Why I Left The Church (Part 1 of 3)

left_churchFor the first 46 years of my life, church was my life.  I rarely missed a Sunday.  For most of my early years it was a Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night routine for me.  Church attendance, in my mind, was equal to having a relationship with God.  I never remember a time when I rebelled against going to church.  It was ingrained into my being.  There was no other option – at least for my first 18 years.  Then when I left home it had been instilled so much in me that I was afraid to miss.

Let me just tell you in the beginning of this series that I do not miss the church.  I’m sure that to my friends who are still in the church that my admission will shock them.  It is not meant to be a slam or criticism to them or people who still go to church.  Each person is different and this is my story.  It isn’t meant to be a blanket judgment for all only the reality for me to share with you.

CUTTING TEETH ON THE CHURCH PEWS

My father was “called to preach” when I was just learning to walk.  He asked for God a sign and he apparently got one when God worked through my mother to call him into the ministry.   You see, my mother had grown up as a preacher’s kid herself.  She told the story many times that she had no desire whatsoever to marry a preacher yet that’s exactly what happened.  My father was appointed to his first church in Valdosta, Georgia in 1967.  For the next 15 years he would be my pastor.  From Valdosta to Moultrie to Temple to Homeland to Axson to Villa Rica and then Savannah was the journey I took with them.  I saw the good, the bad and the very ugly about the church.  I am not happy with a lot of things I experienced and witnessed growing up in the church.  Many people naturally assumed that I would follow my father and my grandfather into the ministry of being a pastor.  I did not and, although I tested the waters, it was never meant to be for me.

When you grow up as a preacher’s kid, there are expectations placed upon you that can be overwhelming.  Everyone watches what you say and do.  When you don’t meet those expectations there are people more than willing to let you know how you have disappointed them.  The expectations are the hardest part of my life in the church.  Your life is in meeting those expectations and not disappointing people.  It doesn’t matter if they disappoint you or not.  I spent a majority of my life working to please others.  That’s how I was raised and that’s how my brain was wired for all those years.

I will get into the church in Part 2 of this series.  I will say that it was a cult in spite of those who would object to such a description of the church.  I will lay it out for you next week.   Since I left the church I had to unlearn many of the erroneous things I was thought.  I really had to spend a lot of time sorting through it all and figure out what was true and what was not true about God.

Growing up in the church was not about the fear of God but more of the fear of disappointing everyone which was the same of disappointing God.  There was a culture of unhealthy fear being in the church.

When I left home for the United States Air Force, many people told me that I would give into the temptations to alcohol and other sinful things that was assumed that people in the military do.  Contrary to those assumptions, I never had any of those desires.  I wasn’t raised with it so it wasn’t something I desired to do.  Was I perfect?  Heck no.  I had my issues but I was too afraid to disappoint my parents or people in the church.  I was expected to keep the teachings and everything about the church.

I tried my best to make it work.  I tried to “drink the Koolaid” as they say.  You know, one thing that I absolutely could never understand was the whole thing about speaking in tongues.  Yeah, I know the look most of you have right now.  If you are in the church and knew me you’re probably shocked.  Those of you not in the church probably have a different look.  Let me tell you that I never got it.  I never could grasp it.  Others around me did and spoke in tongues frequently.  I don’t know.  I won’t say it’s fake but I sure saw a lot of misuse in that function of the spirit.  People would use that “gift” to manipulate things in the church.  I just missed it somehow.  It’s not that I didn’t try.  I tried many times to speak in tongues and read books, listened to tapes and sermons on the subject but it just simply never clicked for me.  Honestly, I still don’t get it.

