Modern Tower of Babel

I have a confession – I’m a single mom without a mom or family of my own. I have really struggled to find authentic community inside the church. I’ve continued to try, year after year. I’ve grown used to feeling like I just have to figure it out myself. It is, perhaps one of my greatest strengths and also one of my greatest weaknesses. My life circumstances haven’t fit into a nice neat box that the church can usually relate to. Often, the more I couldn’t connect inside the church seemed to push me to seek ways to connect to God outside of the church. Honestly, I’ve spent the greater part of a decade convinced something was wrong with me. I went more on a desperate search to figure out what it was than to find God, but that might be the subject for a later post. For now, just know that God found lots of ways to make himself known to me. When Christians couldn’t relate to me, God found a way to relate to me. When Christians didn’t have time for me, or compassion, or wisdom or encouragement, God found a way. I didn’t always know it at the time. In fact, usually I didn’t.

The result of looking outside of church? God went from being mostly a “Sunday” thing to an everyday thing. Actually, an every second thing. Now, I hear and see God in everything I am involved in. He shows up in every movie I see, every book I read, the things people say to me, everywhere in nature, in my dog, my daughter, the homeless person begging, those who are attracted to the same sex, those that I have relationship difficulties with and even the mass shooter that killed 17 people this past February. I’ve learned that God is always there and it’s only my awareness of him that ever changes.

Another realization of my desperate search to find God (or was it myself?) outside of the church? I discovered that for me, my relationship with God is really a private matter. I connect best and most with God when I am alone. I love when I can share that with others, but it never seems to happen in structured ways or times, even when I try, especially when I try. Usually it happens in random relational moments that are so awesome I actually wish I could manufacture them at will, but it never happens like that. My spirituality is primarily a private relationship and at a distant second, a social one.

It’s only in hindsight that I realize that when my relationship with God revolved more around Sunday mornings services, small groups or service to the church, the subtle message (sometimes not so subtle) was that I couldn’t really have a relationship with God without the church. Ironically, outside of the church and arguably, somewhat outcast from it, is exactly where I did find him. Prior to, God was more of an abstract construct in my mind, than something or someone, real in my heart. I definitely knew the right words to say that conveyed Jesus was in my heart. I absolutely meant those words at the time. However, I could only draw upon the words others had used to tell me about God, usually regurgitations from the Bible during services or in small group. It’s almost like our own experiences with God are not to be trusted or valued. Instead, it is much safer to rely on the experiences of God as they occurred through Bible heroes .Now that I have my own experiences with God, I am much less interested in what Abraham and other Bible characters said or did with God and more interested in what God has to say and experience with me. Selfish of me, I know.

The funny thing is. I’m currently on the outside of church, but feel more connected to God than ever. Those still inside believe that I just need to find Jesus. But I’ve already “have” Jesus. The more adamant they are that I need to be in church to experience the real God, the more separate from them I feel.  I can no longer override my own experience with someone else’s theology. Quite frankly, I wonder whose voice they might be listening to. How can they know what’s best for my soul’s growth? Is there really a one size fits all? Like the tower of Babel, it seems we speak a different language, except I feel pretty fluent in theirs because I used to speak it too.

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Normal

For so many reasons, I am not a normal person. I’d like to think a large majority of them are good reasons but it probably depends on who you ask. I’m definitely not a normal Christian probably no matter who you ask. Normal Christians don’t usually profess to be a Christian and intentionally stop going to church. Normal Christians don’t home church their teenage child. Normal Christians….wait…normal people don’t post personal things on social media. Normal people aren’t vulnerable and willing to share their heartbreaks with random people or even strangers. I haven’t done that here – yet, but stay tuned if you like that kind of really weird stuff.

Here’s another way that I am not normal… I officially choose Christianity as a freshman in college. My peers were sowing their wild secular oats and enjoying their new found collegiate freedoms and I got baptized with the Holy Spirit. I was well aware of what the Bible spoke on God’s judgment of my sinful nature but that wasn’t a significant factor. That Jesus loved me was what mattered to me. Somehow I escaped connecting to God in original sin and shame. Making the decision to accept Jesus into my heart wasn’t about escaping a burning hell and eternal damnation. For me, it was the surrender to a God who loves me. Just another way that I am not normal.

