If you know me at all, you might find this strange. I grew up going to church several times a week and have early memories of laying underneath the church chairs looking at the A.B.C. gum stuck underneath because we'd been there for hours and what else am I gonna do? I went into full time ministry right out of high school. I have pastored teens, tweens, grown-ups, rich, poor, sick, powerful, powerless, hurting, and all kinds of other people groups.
I LOVED pastoring. I just loved it. I woke up in the morning energized by the idea of caring for people, leading them towards maturity and generosity, sacrificial living and radical inclusiveness. I loved the challenge of inspiring others to live vulnerable lives, knowing all-the-while that it required me to live that way too.
So why then have I not been a part of a church in so long?
The easy answer is I love sleeping in on Sundays and having no where to go on important religious holidays. The complicated answer is, well -- complicated. How can I explain how much I love and hate one thing so much, so simultaneously? How can I put into words the ache I have felt because of the absence of being a part of a church? How can I express the freedom I have experienced from the chains the church had around my heart and mind?
In his famous letter to the ancient people of Corinth, Paul wrote these words,
"...and now these three things remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest
of these is
The complicated answer to my boycott of all things churchy is an uncomfortable truth.
I have lost my faith.
After years of praying and interceding, fasting and believing. After a lifetime of knowing in my bones that God will intervene on behalf of His people, after countless private moments of salty tears and joyful thanksgiving, I have lost the ability to have the faith it takes to believe that God will hear my prayers and actually want to do what I ask for. I do not for a second believe that God doesn't hear my prayers. I very much believe He is listening and cares. However, if all it takes to move mountains is the "faith of a mustard seed" then I won't be seeing any mountains move anytime soon...my faith is all but gone, a shriveled, dried-out remnant of what used to be a thriving, lush garden of belief.
I have lost my hope.
For so long, time immemorial it seems, I hoped for the Church. I hoped for this broken, crippled, dirty whore to wake up and see her inner beauty hidden underneath all the ugly clothes of pride, lust, prejudice and exclusionary treatment of vulnerable people. I hoped that God would intervene and step down from some mighty throne somewhere in the cosmos and say, "Enough is enough!" and then the Church would stop being hateful and greedy and judgemental and arrogant. Every where I look, it seems, God's people are letting the world down, disguising themselves as loving, authentic shepherds who hide in dark corners of secrecy and lies. My hope in the Church is a fog that disappears into the air after a long, cold night.
Now hear me say this :: I know full-well the difference between the institutional church and the Big "C " global Church...the Body of Christ. I know that I don't have to go to church to be the Church. I know that the institutional church is only a pale reflection of what God has in mind for the global Church. That people are the church and not necessarily the versions of ourselves that are on our church websites or displayed in grandeur at our global leadership conferences.
But still...I know this difference...but does the general public? Does the average person of a different faith, or no faith at all, understand that the Christians hatefully picketing against marriage equality or the Christians who don't believe in global warming or just don't care about the planet at all are different than the Christians that perhaps God had in mind for us to be?
As I read through the scriptures, [which consequentially, have confused the hell outa me] I see a Jesus who included all the "wrong" people in his inner circle. A Jesus who hung out with sick people and let ladies finance his ministry, which was a total [yet ridiculous] social taboo. I read about a Jesus who cried, wept, got angry, even agonized over God's plan for his life, not just a Jesus who was happy and smiling all the time. I see a Jesus who refused to do things a certain way just because the godly leaders said it was right. I see a Jesus who spoke harshly against the rich and powerful and tenderly to the homeless and addicts, who welcomed immigrants as citizens and never once said dumb crap like, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." I see a Jesus that defied the socially acceptable ways of His people's holy scriptures and applauded little, immature kids for their pure and innocent faith.
I don't see a lot of that in the Church today. I just don't.
And so I wonder where this Jesus is and why He lets us get away with so much crap. I have spent a lot of time with suffering people in places of horrific pain. Brothels and slums, trailer parks and jails. I have heard the words, "I can't buy food for my kids so I *%@* people because it's better than starving." I have dirtied my hands and feet in the ugliness of poverty and the shamefulness of destituition. And all the while I have hoped and believed that God would move the Church to care. To give up the charade and say to the poor and lonely, "We are sorry we have cared more about church buildings and programs than we did about you selling your body for food. We are sorry for making you objects of our pity instead of valuing and empowering your dignity."
So I gave up on church. I walked away from the institution with agony and tears feeling it pull on my soul like a magnet. I got so mad at God that I even stopped praying. It takes faith and hope to pray and well, we've covered that I don't have those things.
In my darkest, most terrifying moments of faithless, hopeless rage I have not been able to stop loving Jesus. I have shouted at the top of my lungs, "I'm done! I don't want to love you anymore!"
But love won't go away.
I have tried to stop having such an annoying soft spot in my heart for the marginalized and the poor and the broken.
But the tenderness remains.
I have intently listened to my atheist and agnostic friends, totally getting why they don't believe what I do. And yet I cannot ignore my experience with this Jesus. I cannot avoid the passionate, mad, nonsensical love that we have shared and the wild adventures we have been on.
So love remains.
A few months ago, I sat in the living room of one of my childhood, soul-sister, non-believing friends and explained all of this to her. With wisdom and clarity and compassion she listened and after a pregnant pause spoke, "If you have love, you can't go wrong. You'll find a new faith and a new hope. Love will guide the way."
So now, this former pastor, is just sitting in the tension of having no faith or hope but letting Love lead the way through these uncharted territories. Love has led me to a barren wasteland and the journey continues to be fraught with dangers I never imagined I would face. It feels terrifying to pick through the old, dry bones of my faith and hope to find any shreds of flesh still clinging to life. I have teetered on the edge of a dangerous cliff and instead of trying to cling to branches and roots and dirt I have decided to take a running, arms-stretched-out, wind-through-my-hair, horrifying leap into the unknown. And as I fall through the air I think, "If I hit the ground and all is lost, at least I will have loved." And that makes me feel safe.
I ache for the return of my faith. I lay awake at night searching my heart for the smallest sign of hope. Maybe tomorrow? Maybe next year? Maybe never? I don't know. But I do know that I love Jesus and love His crazy, insane, ridiculous idea that we, in all of our broken humanity can be a reflection of His thirst-quenching love to a parched and thirsty world. I love Jesus and I betray my own anger with him to admit that I know He loves me.
"...and now these three things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."