In prior posts, we looked at specific patterns that I personally find in Churches which haven driven me and others away. These were listed as the following:
- Ego Driven Spirituality
- Hidden Agendas/Hypocrisy
- High & Mighthy in Their Tighty Whities
- Focus on Money
- Small "we" verses big "We" (after all, they say size matters. Just kidding, couldn't resist that joke.)
We already looked at Ego Driven Spirituality and Hidden Agendas/Hypocrisy. Then, in Pt. II, we dived into the final top 3 reasons left that I had for not liking for Church. It is my belief that many people share these reasons and it may have driven them completely out of church altogether. I discussed this as part of a national epidemic that millennials in particular are responding to, as you can read in this article written by one millennial, Article here
I honestly would not have probably been that much in touch with these reasons if it wasn't for one cataclysmic event. Being gay in the church is sort of like riding a roller coaster cart that you didn't ask to go on. You are on a ride you can't stop, an identity you can't deny. I pressed hard on make-believe brakes, tried to shake cart off the tracks hard because the world, the church even more so, hated this identity. They called it a "choice", a "sin". The worst sin imaginable. I was damned. I was a faggot. A man without the right desires. My fundamentalist, white Christian bubble now rejected me unless I "changed". So I screamed and rocked that cart as much as I could. I ran for help all across the country, read manuals on how the tracks of life "should" go and how I got potentially "off" track. Then I began singing and praying "Jesus, take the wheel" as I surrendered myself to all sorts of ideas around change therapy and ex-gay ministry. I learned a lot about myself that was healing (believe it or not, it wasn't all damaging), but one thing I wasn't counting on learning was that nothing was going to stop this ride. I was gay and nothing was going change that. I had to unlearn self-hate and re-examine my faith that taught such self-hate had God's stamp of approval on it. When that happens, you begin to see all the other traps churches can covertly or overtly set for you. Traps passed down through the generations just "cuz the Bible told me so!"
This produced a miscarriage in my life. I lost an entire community of faith-people and fellow men struggling with their faith and sexuality that I had known for years. They fled once I accepted myself as gay. Christian people wanted nothing to do with me. I was a role model who now struck fear in their hearts as yet another "fall from grace". I understand that but it hurt no less. And these people, who I walked many a dark day together with have never once inquired about me, came looking for me or back in my life for any reason. A good 15 years of relationships are now like they never happened. Poof! Gone. It was worth it to come to the process of acceptance I am under right now--though if I were, to be honest, I still am not totally comfortable in this identity YET... but I'm getting there. To this end, as I looked at my religion and the bubble of illusion it is under, I was out of Church for about 7 years. I wasn't sure I would ever be back.
So what brought me back? Why am I in a Church today and what do I believe? It does sound crazy and at least once a month, I still question myself about it, looking for a reason to disengage with a faith community that in large part doesn't "get it"-- not just on homosexuality but also their own community and certain realities right around them. A religious community that refuses to change or adapt over time for the large part. After all, a large part of the faithful here in America worship the Bible much more than they do God. God equals the Bible here. Even so, what brought me back despite this was something not every church has in spades. See, I was introduced into a MCC church through a coming out group. It intrigued me to see how a church accepting gays would behave. I have been there now for well over 5 years. And just as I see a particular pattern of distrust and patterns I dislike in Churches, I've also seen a pattern in what keeps me there right now.