Fast forward a decade or so and here is my dilemma. Why I often feel like I don’t belong. I don’t like Christians very much and I consider myself to be one. (Normal people with common sense don’t admit to this!) It’s not that I dislike people that are Christians. I just don’t like the Christian part of most people. I find myself wanting to escape to another planet where we all connect for some other reason than religion. It might be mutual. Sometimes I wonder if the Christians around me are planning my going away party with zero intention of inviting me to it. Because making a deliberate decision to stop attending church is NOT OK in the Christian world. Blogging about such topics like these are what atheists, agnostics and people lacking God in their lives do. Christians don’t do that. At least not the good ones or is it the real ones? Normal people aren’t confused by this, but I am. I’ve learned that it’s not enough to just be a Christian. You need to be a real Christian and even better, is if you are a good one. What is a bad Christian? Well, apparently I am. Or am I a fake Christian? Whether it’s bad or fake, no one wants to be either one of those. In fact, it’s probably better to not be one at all. There’s hope to convert a heathen but people avoid bad/fake Christians like the plague.

I’ve grappled with being alone in the world, but nothing is lonelier than being someone you aren’t because your belonging is tied up in fitting in, especially in your spiritual community. We teach adolescents to be themselves, but what about when we’re all grown up? With a job, a home, a community and bills to pay and you know the “right” thing to be, but it just isn’t who you are. What’s worse is that I didn’t even realize how fake, even I, who hates disingenuous people, was being. I didn’t realize how I wasn’t being true to me by trying to fit in with my Christian community. I might laugh at something inappropriate. Someone might find out that I let my daughter watch a PG-13 movie before she was 13. Someone might find out that I’ve never liked many of the rituals of being a Christian, but it’s because they felt like they were someone else’s rituals. Copycat rituals. I was taught that they were supposed to be sacred, but most of the time they felt like empty actions with the pretense of being holy. Ultimately I discovered my own religious rituals – now those were holy, even if just to me. But if no one ever saw me engage in my own sacred rituals, then I might not be a good Christian. It seems like being a good Christian is a pronouncement that others make based on what they see us doing. Being a good/real Christian was what I thought was the ideal to aspire to be. I put in the good fight, but I concede. Because I’m just not a good/real Christian and I no longer even want to try (Welcome to my freak show!). I just want to be free to connect to God however he shows himself to me in any given moment. I want to see him in nature, in my child, in my dog, my friends, a goof book or a movie and especially in my community. Because the God I see in those places is so much more life and love affirming for me than the one any church can artificially construct multiple times on any given Sunday. Maybe God made me this exact way and I just haven’t found my tribe of people that like me just the way God made me? I don’t want to feel bad because I connect to God in my own way. One that is meaningful to me. (#NotNormal)

Welcome to Heathenville, USA. Except that I’m not engaging in hedonistic desires or behaviors. I just refuse to try to fit into a culture anymore that reinforces codependency, low self-esteem, connecting to God in shame and that I am undeserving of God’s love. I don’t want to spend time living in the space of being a sinner who deserves hell and where people might shout Halleluiah if I were to wake up every day and profess how unworthy I am of a savior. No. I’ve spent my entire existence living in shame and there’s an inner ick that I can’t will myself any longer to ignore by intentionally choosing to spend time in an arena where we would corporately be encouraged to connect in collective shame for who we are. Maybe it’s a phase, but even Scripture has become something that I associate with Christians using to beat each other and others up with. Bible verses are used to document and justify hate and to strip humanity from the least of these. Normal people can handle this. I can’t.

It’s no wonder the world is in complete chaos – look at how we treat each other. If we connect to God in shame, so rooted in how bad we all are, so afraid of how infections someone else’s sin might be, that’s all we see in each other. I don’t want to be part of an institution that can’t see the glass half full (or better) in humanity. Managers are taught that employees that are treated well, perform well. They are trained to see the good in them and to focus on what employees do well. Popular psychology, self-help books and counselors tell us to assume good intentions, give people the benefit of the doubt, to see the good in others and they will work hard to meet you. In Christian culture – it’s “You deserve death for your sinful nature” and “God hates fags”. How can it be that we humans could be more merciful than our loving creator? I think we got something wrong along the way. (Normal, sane people don’t challenge long standing religious dogma).