Most of my life in the church I tried to fit in.  I never did.  I taught Sunday School, Bible Study, worked in Youth Camps, worked with Youth in the church and tried to preach but never felt my fit.  The only place I have ever felt my fit in the church was in writing and the church didn’t even birth that in me.  Working as a sports writer at a newspaper got me on that path.   The last job I really had was as the media minster which was where I worked the computer and audio for church services.  I didn’t even fill like that was my fit either.  In fact,  one year I worked in a men’s retreat with the media and one guy comes up to me and fusses me out about not having a tape ready for purchase yet later that night he was standing up in front of the congregation crying and talking about reaching out to people.  Really?   Yeah, that was much of my impression of the church.  Hypocrisy everywhere.  Of course, where else should hypocrites be?  Of course the biggest hypocrite was me.  In fact, I penned this writing during my last year with the church:

Welcome to Hypocrite City, Population: Me.
I am the chiefest of all hypocrites.
None can do it better than me.
I am a pro at the “church game”.
Just answer “fine” to all questions.
No one cares otherwise.
Don’t believe me? Try another answer.
They don’t know how to respond
Or they try a religious cliché
“Keep looking up”
“I’m praying for you”
etc, etc. etc.
Nothing of substance – just words.
Words are empty without actions.
That’s why it’s best to answer: “fine”
No one wants to hear me whine.
The church is a joke
Christ isn’t laughing
I have proof of what I say
No calls or emails sent my way
No encouragement or even one of those clichés
Just nothing
Tomorrow is Sunday, and then will I exist to them
Well, until next Sunday that is.
As long as I play my role and do my deeds
I don’t want to hear it
I want to feel it
I don’t feel it.

Maybe saying the church has too many hypocrites is the reason you think I left the church.  No, not necessarily.  It was just something I came to expect in the church.  I had my fill of people who would be totally ugly and later speak in tongues in the Holy Ghost.  Yeah, that still makes me sick to my stomach.  Growing up with my father being a preacher whenever we would move to another church the first church member to tell us about all the problems with the church would be the very one that would cause the most problems.  If expectations were on me then I had expectations to be suspicious of the motives of others which is one thing I have had to work on a lot since leaving the church.

Yes, there are a lot of negative things from my experience with the church but that wasn’t the overriding thing that caused me to leave the church.  Since leaving the church, I had to pick the good parts from the bad.  I left the church but I did not leave my relationship with God.  The honest truth is that my relationship with God is better now than it was in all those years in the church.

I left the church but I did not leave my relationship with God.

FORSAKE NOT THE ASSEMBLY

I know preachers will quote that scripture about not forsaking the assembling yourself with others. (Hebrews 10:25)  I know it well.  The reason they will say that is because the church is their lives and, well, they need people and their finances so they will be able to continue in the ministry.  I’m not saying they are in it for the money because I know some good people who are in it and they are working jobs to support themselves and pastoring their churches.  They are not all about the money but it is their livelihood so of course they want to encourage people to come to church.

Let me say that for many people it is important to attend church and be involved in church.  I won’t tell you that I will never attend or be a part of another church.  I don’t know that for sure and I would never say never.  I just know that at this time in my life I am doing better without it after all the years of expectations and hypocrisy.  I would never discourage anyone from attending church.  I have to be careful not to be critical of people who do.  I often catch myself in a mid-eye roll when someone says they belong to a church.

So is it easy to keep up a relationship with God without church.  No it isn’t easy at all.  It’s honestly a lot of work and there is a lot of self-discipline involved.  When I was in the church, I really only had to be “on” a few hours a week.  Two hours on Sunday and maybe an hour for Bible Study.  I have discovered that without church I have to work to keep my relationship in the right place.  For me, it works to listen to at least one Podcast, listen or read the Bible at least every other day and constantly praying as well as spending time being quiet before God.  Nothing super spiritual or anything but doing what works for me.

I eventually came to a crossroads in my life and chose another path of which I am on now.  I made a choice to live the life that I could live.  It does not involve the church.

NEXT WEEK:  The Church I Left

 

Advertisements

Where is God When I Am Sick?

Early one morning this week I had this thought when I was awakened with another coughing spell. I have been sick for a week now with what started as strep throat and is now an annoying cold with coughing and congestion. Life is quite miserable right now. In fact I can’t get through much of this blog until I need to cough or blow my nose.

I wondered why God doesn’t heal me. The immediate thought in my head was the question: have I ever asked?

Then I thought about that for a minute. I have never asked God to heal me when I have been sick with a nasty cold like this. Why not? I suppose I figured it wasn’t significant to ask God to heal. It isn’t something as serious as cancer or a heart condition. Is it really worth bothering God about?

So with several more hours left in the morning before time to get up I asked. I asked God to heal me.

