches that have formed the bulk of my experience, I don't believe that church is a denomination any more than I believe that church is a building. Not being a theologian in any sense of the word, I will simply say this: I believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the church; I believe that its members are gifted to serve one another and build each other up; and I believe that some kind of congregational attendance is a valuable part of Christian life, though not because of some dogma associated with a particular church but because it's good and helpful and even necessary to stay connected in a world that is increasingly non Christian.
So why, if I'm such an apparently committed church goer, am I writing this blog post? This would be a fair question. I'm asking it myself. And I will try to answer it. But I will do so with a caveat: I reserve the right to come back to this post and modify it as I think about it further. I am seeking insight into myself on the subject matter of church, and my thoughts are not all together on it. Addled may be a better word to describe the state of my brain when it comes to processing my thoughts about church.
I guess as a starting point, I'd like to say that despite attending church most Sundays, and despite philosophically viewing church as an important aspect of life for a Christian, I am fairly disconnected from it these days...emotionally, spiritually. I question the value of it, despite everything I've just said I believe. My essential problem is that my questioning has little to do with the belief I have in the value of church, and it has almost everything to do with my experience of church in recent years.
But, and I warned you that this would be messy, let me back up again.
Some years ago, Geoff and I were going through a very hard time in our relationship. A really, really hard time. We both made some pretty significant mistakes and it took quite a bit of hard work to get through it, to survive and, ultimately, to get to a good place. We did it. We're good. But with no thanks going to our church.
During that hardest point in our married life, Geoff and I were involved in a small church group that met most weeks to talk, pray, study some biblical topic or other, and confide in each other what was going on in our lives. The group was comprised of four couples, one of which was us. In the privacy of that group, Geoff and I shared some of the things that we were going through, and at pretty much the crux of our marital difficulties, one couple stated that they would walk through this time with us; specifically, that they were committed to "being the church" to us. We felt very supported in that moment.
Sadly, that commitment never materialized. In fact, within a very short period of time, the group shut down, my phonecalls and emails were not returned, and to this day, I have never heard again from the couple who uttered that commitment to us. I should note that I have since been back in communication with the other members of that group and I have no issues with those relationships.
But that one couple hurt me. Badly. Right where I was most vulnerable.
There is no question whatsoever that I made some mistakes with my marriage during those times, and they knew it. But not once, not ever, was I asked for my perspective on things, and not once did they contact me or ask what kind of support I needed as Geoff and I worked our way forwards. This was the church?? That question played itself over and over in my my mind for almost two years.
To this very moment, and you may well be able to read it in my words and tone, I cannot think of that experience without feeling the pain of it all over again. I could not stop thinking this: if Christ came to save those of us who are sinners, and not for those who are righteous, did He not then come for people just like me?? And if that's true, and if the church is the bride of Christ, how could the people who were committed to "being the church" for me/us able to justify their action/non-action? If that was "being the church," I was frankly repulsed by it. I was so disillusioned by "church" after that experience that I almost stopped going. Almost. For pretty close to two years, I fought with myself every single Sunday morning before heading out the door to drive to church. I felt sick to my stomach every time, and often on the Saturday night lead up into Sunday morning, too.
Frankly, there were really only two thoughts that kept me going: First, Matthew. Matt was engaged in a great kids' church experience and was making friends in a lovely, child-centred environment. He loved going, and would often initiate conversations with me during the week about what had been discussed on the previous Sunday morning.
Second, and this one was the key...I had been involved in church most of my life, I had been deeply involved in a church leadership team in a church we'd been involved with in a different province, and I knew somewhere deep down, despite this experience, that "church" was a lot bigger than two people.
That experience took me back, emotionally and spiritually, to those two years during my twenties when I didn't attend church. You see, the very issue that I grappled with during those years was hypocrisy. I felt in those years that most of the people that I knew (my friends, family, myself) put on a good 'face' for church, but didn't really live a lot of it out during the week. Why did I want to be a part of that? I asked myself in my twenties. So I tried not being a Christian - by which I mean that I tried to live for a time as if I didn't have a relationship with Christ, and I tried to figure out what it was that I believed in. I think, frankly, that this was an experience that many young adults have. But whereas for many people this is a deal-breaker, in my case, things turned out differently. I discovered that I couldn't, didn't want to, turn my back on the personal relationship that I'd developed with my Creator, my Saviour. In the end, I remember kneeling beside my bed, looking out at a black and starry night, and telling God that I was back, that I wanted him in my life. I told him that regardless of how hypocritically other people chose to live their lives, I wasn't responsible for a single other person's faith other than my own and that I wanted to choose to live authentically.
I have been reminded of this in recent years, after the experience with the couple from our small group. I think I'm through it. But I admit it: I was bitter for a very long time. And it took even longer to come to a point of forgiveness.
What I have thought about so many times in the years since is this: what do those of us who are churchgoers and who call ourselves Christians do to people in the name of Christianity? How often do people new to faith and/or new to a church community experience find in me or other Christians the same kind of response that I experienced at the hands of that couple? How often do people simply stop coming to church, simply stop believing that there is a community out there to support them because, frankly, it is not a community of support for them? What have we, what have I, in the name of righteousness, done to people who deserved my compassion and grace and support? What have we churchgoers done to pastors who leave their positions and their churches all too often under the weight of condemnation of individuals who have turned their backs on their God-ordained pastor, either through deliberately unsupportive acts or, more often, through subversive and subtle acts that result in a hurt far deeper and long-lasting than what I experienced? I have personally known well three pastoring families where the pastor left the congregation under less than pleasant terms, and they and their families went through terrible times of trying to recover; one of those wives, a good friend of mine in years past, slipped into a deep depression for many years.
