Sacramental Christianity Won’t Win Me Back

Not everyone wants to go back to church.

Do you?

My favorite Christian author (Rachel Held Evans) recently wrote an article about why millenials are leaving the church. In it, she explains that young adults like us don’t need or want our churches to be cool. She says that we’re drawn to Christianity’s long held sacraments when they’re practiced with authenticity and inclusivity.

For many of us, that’s true. We’re leaving church because it feels wrong and we’d return if it felt right. That’s not true for all of us, though. At least, it’s not true for me.

I mean, it IS romantic to kneel on a velvet bar alongside strangers and friends. To gaze at those high cathedral arches, to echo the Lexionary across the centuries, to participate in rituals like confession, communion, and baptism- all those spiritual practices that hold us together and remind us of what our souls are apt to forget.

And as long as I attend with my erudite friends, as long as I don a sports-coat with leather patch elbows, I’m happy to rest my padded bottom on an unpadded wooden pew. I’ll enjoy those quiet moments of old-fashioned-but-never-outdated-reflection. I’ll listen to the man with the low slung glasses who speaks slowly about a tree that was cut down from his yard and how it brought to mind all the trees that Jesus interacted with: Zacheeus’s tree, the fig tree, the vine and branches, the cross itself- and I’ll open myself to whatever spiritual wisdom I might derive from trees, and Jesus, but mostly trees.

But I gotta be honest- that stuff doesn’t help me any more than the fog machine or the throbbing lights or the free cappuccinos in the mega-church lobby. For me, it’s just a different kind of inauthentic- one that makes me feel slightly less manipulated and slightly more intelligent all while in the back of my mind I’m harboring the suspicion that I’m drifting toward another abusive relationship- only this time with an older, wiser abuser.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my perspective is the better perspective. I just think it represents some of us whose problem with church extends beyond popular Christian culture. (Also, I’m not ragging on Rachel. Rachel is terrific! Her new book is beautiful and provocative and you should definitely buy and read it.)

But as much as I love Rachel (and secretly want to be friends with her and her husband) her perspective doesn’t represent me. As a pastor’s kid, a Bible School Grad, a missionary to China for six years, a church planter, a Christian conference speaker; I’ve been on the scene long enough to know that even the most Sacramental Christianity won’t fix my problem. The simple truth is that I don’t want to go back to the church until the church dies and is born again.church bball

Not all believers want to find their way back inside the building.

If you’re anything like me, you might view the sacraments and the liturgy as good programs that good people built after Jesus left. Programs whose faithful practice has helped people follow God through the ages. Programs which should be honored and cherished and used to this very day. But man-made programs nonetheless.

I’m cool with those programs until the minute their sacraments become sacred. When people start associating rituals (communion, baptism, the sinner’s prayer), leadership structures (prophets, priests, pastors), organizational structures (denominations, theologies, creeds), and morals (sex, marriage, crime, punishment), as items which are fixed quantities that can be applied in homogeneous fashion to all- in my postmodern opinion those beliefs have themselves become calcified idols which are now undermining the very deep truths of the even deeper mystery they were originally built to point toward.

In Rachel’s new book, which is organized entirely around the sacraments, she reaches beneath the sacraments themselves to apprehend the messy, mysterious, somewhat subjective truths behind each ritual. She understands that what lies beneath is the actual pearl of great price. That’s why I’d love to share a sanctuary with her and her family some Sunday. She’s a modern day sojourner (Abraham style), rallying folks (Nehemiah style), to rebuild the broken walls of Christendom.

But at the end of the day, Rachel is back in church. And I don’t mean the ethereal line of believers strung out from Abraham to Billy Graham. I mean the institution. I mean an organization of men who lay out the rules.

And as a postmodern millennial, my mind doesn’t bend that way anymore. Our world is too wide for me to believe that God definitively does or does not want a man in Dubai to share an apartment with his girlfriend, or boyfriend. I worry that to live under the spiritual roof of men who have applied God’s precise opinion on anything from tits to taxes is spiritual abuse.