The Spiritual Experience Enhancement--This is probably more personal than something everyone can say they experience. In or out of church, I've been somewhat of a God seeker from an early connection with God than most. I am aware that not everyone finds this true for them. I know what it is like to encounter the spirit of God, whether it be through a teaching, out in nature, in a song etc. So, I really can't go on in life ignoring this part of me without knowing I'm living a life that is far under my potential of joy and impact. When I shut it out and "stay busy", I hunger for it. You would think I wouldn't try to do that but there is a price to everything and I have had some real hard hits in life. It is a sadder existence for me personally if I ignore God. With my life being much busier than when I was younger, the church I go to now provides this for me because 1) it is a safe, accepting place and 2) I'm not in control there, God is. These two elements I just listed lift my being to a higher live "in spite of" my doubts, fears or bitterness. Eventually, there is more of the higher life than the lower. Who wants to trade that because some things are too old, or make us want to yawn in Church? Often the service is at a level or the ministers are at a level that I can find them in tune with things I can be off track with on a purely emotional level even. The result for me is that I run into the pleasant surprise of rewarding spiritual experiences that can alter my week and my life for the better than if I had stayed away. It is an environment I cannot necessarily control though I can be a part of it or even disengage if I chose to. This can be a little scary because a solitary faith sounds easier and safer to do but I know for a fact that I don't grow in isolation. Even if I run into one of those reasons that I don't like about church, I have to ask myself, do the benefits outweigh the negatives? In my particular case, at my church, the benefits do outweigh the costs. My church doesn't really demand that you believe in a certain way beyond being Christian. And since I've abandoned my fetish for the perfected theology in place of a pursuit of love and spirit, it is a perfect fit. Just as I know that there were times in my life that I met with God or spirit outside myself with 100% certainty, I know that I've been changed many a Sunday for having gone--even when I didn't want to--to my little MCC Detroit family.
The People/Support--No, I'm not saying the people here are perfect. This is the place as I mentioned earlier where I was physically pushed toward an alter as an usher in training and many other things happen that shouldn't happen...,but I know this is a safe enough place. I know this because I can always address my concerns with leadership. But I also know, I walk in with attitudes I shouldn't be holding onto. It is often harder to admit the problem is with ourselves than those we would like to point a finger at. If you decide to go to church, I've come to realize, that you have to decide if you are willing to be vulnerable, to die to ego, to be open at least to the idea of spirit. You can only do that in a place that is safe. Now that this doesn't mean all the people are safe people but the leadership should be so that you can go to them if something happens. If you run at every sign of conflict and disappointment, even deep disappointment, you will be running your whole life from a lot of things. As far as your own ego and attitudes, you can try to go forward and grin and bear it and not address things like attitude or ego, but you'll have a miserable "needy" time riding on the whims of men and women rather than on the wings of Spirit. I've done it. It is not fun. You will not walk away with a feeling of wanting to go back because then everyone is going disappoint you and even you will disappoint you. Who needs or want that? Anyone in their right mind would rather sleep in rather than experience that on a weekly basis. So, then you find the answer you are looking for. Reasons to not believe. Reasons to leave. But...then, if you are like me, you are left with this spiritual hunger and this tug at your heart that you know you need to try again because you know this fellowship thing is important. It has the potential to fuel you to higher levels.
The great thing about my Church is there are plenty people there wounded by their past church experiences because they are gay as well. Let's face it, if you are gay, somewhere along the line someone smacks you in the head with a Bible and tells you how wrong and bad you or your behavior is. So those of us who are there, we often share that common experience and that translates to an acceptance and love that is tangible. When you have a group of people who know what it is like to be shut out by people and the God you thought you knew, there is a great deal of something that develops which is lacking in the world today--understanding and empathy. Is everyone that way? Of course not. But overall, they try to be. I cannot count the number of times I have left wow'd by the sense of connection we can have. With a group of people who aren't "the cool kids" per say or would appear on the cover of Vogue neccessarily. It is not a hopping place for picking up a date or raffles. There are other kind of gatherings for that!
I've also been changed by the ritual of communion or singing together with a group of people that love each other and God that provides an experience you aren't going to have in front of the boob-tube or staring at the four walls of your living room. And as much as I love nature and animals and can have great connection with God on my own, there is something missing when you don't have that connection with others in this way. I know because for a large part of my life I not only did not have it, I had the exact opposite and only came back bitter from churches.
