Friday, September 16, 2005

The Search is Over

Notice to all churches in the Central Jersey area: I quit. I've stopped the steeplechase.

My family and I have been looking for a church to attend for the past three years. The whole search began about two years after the pastor at our last church realized the church needed to go in a direction he couldn't take it, and resigned. The pastor we hired about a year later proved to be a bad choice. Bad theology. A controlling, deceitful personality. A bully in the pulpit.

The church self-destructed after about a year, and about a hundred of us were scattered to the wind, looking for a new church. Like the knights of Camelot distracted by wandering fires as they pursued the Holy Grail, we roamed this way and that, striving for glimpses of heaven that led to nothing but ashes and dust.

My family and I searched. We tried a new church in West Windsor. The pastor was a good man and the preaching was decent, but we didn't belong. It was too far away.

We tried another church in Hillsborough. The pastor had a preaching voice that he used even when he was asking his wife to make his eggs sunny-side up, he shat Hallmark cards on stage and called them sermons, and when we stopped going after five weeks, he called to say he "missed us" and asked if we would be back. My wife said no, and told him it was because I found his preaching to be empty.

We visited a different church in North Brunswick. The pastor once worked the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and his whisper-to-shout style of preaching gave me a migraine before the service had ended. We didn't go back.

We visited two churches in Piscataway. The first one was small and friendly, but the preacher pulled Scripture verses out of the Bible willy-nilly, with no regard for context or their actual meaning. The second was large and friendly, but the preaching was no deeper than "Read the Bible; it's a great book!" and my daughter burst into tears one week at the thought of having to attend Sunday School there again.

For a year-and-a-half we attended a church about 25 minutes away. It has a great children's ministry, the pastor is a down-to-earth kind of guy who really has a heart for bringing people to Christ, and the church even has its own radio station. But I got tired of people not knowing my name, I got tired of not being able to join a ministry even after I shared my interest, and I wearied of being asked if I was new to the church.

It's been a long, hard haul these past three years. I saw a fellow refugee last week. He had always had a jaded edge to him, but three years and eight churches later, the cynicism had hardened into bitterness. He didn't want to even hear the word "church." I was afraid to ask him about God.

I don't blame him. My experience with churches has been bland, to put it mildly. The churches I've attended the last 17 years have been churches more concerned with society's morals than with its needs, more concerned with church attendance than actual growth, and more interested in what people can give to the church than in the people themselves.

So, I'm done. I'm not looking for a church anymore. Pastors, take notice: I don't care a fig about the size of your church. I don't care if it has a food court, I could care less about your youth ministries or your involvement in Promise Keepers, and I don't want to hear about your men and women's ministries. What good are they when the heartfelt tears and welcoming looks don't extend beyond the meeting room?

So what if you have a lead pastor, a children's pastor, a youth pastor, a worship minister, a minister of hospitality, an outreach pastor, and even a creative arts pastor? It's great you have a staffing budget bigger than some corporations, but I'd rather have a place where the average joe can contribute more than body heat.

So you have a gym, run a Christian school and have a campus so large that it has its own ZIP code? I'm sure that's as peachy as my grandmother's cobbler, but quite frankly, I don't give a damn what purpose is driving your church. You can purposely drive your church into Lake Michigan for all I care. People, not the size of debt you've accumlated, are what matters; changing people's lives is going to matter more in the Kingdom of Heaven more than how many new recruits were added to the membership roles.

I'm through. Other people can play the steeplechase if they want; I'm done.

Let me say this quite clearly: I - don't - want - a - church. I could be happy if I never belong to one again.

I want a community. I want a group of believers where I can be myself, where I can give the things that are uniquely mine to give and not just fill a vacant slot in an eternally existing program that can function just as well with somebody else.

I want a Bible study where I can show up wearing leather, sporting a score of facial piercings, and bearing a Gay Pride emblem on my chest and know that I'd get the same reception as the guy wearing slacks, a dress shirt and a $150 tie.

I want a worship service that actually involves worship, a service where my spirit can soar to God's presence, and where my corruptible, dying flesh can realize -- even if it's just for a moment -- that it's going to be redeemed, too. Most contemporary services I've been to are contemporary only to Christians; to the rest of the world, they're still at least a lifetime behind the times. Or did you think everyone listens to music by the Bill Gaither Trio and Larry Petree?