That’s why I believe that Jesus and Christianity are worlds apart. For example, what if Jesus didn’t institute communion as a formal demonstration of our proximity to God? What if he simply shared a poignant meal and said, “Hey, keep eating and drinking and remember me when you do.”?

Also, Jesus never flew a rainbow flag or carried a poster that God hates fags. Men did that. Men DO that. Men who organize around non-negotiable statements of faith.

And that’s why I can’t return to a hierarchical church. I don’t want a church to tell me that homosexuality is a sin and I don’t want a church to tell me that it’s not. I see through a glass darkly, just like everybody else, and mine is to wait and watch and love.

What I want is a church that doesn’t have an opinion for once. That doesn’t have a vested interest in my money, time, or perfect behavior. Where there are no paid professionals. Where to follow God is an amateur endeavor forever.

I’m not the only one. Many of us are fully engaged, whether we realize it or not, in our generation’s philosophical battle for faith. We want to know the extent that spiritual Truth can be objectively understood, organized, and applied. Our postmodern minds tell us that the answer is uncertain, and for some of us, a return to what we knew could only be regression.

What I’m saying is- we could start over. We could reinvent the wheel. Throw out the baby with the bathwater. Cut off our nose to spite our face. I believe the grass is greener on the other side of professional Christianity and I believe that some of us need to pack up our things and go to a land we’ve never been before.

I don’t know what it looks like yet but I imagine it as a movement of volunteers who open their homes regularly, who are autonomous except in matters affecting the movement as a whole, and who have no objective but to find God and to love people. I see such a movement burgeoning around nothing more than the belief in a God who cares, the transformation that such a belief precipitates within our ever-softening hearts, and the attraction it produces among those who suffer under the burden of fear and pride and guilt and shame.

Does this resonate with you at all? I hope so! Over the last two weeks I’ve been flabbergasted by the volume of emails and friend requests from so many of you. It’s crazy that we have so much in common yet we’ve felt ostracized and isolated- unaware of one another.

I’m beginning to wonder if we’re at the beginning of a new evolution. I believe such a leap could be catalyzed by a multitude of single-cell voices who dream a similar dream. If you’re like me maybe your voice has been languishing in silence for too long. And maybe it’s time to start speaking again, dreaming again, seeking others who are seeking God beyond the primordial ooze.

I’d love to hear about your dream too. What’s been percolating? Shoot me an email or a friend request or better yet, leave a comment below and try to make a friend on the website!

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I’m Talking To You Disillusioned Christians

Maybe you call yourself an Ex-Christian, an Agnostic, or nothing at all.

Or… maybe you say you’re a Christian but you squirm through Sunday services feeling like a fraud.

Or… maybe you quit attending years ago and you only think about the faith you inherited at family reunions.

Whatever your attitude, you grew up singing songs on Sundays, believing stories about what God did and what God wants you to do and what God wants you to believe about the world.

But something happened. Either a dramatic moment or an imperceptible shift over time. Maybe you realized your decision could cost you everything or maybe not. Either way, one morning you woke up to embrace your inner doubt.

If you’re like that, we’re a lot alike. I grew up Christian too. I sang songs. I believed beliefs. Until a slew of dissonance provoked me to think freely. Ultimately, a tentative set of fractured but honest beliefs emerged and they didn’t quite fit anywhere.BeFunky Photo

And here I am- full of questions and convictions but with no safe place and with few scattered allies. I’m disenfranchised. Disallowed from from writing my truth without being branded a rebel, a malcontent, a bitter soul, an enemy, or, worst of all, living proof that the devil sometimes wins.

I’m not alone in my plight. There are scattered millions of us. Skittish, like cats in hiding. In America alone there are 300 million citizens of One Nation Under God. If half of us grew up in church and half of us ran away from church and if I exaggerated those by half that’s still close to 40 million wanderers. Uncollected. Alone. Caught in the twilight of belief and unbelief.