Healthy Leadership and Safe Spaces-The captain of a ship needs vision, passion, direction but also an ability to communicate if not charm or inspire his crew as they steer through rough waters. Now, if you have a pastor who is a great preacher but nothing else....well, honestly, you could feel like you could get a great message through any form of media and have the same experience. You'll eventually be less motivated to go. And that has been my experience largely. If not somewhat condemning of homosexuality to begin with, then a lot of the pastors I have encountered have been rather untouchable. Tucked away in a Bible Bubble. Bible Bubble Boys & Girls. Ushered in and off stage like something out of the Tonight Show. For example, there is a mega Church here locally that I used to go to that has great preaching and direction. I mean just top notch stuff in that department. They have expanded into several campuses, but good luck ever getting to see a pastor with the same heart, vision and direction you see from the one on Sunday mornings. Good luck finding the love and acceptance and understanding of those who have known what it is like to have their faith rocked if not shattered.
To the contrary, my pastor at MCC Detroit is readily available and is a bucket of grace and uses both ears to hear the toughest input so that he can grow too. I remember that right around the time he joined our church, it wasn't long before I was about to leave altogether after the honeymoon was over. All that I had been sitting on about Church and even this Church, came to a head. I was scared because I knew what this meant. I probably would be done with church for good. However, I saw a minister who was excited and open to his congregation and not in seclusion but diving right into the community outside the church walls. I took a final, frightful stab and sat down with him, bearing a lot of the reason I was about to call it quits. To the contrary of my fears, he was not only understanding but grateful for the conversation. Can you imagine someone grateful for your list of wounds and calls to action? And, we have had to have more true to life conversations, but I believe our understanding and love for one another grows this way. Our church itself now grows together and makes an impact together, not apart or divided as a church body. This happened because I was honest with him and we need pastors and places where we can be brutally honest and work together.
In addition, there is a richness of some of our longtime elders who have not let ego take root but are joyful beacons of acceptance and spirit. You know when people pretend to care because it is a role but they don't really mean it? For all the quirkiness and small size, at my church it is the opposite of fake care or love. There are more who do mean it than not. I honestly don't know where these people come from to be so genuine as a lot of elders at MCC Detroit, the long timers, are but it is a treasure I'm not sure I want to live without. It is more of a natural thing for older folks to see the best ways being the way they have known and see change as a little threatening. This particular aspect that us younger folk roll our eyes at is a bit more forgivable if you look at it that way. But, I know it is a tough call because churches right now are acting and sticking to even old ways of holding service that makes them so irrelevant to the new generation of today. This resistance to change is part of that. However, it is also a part of most organizations I have been part of, not just church. As much as any elder can hold over us a sense of superiority, they can also choose to hold great acceptance, care and wisdom while they too can learn from the winds of change that youth bring...if they can be open to it. Many can be this way.
In conclusion to this series, if you are one of those who feels that spiritual hunger and want church to work but can't seem to find one, look for qualities like the ones I described I have found at MCC Detroit Church. Don't fall for the usual line "Come as you are" because that is often followed by the secret phrase, "but leave like us". Don't assume every place of worship is God's house just because they say so. Realize that it is better for you to be on your own spiritual journey alone than to be in a congregation that is soul damaging to you. You will learn to hate God, not love God there. Find a church body that has been through some "stuff". You know what I mean? No, not just a place that host A.A meetings or "Grief Shares", though that is a start. Also, you can get great sermons anywhere, that means nothing as to longevity for you. Find people who have been wounded by religion in particular. Find people who let you be you in your spiritual journey and not try to conform you to the "truth", as if there is only one "truth", their churchy truth. Find safe spaces for you. Only you know what that means for you. Flesh that out. What would an ideal safe space look like and be willing to sacrifice some things in light of our humanity of which you bring as well...,but don't sacrafice the important things that would keep you there.
In the movie I just recently reviewed, Moonlight, Juan tells the young "Little" this "At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you." The same holds true for your spiritual journey. Don't let someone use religion to prescribe to you a box your journey must reside in.
To read more about my own spiritual struggle with religion and my sexuality, see my book available in hard cover (recommended) and eBook form too! Go to BookSpace
To visit my church web page go here MCC Detroit