My daughter has been my greatest spiritual teacher. I am so incredibly blessed to be her mom and she is a gift in so many ways. It is she, who has been teaching me most how God must think of us. There is nothing she can do that will make me stop loving her. Nothing. I didn’t expect her to be perfect at birth and not a day goes by where I expect that she will be more perfect than the next. Each day brings different challenges and lessons. While I have been her age before and hope I can guide her, she has to find her own way and her own truth. Just like I still do. I would be sick with grief if I ever thought my child lived her life to please me. Or if she woke up every morning feeling like she wasn’t worthy of having a loving mom, her life or anything good. Or in fear that a poor thought, action or behavior could jeopardize how much I love her. It would likely be criminal of me if I did. I can’t will myself to buy into a God that is less merciful towards me than I am to my own child. There’s only room for a God bigger than me and one who loves greater than me. Normal people reject this idea but this abnormal girl is speaking out.

 

 

 

A Faith of My Own

A month ago, I decided to start home churching my 14 year old daughter. For months she had been complaining about attending church and simply not wanting to go at all. The advice from everyone in the church community was as you might guess – “Don’t let her think for a second that church attendance is optional. It shouldn’t even be up for discussion. You simply just go.” Alternatively, a recent Christian article surprised me when it said that the greatest at risk teenager in America is not the teenager whose parents are atheist or agnostic but those teens whose parents are Christians. Apparently studies have been consistently showing that about 88% of Christian teenagers no longer attend church two years after high school graduation.

I was taught by the church that a good parent ingrains the Christian faith into their children so that it’s all they know. The desire being that our children will reject secular ideas, beliefs, behaviors, actions and people. Hmmm, according to statistics, this approach isn’t working. I’m guilty of implementing it, but not anymore. I’m going against the religious current and not only is there no support for that, there’s condemnation. I would argue that we are on the same side and I’m just looking for a more effective approach.

Why are kids leaving the church? There are many theories. I argue that no matter what the external reasons are – the internal one is that their faith in God was never one that they personally took ownership in. It seems that many have learned to go through the religious motions. They showed up at bible study, at church on Sunday and played the part of the “good Christian” because, for most, someone made them do it. Have we taught our children to conform to the expectations of others by making them conform to ours? When kids leave home, the expectations of “the others” in their lives usually changes. Let’s face it, in the adult world, for the majority, the expectations of others are quite contrary to spiritual growth and good self-care. Belonging is so incredibly primal that we all gravitate to where we sense it exists. When kids leave home, where and how they belong often changes drastically. What do we belong to if we don’t have opportunities to develop our own beliefs? It’s as if we want to teach our children to think for themselves except for the important stuff like our values, our judgments and our prejudices. Those things our children need to accept unquestioned and take for granted, while thinking critically in all other ways. That creates some significant cognitive dissonance.

An interesting twist to this is that we parents, are encouraged, if not expected, to drop our children off in Sunday school so they can learn about God. Most parents abdicate learning about God to someone else. Often, in mega churches, it is a complete stranger. Somewhere, myself included was the idea that as parents, we are not the ideal candidates to teach our children about God. Ideally, we model the religious activities that demonstrate we have a relationship with God, worship him or revere him. There’s some belief ingrained in Christian parents that the other mom/parent/person who is volunteering to be in Sunday school with our children is somehow more equipped to use the worksheets provided to them to teach our children about the most important relationship they will ever have.

When I take a step back and talk to my daughter about what she has learned after 14 years of regular church and Sunday school attendance, its appears to boil down to an indoctrination for how God cares mostly about her outward religious activities and not so much about her or her heart. With all due respect to churches and Christians and humans that I believe with all of my heart are doing the very best they can with the resources that they have….I’ve discovered that what my child has really been learning is how to be a class act Pharisee.