As you can see, I am still sick. No better but no worse either.

I guess this is why I don’t ask because I fear the disappointment of not being healed. A lack of faith maybe? I don’t know. It was a test and nothing changed. I mean it’s just a cold right? Why test God? But wait….didn’t God challenge us to test Him? I will be honest. I’m a little confused right now. It could be due to all of the congestion.

It’s a cold right? It’s not a terminal illness. Why even ask God? The cold will eventually go away. No big deal right?

Yes, it’s just a cold but wouldn’t it have been amazing had I awakened this morning with no sign of a cold. No more coughing. No more endless sessions of blowing my nose. That would have been awesome.

I asked. He didn’t answer. So does that mean it is God will for me to be sick? How is that okay? I guess some things we just don’t get the answer too. I think about the story of Job. His world was completely destroyed for no reason. He asked God repeatedly and finally got an answer he wished he hadn’t asked for. Yeah, we are told about the “patience” of Job but read the story. He questioned God about it. He may have been patient but He didn’t suffer without asking questions.

I’m not Job. I’m Milton and I’m sitting here with a cold. I’m not the only one in the world with a cold. I’m sick but I’m not dying. God has his reasons I guess.

So where is He while I’m coughing so much at night that I can barely breathe? At least I can still breath so I’m okay. He doesn’t need to be bothered with me and this silly cold.

Where is God?

He’s here and He knows my condition. He’s the one who put the question in my head. Something I should think about and write about.

God heals. We can ask Him to heal us for any ailments even a common cold. We ask and either He does or He doesn’t. I can’t explain God to you. Sure, I could give you a list of references from the Bible but does that really mean anything when you head is filled with so much congestion that it feels it will explode? If I could explain God wouldn’t I be God? So, I have a choice to believe or not to believe. When we ask we also have to be ready for the answer. Sometimes the answer isn’t what we wanted it to be.

I have almost a lifetime of Bible training and years of pew time in the church. Healing always puzzles me. I still don’t understand how God chooses who He does and doesn’t heal.

My purpose isn’t to discourage you or me. I’m just being real. These are legitimate questions we have about God. Is it a reason not to believe in God because He doesn’t heal me when I’m sick? Absolutely not. Faith is not afraid of questions that we can’t answer. Our faith is in God – not in what He can do for me.

Do I like that answer? No, I can’t say that I do. So is that a reason for me to just stop being a believer? If it was then I have been in this relationship for the wrong reason. We get it wrong sometimes when we treat God like He’s some kind of celestial genie that we pull out when we need something. Just recite a Bible verse and end it with “in Jesus’ name” and it will be done. God doesn’t want an abracadabra relationship.

If God healed me of this current sickness then chances are there will be another one. So what then? Would He then be obligated to do it every time? No. He’s not under any obligation. He works in His ways and we are told that His ways are beyond our understanding. So like it or not we aren’t going to find a nice, easy answer. Sickness is a part of our lives. We manage it the best way we can. It’s still okay to ask God to heal us but we shouldn’t let our faith become weakened by it if He doesn’t.

A Prodigal Christmas Story

Picture1Today I am releasing a Christmas short story called “A Prodigal Christmas” which is available for a nominal fee on Amazon.com.

“A Prodigal Christmas” is the story is about Austin Shelton who is a successful sports writer for the Atlanta News Press. His father is the Reverend Bobby Joe Shelton who is a TV minister. They haven’t spoken since his mother’s passing. Austin receives a letter from his father which seems to end all hope at any reconciliation. Just when Austin gives up hope, he finds an old family Christmas portrait. Is it possible that this portrait could be the key which unlocks a Christmas miracle?

As I watch the Hallmark Christmas movies, my wife said that I should write a Christmas story.  Unfortunately, you can’t always just sit down and write a story without some good inspiration behind it.  They say that writers should write what they know.  I know this story and the emotions that are the foundation of the story.  The inspiration for this story came upon me one night last week and I could not sleep until I had written it.  So at somewhere around 2 a.m. one morning, I typed this entire story out on my iPhone then tweaked it over the next couple of days.