And yeah, we’re different. Some of us have said: “Screw it. I’m done.” Others of us want to sleep around with a bunch of other religions to rebound. But at the indivisible denominator we are in common: Disenfranchised Christians. And as much as we sometimes try to avoid it we share a similar spiritual yearning and a similar spiritual language.

So why don’t we gather among ourselves? It’s tricky, that’s why. Nobody can talk about this stuff without making a mess. Our stories are raw, unprocessed, not fashioned to fit inside a prefabricated puzzle. They sometimes sound like personal attacks. They sometimes offend the people we love. Even among ourselves our stories are associated with alarming theological implications which we might or might not believe.

It’s just easier to stay silent. Or to shout angrily at no one in particular. But if we stay silent we wander alone and if we shout loud the Christians shout back- often louder, angrier, nastier, and with the power of their collected rightness. Whether we stalk in silence or fire against the machine we Disillusioned Christians rarely make progress.

Many of us are stuck. OK, I’m stuck. I’m afflicted with the same resentments and the same hair-trigger character flaws I’ve always had. I’m not making progress. I’m not being transformed. And I’ve failed to find and forge life-giving connections with other disillusioned folks who want to change.

This is a problem and I want a solution.

Are you with me?

I want a way forward. A vision of an alternative future where we came together. Where we agreed not to spring for fights or languish in silence.

What if the fighters among us laid down their swords? What if the avoiders among us engaged the dilemma? And what we gave ourselves permission to talk about our stories and our theories about what went wrong. But what if we didn’t stop there? What if we didn’t stay focused on the problem? What if we committed among ourselves to stay focused on the solution?

And what if that solution was to revive our collective hope in God? Not in religion. Not in community. Not in a fresh batch of laws or theology. Simply the wide open hope of a God who cares.

That’s the journey I want to be on. That the journey I want to share with a timid band of believers. Though our destination may be far from where we started, I believe that this could be our journey home.

If you’re a Disenfranchised Christian and if this dream resonates with you I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email or a Facebook message or leave a comment below. Or, shoot someone else a text. Maybe you thought of someone while you were reading this and maybe they’d grab coffee with you. You could start a conversation and who knows, it might lead somewhere. I’d love to hear about whatever happens!

Easy Like Sunday Morning

in bedOne Spring morning when the air was wet I woke up with a strange urge.

I wanted to go to church.

The urge started while I was staring up at the ceiling and sucking in a few breaths. I could smell flowers punching through the dirt and it felt fresh. Really fresh. Like something inside was drawn up from the depths of the universe. It hit me with a rush of energy to do something healthy and I immediately resolved to eat a banana.

But I was still warm under the covers and Dani was sleeping beside me. So the idea kept evolving until I decided I should wake her up and we should visit a church. I don’t know why this was the idea that stuck. We stopped attending church a long time ago because it felt all wrong. I’m not saying it was wrong, it just felt wrong ever since I started thinking about things.

One of the unimportant reasons it felt wrong was the fog machine. I hated that fog machine. It seemed to work like Viagra for spiritual erections. Maybe that’s bad to say. I’m sorry if it is.

It’s just… they pump the room so full of water vapor it gives you the idea that Christ himself is about to descend on the clouds. I think that would give anybody an erection if they were eager for Jesus to descend on some clouds.

The worship songs got pretty erotic too. The lyrics always drifted into that strange territory where you might or might not be asking God to ravish you. Some of the older single folks clutched their chests while they sang those songs and I had my suspicions.

fog machine worship serviceIf you squinted through the fog you could see hundreds of arms swaying to the rhythm of the music. They looked like tentacles to me. Hundreds of them. Waving in the darkness to the beat of the drums and to wail of the sirens of worship. The fog became ink to my imagination, the arms became the tendrils of squids, and the darkness of the room was the depths of the ocean. My squinting eyes began to believe I was watching the undulations of a vast octopus orgy. I don’t know if octopi have orgies, but if they do, I bet they look a lot like a Fog-Machine-Worship-Service.

Anyway, we left church.