Give me a group of Christians living in the same area, committed to one another and committed to working together to figure out this messy, unresolvable faith we share. Give them a vision that's bigger than themselves, big enough to include the city, the country and the rest of the world, not just to address spiritual needs but to address earthly ones as well. (As if you can address the one without the other.)

Give me a group of Christians who will accept me in the same way that Christ does: just as I am, welcome because his blood was shed for me that way. Give me a group like that instead of this poor man's substitute we've been poisoning ourselves with in America for ages, and a lot more people than just me are going to be interested. Look to the fields - they're ripe and ready for the harvest.

But where are the laborers?

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Trapeze Act

If faith were a circus, I'd be in the high-flying act right now, caught in the moment of motion from one trapeze to the other.

I'm at the turning point, that dreadful moment when momentum has run out and gravity is kicking in. There's no safety net below, and if no one catches me, I'm going to plunge to my death fifty feet below, the victim of a foolish, misplaced trust.

Back when I first agreed to join this circus, I thought I had already crossed this turnover point. Other Christians told me, and I believed them, that the world would look at me and know that I was a Christian. It was something palpable, almost as visible in the physical world as in the spiritual. I thought this transformation had coincided with my conversion. Later, I was told it would come through a gradual process called sanctification that would make me steadily more Christlike in tiny steps until the very air around me would smell like heaven.

Like many other things, this belief has proved to be one of many comforting lies and half-truths I told myself as I climbed ever higher toward the trapeze and as the ground moved step by excruciating step away from my feet.

I haven't become any holier, I've just become more wretched. As others around me in church talk of one victory after another, I've developed a sense of my own sin that eclipses what first drove me to Christ. Grace, not sanctification, is what I'm looking for now.

Here at the turning point, my stomach tightens with anticipation and dread, and I no longer can tell up from down. Vertigo has taken my perspective from me, and I'm amazed at how many other half-truths I've dropped along the way. I wonder if I would have had the courage to start the climb without them, and I wonder if I might have made it farther than this by now if they hadn't been weighing me down.

I can see them, dropped on my way past the high wire, or careening through space as I hang here in midair, suspended for an eternal instant between places. Some of them are side doctrines I used to hold onto so fervently, like my discarded belief in the Rapture. Some were once so important that I'm sure the younger me would be appalled at what I've become. The person I am today would have been written off as a backslider or as a pretender to the faith, someone who was never a "real Christian."

I haven't stopped believing these articles of the faith, but I am gaining a more mature understanding of them. God is love, but that does not mean he is merely kind as we understand kindness, or that things will be easy for those who love him back. The Bible is inspired, but that does not mean it is inerrant. Christ is the only way to the Father, but that does not mean the Kingdom of God is confined to the church.

Here at the turning point, I've lost my pride. When I was younger, I insisted on my point of view on virtually everything. Sometimes I only wanted to explain it, and sometimes I wanted to defend it. Often I wanted everyone to agree with me. That need no longer drives me as it once did. My core beliefs remain unshaken, and it no longer bothers me if someone disagrees or thinks I'm an idiot for believing the way I do.

Truth, I have found, is relational and not merely dogmatic. If a person could be changed through mere argument, the world would be a different place, but if the world ever was like that, it has changed. Today, everybody has an argument. Sometimes I'll have the better argument, and if I don't, then I know I can find someone else who does. The same is true for people on the other side of the argument, and nothing is settled. A strong argument is good only when we already agree on the basic underlying principles.

What I'm finding instead is the transforming power of compassion and basic decency. I'm realizing that Matthew left his job collecting taxes to follow Christ because he discovered that Christ just accepted him as he was, apparently without lecturing him about the evils of extortion and greed. Jesus was the sort of guy everyone could feel comfortable around, no matter how they earned their money, used their spare time, or where they came from. Except hypocrites and moralists. He always drove them to an insane fury, even as he welcomed everyone that they disapproved of.

One last thing I've been giving up: control. Throughout much of my life, I've pretended to be the master of my fate. I have been drawn upward, but every rung I have ascended has been by my choice. I was called out into the air, and I chose to obey.

Now I am in midair, hovering, just before the fall. All choice is gone from me, and even if I wanted to go back, I could not. Two options remain: oblivion, or rescue, and neither of them is a choice for me to make. The minute I let go, I yielded my ability to choose to another.

I'm at the turning point, and I can see a pair of hands coming my way, timed perfectly to catch me before I fall any further. Soon they'll lay hold of me, and the rest of this act will be completely beyond my control.

I can't wait.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.