During the holidays much is said about being with family and enjoying the holidays with those that we love.  For some, relationships aren’t so good.  Words are said, deeds are done and decisions are made which strain the relationships we have.  In this story of an estranged father-son relationship, it depicts both sides of the strife that often occurs.  While it’s quite cliché to say to each one to “forgive and forget” the act of making the effort becomes the obstacle that neither side can overcome.

A “prodigal” is a characterization of someone who is reckless or wasteful with something.  In the Biblical account of the Prodigal Son,  a father has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance and after wasting his fortune, becomes destitute. He returns home with the intention of begging his father to be made one of his hired servants, expecting his relationship with his father is likely severed.

When we are wasteful with the years of a relationship, there is a void in our souls.  Nothing can fill it except a reconciliation of the severed relationship.  In spite of all our reasons for it whether our reasons are legitimate or not, nothing can cure it like forgetting the past which has passed and birthing a new relationship.

It is my hope that this story will give people the nudge they need to reconcile with a family member or friend at the most magical time of the year.

To purchase and download a copy for only 99 cents, click the link below:

“A Prodigal Christmas”

I Ran Where Jesus Walked

DSC00657
Jerusalem on 2005 Tour

In 2005, I travelled to Israel for a Holy Land Tour with Perry Stone Ministries.  Okay, don’t tune me out yet until you read everything because this won’t be a touchy-feely religious article.  It certainly won’t be a glowing endorsement for you to take one of these trips either.

As you know, I grew up in church. My dad was a preacher. I attended Sunday School, Bible Studies and have heard countless hours of sermons. When the opportunity came up to be able to go to Israel and visit the “Land of the Bible” I was naturally excited about it. I was looking forward to the Bible coming alive.

I had high expectations for this trip to the land of the Bible stories I had been taught and read all of my life.  It was quite an experience to actually visit places that was in the Bible but the “spiritual experience” I expected to have there never happened.  The trip was advertised as being a 14-day tour of the Holy Land but two of those 14 days was actually the travel to and from Israel.  There were also a lot of places advertised in the brochure that we did not get to visit for some reason. There were never any explanations why these places were skipped.

If you think travelling with 500 other Christians is “heavenly” – think again.  I won’t say everyone was difficult because there were some really genuine good people but the majority was either super spiritual or very moody.  If you were to ask people about their experience with me I’m sure I would have been in that moody group because the tour was a colossal disappointment for me.  Yes, I’m sure my church friends will probably let out a collective gasp right about now.  Sorry, but I won’t sugar coat this one. The expectations did not meet the reality.

The main issue I had with the trip was that it was a tour with Perry Stone Ministries and their tour partner crammed in way too many people.  It was supposed to be 300 but they squeezed in 200 more than they had planned. They put groups of 50 people into 10 buses for the tour.  Everywhere we went we were rushed through the sites. It got so bad that at one stop where they were showing us something etched into the wall where Jesus was held before his crucifixion, the guide yelled at me – yes, YELLED at me to keep moving.  I had enough and refused.  I told him that we paid a lot of money for the tour and I was not going to be rushed through something like this.  Seriously, you save money to go on this trip where you may never go again and you have a guide yelling at you to hurry? Yeah, you aren’t going to get a Christian reaction from me.

DSC00618
Perry Stone at a TV taping

Also, at several stops we had to gather around Perry Stone as he had a TV taping for his show.  It took away valuable time for us to be herded around him to listen to his preaching.  The best times were when we could breakaway with our own guide for our bus.

Let me say that as for Perry Stone, he was very down-to-earth and didn’t have an ego like you would think some other TV preachers have. He actually spoke to you when you approached him.

In spite of some of the issues I had with the tour, one of my favorite moments was when we were on a boat on Lake Tiberias (a.k.a. the “Sea of Galilee”). While many others were in the middle of the boat for another TV taping, I sat on the front of the boat with my own moment of meditation. It was pretty awesome to know that Jesus had walked on the water. It was one of the rare times I had to myself to enjoy something on the tour.