I have come to see firsthand how much damage we do to people under the guise of being Christ followers. I saw it in my mediation practice occasionally, too: there were a few times when I was involved in mediating church leaders and/or congregants/board members, and I privately found appalling the lengths to which participants would go to justify their actions/beliefs towards/beliefs about another person based on what they believed God was speaking to them in their hearts.
I sound cynical, I think. The truth is that, though I'm not as cynical as I come across here, I do believe there's more than a little truth in what I'm saying.
I have not yet been able to bring myself to be involved in any volunteer capacity in our church, and not only because I have my hands full of children these days. What keeps me from diving in is my feelings of personal failure (because I was such a screw-up in tough days past) and my fear about re-engaging with people and the prospect of being hurt so badly again. At times, I feel my old hankerings for involvement resurfacing - primarily because I like to be involved in things, and have had a lifetime of acting on this preference; I have believed for most of my adult life that if I don't like something, or if I see a need for change, I need to get involved to change it, or at least to give me a 'right' to voice what I don't like; I am not an arm chair critic.
I see in me those leanings towards becoming involved again to be a sign that I have recovered from the wounds of yesterday. Maybe as my kids get a bit older/able to be a little more independent, I'll indulge my wont by volunteering for something little. Who knows.
But I'm still left with the question of 'what is church?' I think it should be a place of community and friendship; of mutual support; of edification and building each other up and challenging each other to further growth; of asking each other how we're doing and giving/receiving an honest answer. Maybe I'm expecting too much, maybe too little, I don't know. What I do know is that this kind of church definition is not my reality at this moment. I say 'hi' to a number of people every week, and virtually all of them are strangers. Often, the people I'm most comfortable saying 'hi' to are the ones who look a little 'down and out' but I essentially know no one...after almost six years in attendance. I miss the one person I used to talk to for a few minutes every week. I've written about Max before - the guy who didn't actually come in to the church, but who sat playing his guitar outside of it by the parking garage and who was hoping that someone might drop a few coins into his guitar case. I really liked talking to Max, after overcoming my initial shyness. Matthew liked him too. But we haven't seen him in months, and I wonder what happened to him.
What has come out of this whole church identity crisis for me is a radically different view of people than I used to have. I think, in hindsight, I used to be pretty judgmental towards other people. I had ideas about how people should live their lives and I didn't think too highly people who did otherwise. And then I hit my own forks in the road and chose badly, and had to figure out how to get back on the straight and narrow. I'd have to say that this has given me much food for thought, a whole different perspective.
In the past couple of years, I have met people in our church who have had affairs, who have been/are drug or alcohol abusers, who I strongly suspect sell their bodies for money, and even one who killed another human being and spent time in prison for it. And of course, I've met other people who appear to be perfectly ordinary, average people. But what I've observed over and over and over again is that all of these people have a single thing in common: it. does. not. take. long. to. scratch. below. the. surface. to. see. that. someone. is. hurting. And perhaps what's different for me is that I simply don't feel the kind of judgment towards any of these folks that I surely would have had years ago.
I remember saying hi to someone about eighteen months ago whose marriage had just broken up. I'd met him once in years past, and so I approached him and said 'hi.' Without much prompting on my part, he told me about how he'd messed things up with his wife and that everyone hated him now because of what he'd done. My response? Very different than in years past, when I would have mumbled something, thought horrible things about him, and gone on my way with a smile on my face. But this time my heart was all compassion. I found myself putting my hand on his arm and telling him that I felt very badly for him and that I was sure there were lots of things he wished he could do over again and that there was always a context for how people act and that life sucks sometimes. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he said that I was the first person to show him compassion given his story.
And I guess that's how I've changed. I simply don't feel judgment towards someone who's been involved in messing up his/her life. I've been there. I've been rejected by the very people who were supposed to view me as a fallible child of God and who were supposed to support me. I am not going to do that to someone else...at least not knowingly.
Isn't that church? I'm not trying, truly, to flatter myself here by thinking I've landed on what it really means to be church. But what the heck are we bothering to go for if not to make connections, if not to offer each other some genuine compassion and understanding and encouragement. The church I feel disconnected from is the church that would allow a leader to stomp on my heart, the church that lets people go unwelcomed as they are, the church that sees only the superficial and artificial front that we're all so good at using to mask the pain inside. And if 'the church' is made up of people, then I correct the last sentence to read as follows: The church I feel disconnected from is comprised of the people who stomp on my heart, people who don't welcome me as I am, the people who see only the superficial and artificial front that I'm so good at using to mask the pain inside.
And if by people I include myself, and if I refuse to be an armchair critic and don't want to be a hypocrite myself, then what am I, as a member of the body we call 'the church,' willing to do to ensure that people's hearts don't get stomped on, to welcome people as they are, to see beyond the masks that we all wear to support the person behind it?
Really, isn't this the question that we as a church should be grappling with? I know I am.