But you know how it is. Even if you doubt, you wonder sometimes if you’re crazy or rebellious or deceived. If you’re hatin’ on God for thinking different than other folks. After a while you might begin to wonder if you’re dead inside. I did anyway. I wasn’t sure if if I was missing out on God or people or both or neither.

And on this particular morning the enthusiasm struck me hard. Right when I was feeling tender. So I woke Dani up. I told her about my idea to go to church and she was not interested. I suggested we have sex as an alternative to church so we decided right away to go to church.

It was a big church with lots of people. A church we had never visited before but about which we had heard many wonderful reports. The people were smiling in the doorways and smiling in the bathrooms and you could see their teeth everywhere. There was instrumental music playing. It was familiar music and it made me feel calm. I was aware of the freshness outside and the warmth inside and of all the smiling teeth and I began to feel very happy. Springtime had come and it was nice to be back in church.

back in churchDani clung to my arm because she was still waking up and the sight of everyone’s teeth did not have the same effect on her. She saw the teeth as competition for her own teeth and she was determined not to be out-shined. I rubbed her hand and I told her, “isn’t this nice?” She smiled with all her teeth but I knew what she meant.

We found seats in the balcony. I was in the mood to watch people worship and I was kind of in the mood to worship along. There had been a softness growing in me for a while and it had even been growing on the nights when I tried to drink it away. I often found myself staring up at the open blue sky and whispering, “I don’t know if you’re real, but I think you really love me.” And then, on other nights when I felt even warmer I’d say, “You really do love me don’t you? Well I love you too, just so you know… in case you’re real.” And then I’d go back to watching atheist comedians on YouTube.

The church service got started when somebody said, “Bless the Lord,” into the microphone. He was an older gentlemen but he was very handsome and his beard was the perfect color gray. I had the immediate feeling that I was his grandson. Something about his demeanor gave me the sense of being wrapped in blankets around an old wooden stove where he was about to unfold stories about his grandfather before him and all the bravery that was done and all the wisdom that was gleaned.

the handsome preacherI began to feel my muscles relax, though Dani still clenched my arm, and I began to feel the freshness of Spring inside my body. The gray bearded grandfather spoke gently and casually and he leaned against the pulpit and I liked him very much. He talked about a picnic and about a man named Joe who was in the hospital and needed our prayers. One prayer request brought him to another and another and eventually to the moment where everything inside me snapped shut.

This is what happened:

All at once, the grandfather stopped naming prayer requests. He stood very still on the stage and he stopped speaking altogether. His cheeks above the beard went gray too. Silence filled the room and Dani squeezed my arm and I said, “uh oh,” loud enough for her to hear. I looked at her and her teeth were showing all the way down to the gums. It was not a smile this time and we both knew what was coming, though we could not have guessed how far it would go.

He inched behind the pulpit, gripped the rails, and announced that a church member had died that week. Cancer, he said. A long fought battle. A battle, he said, in which God had promised healing for the man and glory for Jesus. I got the sense that the whole congregation was witness to the promise through prophecies and faith proclamations. It became clear to me that the pastor believed that there was a reason the promise hadn’t worked out. He did not say precisely what that reason was but he seemed to scatter it across three possibilities which included lack of faith, underlying sin, or God’s prerogative to call an audible for the sake of more glory.

I wanted to like the handsome grandfather and I wanted to trust him because he looked very trustworthy. But he kept on speaking and that turned out to be a problem.

at the pulpitHe said that God really had promised to heal that man but that God was not responsible for the lack of healing. That’s when I began to bite down on my finger. Maybe it’s just me, but it sure felt tricky to have God always ending up on top, especially when you needed him down at the bottom with you sometimes.

I began to feel Dani’s fingernails pressing against the skin of my forearm. We were no strangers to death ourselves, and with every word from the mouth of the Beard we could feel it anew.

A few years earlier Dani’s sister Kelly-Jo was killed in a car accident when her little red sports-car was struck by a drunk driver. Dani was in the passenger seat of that car and she had to be pried out by the Jaws of Life. At the scene Dani saw her own body from high above, as though she was hovering outside of herself while the volunteer firefighters fought to pull her from the wreckage. The firefighters could not save Kelly, which Dani had sensed as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She awoke days later after eight surgeries and countless drug induced hallucinations in which the driver came back through a hospital window to finish her off.