Here are some of the things about the trip to Israel that wasn’t what I had expected:

  • The Jordan River – It isn’t exactly a river in most places. In my mind i had always pictured it as a huge river but in reality it wasn’t. There was an explanation that it had gotten smaller over the centuries since the Bible days due to various reasons.
  • The Valley of Elah – This is the place where David killed Goliath. I had always envisioned it with huge mountains on each side and a huge valley. It wasn’t. There were barely hills on each side of the valley along with a busy highway running through it.
  • The Garden Tomb – While the location of the crucifixion was still there, just below it at the base of the hill is a busy bus terminal.
  • Caesarea – This was a location of Paul’s ministry next to the Mediterranean Sea and it would have been awesome to see it but when we arrived it was night and they drove us directly to this site from the airport in the dark. It was a lame attempt to fit it in like this. I heard the Mediterranean Sea but never saw it.
  • Baptism in the Jordan River – This was an assembly line for baptisms.
  • Where did Jesus really walk? – This is a question asked frequently on the tour. In fact the place they say where Jesus ascended into heaven is actually three locations depending on your religious affiliation.

Would I ever go back? Probably with the situation and the right tour group. I would never discourage anyone from going but I would caution you to temper your expectations. Here are some things I would do differently on a future trip to the Holy Land:

  1. Go with a small tour group. In 2005, I was in a group of 500. Although we were grouped by 50 people per bus, it was still quite chaotic. I would go with a group of no more than 50 people.
  2. Don’t go with a TV minister. They want to do their tapings for their TV shows which really take away from your touring time.
  3. Try to stay at one location during the tour. Jerusalem is a good central location for most tours.
  4. Take good walking shoes. You will do a lot of walking.
  5. Get a direct flight to Israel if possible. Your body will thank you for it.
  6. Go with the right group for you. Some are geared toward Catholics, Pentecostals, etc.
  7. Manage your expectations. This is a tourist location and more modern than you will expect.

Although it wasn’t the spiritual high I had expected, it was a unique experience. I really don’t need to go back and I honestly probably didn’t need to go in the first place. It was never about going to a place to experience God. I should have known that.

DSC00628
Taking a drink at the location where Gideon’s Army took a drink

I will also tell you that no one cares about your trip when you get back. They won’t be in awe that you went to the Holy Land and they will be bored with your pictures from the trip. Friends and family weren’t the least bit interested and I guess I can understand it since I really lacked the enthusiasm due to my personal experience.

If you want to visit the Holy Land, I certainly don’t want to discourage you from going but just go with realistic expectations. You don’t NEED to visit there to experience God.

“The Star” Shines Brightly

This weekend my wife and I watched the movie “The Star” which has to be the best movie of the season.

“The Star” is an animated movie about the first Christmas. It’s not your typical nativity movie. The movie features a brave donkey named Bo who dreams of being famous and getting out of the grind mill in Nazareth. Bo teams up with other animals to help Mary and Joseph as they avoid one of King Herod’s goons as the birth of Jesus approaches.

The movie includes the voices of Steven Yeun, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Clarkson, Patricia Heston, Kristin Chenoweth, Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.

The movie is very inspiring and has a positive message. It is also surprisingly close to being Biblically accurate aside from the talking animals. It shouldn’t ruffle the religious folks too much. It is a good retelling of the nativity that is very entertaining for the entire family. Yes, it’s an animated movie but don’t be a hater about it. This movie is worth seeing and one of the best Christmas movies this season.

I have to admit I got chill bumps when Mary was visited by Gabriel. It was very spiritual. The movie has a good message. In one of the scenes, Joseph makes the statement that “just because God has a plan doesn’t mean it will be easy”. This is the main theme throughout the movie. Bo also shows us how to follow our destiny.

In this day when people cringe at Christianity or any mention of Jesus or Christmas, it is refreshing to see this kind of movie that isn’t preachy or cheesy but still presents the birth of Christ in a powerful way.

Want To Make God Laugh?

If you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans.

I like to plan.  That’s just how I am.  I make God laugh a lot because my plans also slip into my prayers.  Sometimes I have it all figured how God can do things.  I’m sure He doesn’t need my help but at least I give Him some good entertainment.

I have heard that God has a plan for our lives.  (Jeremiah 29:11). I’m sure He does but I can’t resist trying to help Him out anyway.

Believe it or not, God DOES have our best interest at heart even if we don’t see it at the time.  Sometimes we have to go a little ways down the road before we can understand why and others time we never know.