At best, most of us were taught to emulate Bible characters, who are complete strangers to us. No one currently alive knew them and none of us know anyone who once did such as a grandmother. The characters of the Bible shared their perspectives and beliefs, colored by their life experiences. None of us ever knew them personally. In my experience, when something isn’t personally relational, it isn’t usually personally applicable. We’ve been taught to superimpose the faith of strangers, their wisdom, and their stories into our lives like a template instead of seeking God directly in the divine creation of our own. How many of us never develop a relationship with God because we’ve been trained to think we already know him based on what people we’ve never met said about him. Most of what we learn in church is intellectual knowledge of God that over time reinforces a faith that lives only in our minds. Our knowledge of God can often become the barrier to knowing God. We can ingrain the minds of our children, but their hearts seem to fall to the wayside. From what I see, our world is full of big minds and small hearts.

It took many decades and a tremendous amount of heartache and pain for me to approach life and God with this mindset. To follow the divine in my heart instead of a church, pastor or dogma. To begin to run off that Pharisee that lived in my mind and alter that faith that only lived in my mind. Faith that I won’t walk away from because it goes up against the expectations of someone else. Faith that is the foundation for where I will belong instead of faith that can be modified to achieve belonging somewhere outside of myself. A faith that is my own. A faith that resides in my heart. A faith I can take personal ownership in everywhere I go.

With Jesus as my guide, from now on, the focus is going to be on my daughter’s insides rather than her outsides, her heart rather than her mind. The real desire of my heart is to inspire my daughter to seek the God that exists in everyone and everything. Instead of seeking the sin in herself and the world to discern what to reject, it frees her up to focus on who and what to love. Maybe along the way, we might inspire others to do the same, much like Jesus did when he was here.

The world doesn’t need any more Pharisees.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you” – Matthew 6:33

Belonging

Disclaimer: If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are a happy authentic church attending person, I think that is great and I sincerely support your journey completely. If not, I invite you into a journey with me into this wilderness of uncertainty where my desire is to create some belonging in the midst of not belonging.

You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all.                             -Maya Angelou

I’ll admit. I’m struggling. I’m a single mom – divorced for about 11 years now. For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to “fit” in the church. To belong. I’ve never felt more like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole as the analogy goes. It has been the most conditional existence I’ve ever experienced. More than anything else, it has opened my eyes to how it is that way for so many others. There is disconnection, loneliness, and spiritual abuse. The effects can be devastating when you don’t belong anywhere.

I’ve been reading and listening to Brene Brown. She defines belonging as “believing and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self to the world…belonging is not conditional or constantly up for renegotiation”. I began to wonder – how many of us really experience belonging in church? Maybe, just maybe, I’m not as alone in that as I sometimes think.

I believe that the love of our creator is the most unconditional love in existence. I would expect church to be the place where we could all safely be our most authentic selves. A place where we honor with full acceptance that none of us are perfect. That life is a journey, and sometimes a very messy one, or even often messy, if you are like me. Church would be where we exude compassion and empathy because we know better than anyone else how much we need people to love us through our wounds, afflictions and addictions. Unfortunately, too often in the last 12 years I’ve heard too many people say “I can’t share this with my church/pastor/small group. They wouldn’t understand. They will judge me”. I think it’s safe to assume – we’ve all got “stuff”. How many of us seek places other than church community to share our most authentic selves to the world? How many of us have no place at all to share our most authentic selves? Worse, how many of us don’t even know what it means to be our authentic selves?

More often than not, it seems as though church attendance and religious activities have become a deceptive metric for measuring morality and spirituality. It can be one of the quickest and easiest stamps of approval available. Corporately; businesses, websites, online yellow pages, flyers and coupons use the fish symbol as a generic logo to portray that they run their businesses and their lives with integrity. Our political system has been invaded by this metric as well where candidates use their religious activities in an attempt to promote public trust. Individually; you can obtain unquestioned acceptance and affirmation that you are “OK” simply by regularly attending church no matter what you are engaged in the rest of the week. That in and of itself, I have seen, can become an addictive form of approval. As Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the people”. I fear that the sad reality could be that many people attend church for social, political, cultural and other reasons that have nothing to do with any real desire to connect to God. Why do we judge those who don’t attend, especially those seeking a more authentic experience? For whatever a random statistic is worth, a poll of pastors revealed their opinions that less than 10% of their Sunday morning congregations were engaged in a transformative relationship with God. Before any of this sounds like the passing of any judgement, maybe all of us are trying in the only way we know how to engage in an authentic relationship with God. Maybe church attendance is where it begins for many, but what if it isn’t? Or it isn’t for everyone? What if some people need or want to move on to something different that fits their personality or lifestyle in a way that is better for their transformation? Why does it have to be a one size fits all? I’m definitely in the minority, but I don’t believe that it does.

