"They’re all fakes and hypocrites. Even if I believed there was a God, you’d never catch me in a church again!" For many years, that’s what I told anyone who started talking to me about religion or God. When they’d try to convince me I was wrong, I would tell them that I knew it as fact from my own experience. That always led right into their "Well things are different at my church..." commercial. I’d quietly listen to their spiel for a couple of minutes and then say, "Yup, sounds just like the churches I grew up in. You proved my point." Then I’d walk away proud that I bested another one of those organized religion nuts, and angry that they even brought up the subject.
Now in all fairness, my childhood church was actually very nice. My family celebrated my birthday at the church fair every year and the adults were nice enough. I was never abused or mistreated there. We showed up on Sunday morning, did our business, and then went to breakfast. After breakfast, Sunday was like any other day: finishing up homework and the chores. When that was done, I played on the back yard swing or in my room. My older brother shot basketball with his friends out front and my younger brother tore through the house making a mess. Dad did work or slept on the couch and Mom cleaned. Mom was always cleaning. When I was ten, we moved from one side of the city to the other and found a new church to attend. There was nothing wrong with this church either except that it was bigger, and easier for a person to go unnoticed, as it lacked that small neighborhood intimacy. Still a fine church, though.
It was here that I began to notice the blank looks on people’s faces as they went through the motions and spoke their lines in a synchronized monotone murmur. I watched my own father fall asleep in the "sitting down" times. I saw people arrive as late as they could, stay just long enough so that it would count as attending church that Sunday, then duck out the back door before it was over. At home, there was no talk of God or faith and I was the only one who touched the family Bible. (It was my job to dust the "looking room" where it sat on the bottom shelf of the coffee table. I had to move it to dust the coffee table every week.) I grew more disillusioned with the church as I saw the Jekyll and Hyde personalities of the "I'm a good person because I go to church" people during the week. When I was thirteen, I asked my dad why I had to go to church if I didn't believe in it and he replied, "Nobody likes going to church. You’re just going to have to come and suffer along with the rest of us." That's when I decided that there was no God and that church was a farce. I went until I moved out of the house because I had no choice. Every week, the resentment built as I felt increasingly justified in my decision that there were only two kinds of church people - the hypocrites and the poor dumb suckers who fell for the religious rhetoric.
Now here I am - twenty years later - a worship leader in a mainline church!!! (That just goes to prove that there is a God and that he has a bizarre sense of humor.) A recent incident brought out that old non-conformist streak in me. The incident itself is not important except to say that it fit right in with the empty rituals I fought so hard against in my youth. Now this isn't the first time that I've experienced this sort of nostalgia concerning the church and the religion God has brought me into and I'm certain it won't be the last. I could revert back to my self-involved justification and hold this church and this religion responsible for the high offense of hypocrisy and disengage or I can reach deep down and find the grace that God has so freely given me and pass it along. I can choose to understand what I couldn't see in my youth: that the church is full of people and people make mistakes.
I guess my advise to all the angry non-conformists out there is to stop looking for the perfection in others that you can't find in yourself. This faith thing isn't about the rituals and church attendance, or how good we can be, or even how much of the Bible we've read or memorized. It doesn't mean that God doesn't exist or that he doesn't love us because someone you know who claims to be a Christian doesn't live up to your idea of the Christian standard 100% of the time. Faith is about knowing that we are imperfect and believing that God loves us just as we are. Look for that in the faith community and the imperfections you find will be a glaring testament to just how much God loves each of us.
About the Photos
Florals - Phipps Conservatory (April 2009)