In 2010, I left the church. Church had been a major part of my life and my family history for 46 years. I have shared with you in the past two weeks of this series, my experiences of growing up in the church. I do not write about my experience for anyone’s sympathy or for you to pray for me. I do it to share my journey and how I was able to maintain my relationship with God in spite of these experiences.
There were a lot of things that made life in the church very frustrating for me. I grew in fear of the church and the belt. It was a very strict and judgmental life. Someone once condemned me to hell when I slipped and told that I had seen “The Empire Strikes Back” at the movie theater. If you read the “Advice to Members” last week you will know that going to a movie theater was on the list of don’ts. Yet the person who said I was going to Hell had a cable subscription to HBO. It didn’t end well when I called them out on it.
What I have recounted to you in this series were all contributing factors that led to my point of decision to leave the church. So what was that one thing that caused me to leave the church?
This one thing is something that wore me down over a number of years. It wasn’t just one single event or one moment. It was a building of frustration. It was the frustration of attending church every Sunday and leaving feeling worse than I did when I came. This cycle repeated every Sunday for many years. The sermons did nothing and the worship changed nothing. It was the most frustrating experience of my life. It was the definition of insanity which is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Maybe it was just me but I have a feeling a lot of people have experienced this frustration or are currently facing it.
I spent years hearing loud preaching and services where the “Spirit” moved but once the service was over it changed nothing. I hated my life. I told God many times that this wasn’t the life I was meant to live. I fought it and I tried to push my way through, still believing in all the hype. It took a toll on me.
During this time, I went through a divorce and found myself at decision point in my life. I won’t deny the fact that I was broken and needed to be fixed. One day I went to watch the movie “Robin Hood” at the theater. It was the with Russell Crowe as Robin Hood. There was a line in that movie nudged me into the course my life would take. Robin Hood’s father said to Robin Hood “Are you ready to be who you are?”
ARE YOU READY TO BE WHO YOU ARE?
I was ready. I made the decision that I was not going back to the church. The funny thing was that I had expected it would be a struggle and people from the church would do everything possible to reach out to me and pull me back. They did not. It was totally not what I expected and leaving the church was easier than I had ever imagined it would be. Since I left the church, I can honestly tell you that I am better than I was. I have a feeling that my frustration probably showed and perhaps it was best that I left.
Of course, when you sort through the pieces of your life and the experiences of the church, you have to sift it and find the things that were good. Too many people have left churches like I did and went to the other extreme and rebelled against everything to do with the church and God. For me, I realized that my relationship with God wasn’t the relationship with the church. No, it wasn’t a perfect experience but if you read about the people in the Bible, they weren’t all perfect either. They all had their own dysfunctions to overcome. When I looked back at the past, I was thankful that at least I had a basic foundation of a having a relationship with God even if the church wasn’t the best experience. One thing I still think about is that there is nothing I can do to change what happened. There’s no sense to blame anyone for it. I had to make my own way now.
I always remembered that, although my father was strict, I never remembering him lying or being anything but having integrity in what he did. Yes, it was always about the church and what the church said growing up but now I had to make my own way. I had to unlearn some things that were wrong about the church. I did that but I have tried to do that with the same integrity. I found myself as living my life as a believer – not a Catholic, Baptist or Pentecostal.
There are two things that helped me more than anything else in this pivotal change in my life. One was that I remarried a wonderful woman who has become the true definition of what God meant when He created a helpmeet for man. She has made me become a better version of the me I always wanted to be. I can not stress how important it is to be with the right person. It makes a huge difference.
I guess you can read between the lines here and see that I divorced and remarried. As I told you last week, the church was debating the issue of divorce and remarriage as I left. I can’t speak for this whole debate or for everyone that has ever divorced and remarried but I can tell you that it was a new world for me. I was given a second chance to be a better husband and that is something I don’t take lightly. Regardless of what people may think, you can’t really judge it until you’ve gone through it. It has been a change for the better.
The second thing that helped me was a spiritual retreat I took at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. The monastery is under the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO) which is more commonly known as “Trappists” monks. It is currently the full-time home to approximately 48 monks. I spent a few days with the monks at the monastery and learned a lot about myself and God. After a lifetime being around loud preaching and Holy Ghost tongue speaking, I had an amazing experience in the quiet and reverence of God. I will tell you that I’m not Catholic and I know nothing about all the rituals they went through at the monastery but I can most definitely tell you that I have no doubt about feeling the presence of God there. It was like nothing I had ever felt before. There were no revival meetings and there wasn’t any tongue speaking or shouting going on. It was quiet. It was simple. I was able to search the depths of my soul. It takes great discipline to sit in complete silence. In today’s world of social media and constant noise, it can be a little unsettling to simply sit quietly. Try sitting quietly for 10 minutes and see how difficult it is. It can be quite a challenge.
During my time at the monastery, I wrote down some things that I will share with you. The very first thing was that “The Lord will work out His plans for my life.” (Psalm 138:8).
One night as I spent a time of silence and searched my soul about my experience with the church and trying to make sense of it all, I took my pen and wrote these words:
“I wasn’t in the weirdness, I was with you. Loving you and guiding you for your life ahead. While the man-made ordinances were peculiar, you did learn of me in spite of that. Your heart became fond of me. Your desire to server me was above all other things. That’s where I was. I never let you down. Your dependence upon those other things let you down. Some were true but many were not. The main things came to the surface.”
Since leaving the church I have visited other churches. I don’t have a phobia against churches but I refuse to be in bondage to fear of a man-made church. I have also spent many times alone in churches that are open during my lunch hour. My “church” is just times I have alone walking nature trails or spending time in a quiet place. I think church has become too much “stuff”. It has become a spiritual pep rally or a bunch of activities. It is no longer simple and just about a person’s relationship with God. Throughout my life I have seen people who have no clue about maintaining balance in life. They will get “saved” and then they are extreme Christians and totally gung-ho about it. Some call them “too heavenly minded and no earthly good”. I don’t know about that but there can be extremes in anything. I have also seen people that will only get serious about church when their relative is in jail and they need help from the church. I guess you could say that I needed a break from all that.
I won’t say that I will never go to church or be a part of another church ever again, I just know that – for now – I am better off without it. Things are less cluttered and more clearer than they have ever been.
If you are attending church I would certainly not discourage you or tell you to stop. That’s your choice to make. I would never criticize anyone for going to church. That’s not what this series has been about. This is about people like me who have been disenchanted with the church and those struggling with living a life of frustration. God more real to me now than He ever was before.
Thomas Merton wrote a prayer that I have kept with me during this journey. He prayed:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”