So… I’m not suggesting Dani and I are level headed about this stuff or anything. But the whole time the Beard was speaking I kept liking him less and less. His grandfatherly demeanor had vanished. He said God was good when things were bad and he got loud and red and it gave me the feeling that we were in court and God had suddenly decided to shut up and plead the fifth.

I tried to use my Jedi Mind Tricks to force the Beard to another subject. I failed. It was almost like he was on the payroll as God’s Defense Attorney; like he had forgotten that real live people had gotten their hearts ripped out.

Then he remembered, but not as I hoped. He cupped his hands above his eyes and he called out into the audience. He asked if the family whose father had died was in attendance. A small voice said yes. He asked them to stand.

I gasped.

The family stood. All four of them. The widow with her long frazzled hair, a boy and a girl in their mid-twenties, and a teenage boy whose curls were half hidden by a ball-cap.

The preacher asked the family if they thought God was good. The sanctuary was silent. Then three voices came in reply, “God is good,” they said in unison. The teenage boy remained silent.

“Amen,” said the pastor from the stage, “come up here a minute,” he said. He beckoned them with his arm.

I could feel the warmth drain from my body. My mouth fell open. I began whispering “don’t go up, don’t go up, why are you going up?” But the widow left her seat and the three children followed her like little ducklings down the center aisle. The congregation, more than a thousand people strong, watched in silence as the family marched up the steps to where the handsome old man in the perfect gray beard was waiting.

He began to interview the family. The older children said they were quite well thanks to the grace of God. The oldest boy said that the family still believed their father could be raised from the dead. His sister said “Amen.” The congregation said “Amen.” His mother nodded twice before being overcome with sobs.

widowI felt bad for the woman but I also felt the sprout that had been sprouting inside me begin to shrivel. I vowed to never return to such an evil place and to never again be duped by the freshness of spring.

The teenage brother said nothing. He kept his head underneath a ball-cap and he stuffed his fists deeper into his cargo shorts. I kept picturing him in a basketball uniform with no father for a post-game hug. I liked that kid. I liked him a lot. In that moment he was the only one in the entire building I liked.

Then the pastor handed the mic to his mother, the widow. She took it and I gasped again. “Why would you do this?” I said in my heart to the man with the beard.

The woman looked like a zombie and he voice was hollow. But she gripped the mic tight and she spoke loud and clear and without faltering. She told the congregation not to give up hope. She told them that God really had promised healing and that he was a good God and that her husband was in a better place if he stayed dead but that he might not stay dead and that they needed to have more faith and that maybe he died anyway so that the gospel could be preached at his funeral. The pastor nodded along. I squeezed my skull to keep my brain from popping.

Maybe I’m weird but I couldn’t put those pieces together and I didn’t think it was prudent to try. In the years following the accident it began to seem like people in church had too many explanations for everything. Sometimes I still wonder if it’d be better if everybody agreed that nobody could make sense of God when it comes to pain.

listeningAnyway, the service kept going and the rest of it was a blur. There was no fog machine for worship, no erotic songs, nothing memorable whatsoever. I clutched Dani’s hand as I searched for the new growth that had been perking up inside me at dawn. But I could not find it in church.

It was a timid hope because it was an honest hope and it did not feel safe where the people who knew things did not seem to know anything about the pain I knew or the God I believed in. When the service ended I interlocked fingers with Dani and we sped away from the bright white smiles and the familiar music. We burst out into the cool afternoon air and we found that there was no less hope out there. You could breath deeply of the earth and you knew that life was still about break through.

But maybe I’m still missing out. Maybe there’s no flaw in the abundance of answers and the displacement of sadness. Maybe the church is still the answer. Sometimes though, I wonder if the real answer is carried in the hearts of other folks like me who can no longer abide the friction. I wish we could gather together, out among the raindrops and the wet green earth.