I want to be authentically me. I want to be real and honest about the unhealed places of me. I’m not very good at pretending and that’s a big reason why I haven’t found belonging in church. I keep bumping up against “That’s not how we do things”. There doesn’t seem to be much room for authenticity. I’m learning that I just don’t “fit” in church. I don’t want to pretend I “have it all together”. I don’t want to spend time with people who are heavily invested in giving the appearance that they do – especially in a place where I’m trying to foster my most important relationship; the one I have with God. I want something that I know is real. I want something deeper and more authentic than the church offers. I want something more. I no longer believe that church is somewhere we are supposed to go. It’s becoming more and more of a belonging to God in my heart that instead, I take everywhere that I go. I believe, at least in part, that it is the real meaning and intention of spreading the gospel.

The Journey Begins

I’ve grown increasingly used to the fact that few value what the single mom might have to say. That most people don’t value what any marginalized or underprivileged member of society thinks, feels or experiences.

If we go to the Bible – God almost always used the marginalized, the weak, and the powerless to accomplish the greatest things. 2000 years later, these stories are still used to teach of God’s character, to empower others and inspire hope. Interestingly, in both secular and non-secular society, we’re still looking to those in power, the most popular, the charismatic, the superstars and the physically attractive to be our role models of success and how to do “life”. Then we usually elect them into politics. Then we complain about how our world is falling apart.

In the Christian world, church attendance is so deeply embedded as the prescription for how to “do” life. Once you’re in church, assuming you look relatively normal (no oozing wounds, don’t appear to be drunk or high, you have both eyeballs, etc.), it becomes about small groups and giving your talents and treasures back to the church, studying and memorizing the Bible. If you have extra time after that – go out into your community and serve. Tell them about Jesus so that they can start coming to church and serving the needs of the church too (which are mostly supporting the institution that cranks out the Sunday performance). Then when confronted with the homeless, the addicts, the criminals we say among ourselves – “They just need Jesus. We need to get them to church”. It seems we’d rather go to church and hear stories of the once marginalized rather than having much to do with them ourselves.

Jesus, the man, made arguably the greatest impact on our world as we know it and he did it by showing us that we find God in loving and serving the least of these, the broken, and the unloved. He became the marginalized. A friend of mine shared this quote from a Facebook post “True worship has little to do with songs, choirs and instruments but everything to do with how we treat the poor, the orphaned, single parents, prisoners, immigrants and the marginalized”

I feel like I’m living in a world where I certainly don’t have all of the answers. I’m fumbling along like everyone else. However, after more than a decade as a member of the marginalized, it is my opinion that mainstream church has got it all wrong. I find myself hungering for the presence of the unashamedly broken because I see and experience God there like I so rarely have in 25 years of regular church attendance. I see God in our conversations and in our relationship. I see God in them.

Christians, this is all so very confusing and heart breaking. I see suffering all around me. I see us proclaiming the love of God but I rarely see us practicing it. I love all of my Christian friends so dearly but I am not seeing God in our churches. I’m just not. It wasn’t until I became a marginalized member in society that I began to see, really see church and Christianity in a new light. My relationship with God is more important than anything else. I need to follow him, not a church/institution/pastor and not what other Christians are doing just because they’ve been told it’s the only way. I’m sad because I know I will likely lose so many of my Christian friends. I will be seen as abandoning my faith as if somehow my faith is inextricably tied to attending church. I see it as going deeper in my faith and spending more time in the places where I am seeing and experiencing God. I’m pretty sure Jesus will be with me 😉

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” – Matthew 25:40

“Each one of them is Jesus in disguise” – Mother Teresa (in reference to the poor)

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” – Acts 14:22

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” –Matthew 13:44-46