My friend Renee said in a comment on a previous reflection that she’d give me extra credit if I could help her respond to her 10-year-old god-daughter about how she (Renee) can believe in god if she doesn’t go to church every Sunday. Perhaps Renee doesn’t remember this from our school days, but I’ve always been a bit of a glutton when it comes to extra credit. I started to write a brief (honest!) response to her comment this morning, but it became a much longer (surprise!) thing and so I decided to give it its own space.
First, there is no sin like church sin to turn you off of the entire enterprise that is known, somewhat laughably to me, as “organized religion.” Church sin can be as big and broad as being told of God’s love while being condemned for who you are. Church sin can be as small as visiting a church and having no one, not a single person, acknowledge you or talk with you. Then there’s the whole struggle of “what do I have to believe to belong to a church?” That one, plus general hypocrisy that is all too common among so-called Christian churches, probably drive people away by the thousands.
Just the other day I was chuckling to myself, wondering why people so often use the adjective “organized” to describe religion. As opposed to what? Disorganized? I’ve been in churches that would best be described as practicing “disorganized religion.” Reorganized? That was the first word in the crazy-long name of the denomination of my youth.
In thinking about Renee’s god-daughter’s question, it seems to me that believing in god without going to church is a way of practicing unorganized religion. I’ve done that, too, and the advantages are too numerous to count, including getting to sleep in on Sunday, poring over the Sunday New York Times while the news is still relatively newish, avoiding the toxicity of god always being a man, etc. The thing is, I never stopped believing in god – I can’t ever remember I time where I didn’t believe in a limitless assortment of divineness and holiness in the universe that threads through me but does not have me (thank god!) as its center. My concept of god is best described in one word as pantheistic, in the sense that I don’t believe there’s one container, or three containers if you’re more trinitarian in your orientation, that contain that which is divine. And my concept of god is surely nothing like the old bearded white guy god that so many people still carry around, to my continued astonishment. [Note: The photo at the right is the actual freakish cover of an actual freakish book I found on the shelf in my local library while I was writing this very reflection. The subtitle in red, to the left of so-called GOD’s freakish face is “How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God.” Hold up. Is the GOD in question THAT GUY??? No thanks. Turns out I’m REALLY busy for the foreseeable future. And by future, I mean this lifetime and whatever comes next.]
So, while I never stopped believing in god, it took me a long time to believe in the church, and I’m still a work in progress. The church [and by “the church” I mean “organized religion”] has been in so many ways, for me, more an agent of condemnation than compassion, more interested in self-preservation than inquiry, more encouraging of doctrine than discussion. In short, church was the last place I ever found god. So Renee, a possible short answer to your niece is that previous sentence right there. However, if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, read on.
Somewhere along the way, I started flipping the issue upside down, or inside out. I started thinking about the whole god and church issue as being one where maybe, just maybe, church needed ME so that more people could find god in church. I tend to think that PW’s fingerprints are all over this particular twist in my road, since she has always been very open to my skeptical/heretical leanings, and because it sounds like the kind of thing she would say. But lest I be committed to the nearest psychiatric ward for delusions of grandeur, what I mean is that as I started knitting together the still-unfinished afghan that is my theological orientation to the cosmos, it occurred to me that if I could find a church that had a decent number (say, more than 3) of curious skeptics in it (people with questions like mine, or people who would be willing to entertain questions like mine), then that could be a fun place to do my spiritual and theological workouts. Bonus points for a church that was really living out what are, for me, the central tenets of Christianity – namely to help and advocate for the least, the last, and the lost.
I didn’t suddenly or randomly start flipping the issue upside down or inside out. I had a lot of help and encouragement from some key people. In addition to PW, there was the husband and wife pastoral team at the first church I attended after abandoning church at age 18 when I left home for college. I could, and did, ask John Mack and Barbara Gerlach anything and everything about theology and doctrine. I once asked Barbara, “So what’s the big deal about Jesus? Why don’t we also give air time to some of our modern-day prophets, like Gandhi, King, and Romero?” while we were organizing the closet where all the altar cloths were stored. Another time I sent John an email rant with the subject: “I hate Palm Sunday and maybe Easter, too.” Not only did they encourage my questions, they responded pastorally, sometimes playfully, often with more questions for me to wrestle with. They also encouraged me to keep asking questions even as they invited me to become a more visible and active member of the First Church community. So there I was, openly queer and openly skeptical of the whole church enterprise, and the pastors wanted me to bring my whole self to the table. Call me a weirdo, because that offer was impossible to refuse.
The other weirdo thing that happened was that I started hearing love songs not just as interpersonal, but also as songs from a compassionate creator to me personally and to us humans generally, and vice versa. As someone who is always looking for, and usually finding, the next great love song, I don’t remember exactly when this started happening, but once it did, it was like the floodgates opened, and now it happens all the time. So rather than prattle on any longer, let’s just listen to a great love song sung by two of the best, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris. This is “Little Fire” from Griffin’s latest album “Downtown Church.”