I once had a job opportunity in Pensacola, Florida. I knew the guy that I had worked with for several years.  He was on the interview panel.  I was qualified for the job and I just knew we were moving there.  We even started packing and while we were in Pensacola we even looked at a house.   The plan was coming together. Or so I thought.

I didn’t get the job.   I was shocked beyond words.  It totally took the wind out of me.  I hadn’t even considered the possibility of not getting the job.  It took me a long time to recover from that.   About a year later I was able to see things that happened with that office and people that were moved around. I eventually realized that it would have been a terrible move.  When I realized this, I couldn’t thank God enough for closing that door and having another plan.

It’s very difficult for planners like me to pray and wait on God to work things out. I’m the kind of person that if I see where I want to be then I want to go directly there as soon as possible. God isn’t always like that. In my experience, He is rarely like that. Most of the time there is some waiting involved. Frustrating? Yes. Rewarding? Absolutely. In the end, His plan is always better.

The Bible says He is a rewards those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) That’s why it is important to spend more time getting with God’s plan than trying to force Him to work into our plan.

It’s always tempting to want to know God’s plan and try to help Him with it but honestly He doesn’t need our help. He is very capable of doing it Himself.

So how can we stay out of God’s way and let Him work His plan?

  1. Be patient. Let God do what He wants to do. It’s a lot better in the long run.
  2. Have faith. Even when it’s not working the way you think it should.
  3. Pray. Keep communication with God and conform to His plan.
  4. Stop being a control freak. Let it go and let God do His work. He doesn’t need our help.

The best thing we can do is hang in there and roll with the direction God is moving. Trust in His plan to be the best plan.

When Prayers Get Stale

It is a challenge to maintain a consistent prayer life.  We all know the importance of prayer but if we have to be honest, sometimes it can get stale.  I know that I get tired hearing words come out of my mouth.  The same petitions daily.  It’s exciting when there is something new to pray about but when the need stretches into weeks, months or even years, it can lose a little steam.  

Trust me, I have said many times that prayer would be a whole lot easier if God talked to us like we do each other.  It can often feel like a one-sided conversation or even that we are talking to ourselves.  Prayer is about communicating with God but honestly it doesn’t seem like it sometimes. 

So what can we do when prayer gets stale?  What can we do to freshen it up?

  1. Stop asking and start thanking.  It’s easy to get stuck always asking God to do things.  The Bible says we should but it can make our prayer life weak when we are always asking.  Make some time to just thank Him for things and reminisce about prayers He has answered in the past.  Your faith will be stronger when you do that.  
  2. Pray for other people.  Just pray for people that pop into your head.  If you know their need or what they are going through spend time praying for others.  If you aren’t sure what to pray for ask.  Most people aren’t going to be offended if you want to pray for them.  
  3. Stop doing all the talking.  Be quiet.  You will be surprised how hard this is.  If you need help just focus on thinking about a verse to keep your mind engaged.  
  4. Listen to music.  Music is very uplifting and encouraging.  It will energize you and your prayer life when nothing else can.  I have found that lyrics in a song can say things better than I can say and stirs my emotion.  
  5. Listen to the Bible.  Yes I said LISTEN instead of read.  Listening to the dramatized version of the Bible can speak to you in ways like never before.  I have mentioned this before and some thought I was crazy for suggesting it.  All I can tell you is that it worked for me when my prayers needed a boost.  Try it.  You will be amazed.  

Honestly, maintaining a prayer life is hard.  There are so many distractions that can get in the way of meaningful and emotionally involved prayer.  When it gets stale, you need to do whatever works for you to make it fresh again.  One of the worst mistakes I have made was to stop praying altogether.  Trust me.  If you stop, it will be even more difficult to start again.  

God has never answered me audibly and there was a time when that really frustrated me.  I didn’t understand it or I didn’t think I was holy enough for Him to speak to me.  I still wish He would but I know that He works in many ways.  I refuse to let that hinder me in doing what I know to do to communicate with Him.  I really can’t explain it.  I wish I could convince you but I can’t.  It just simply takes doing it to experience it.  

Don’t let your prayers get stale.  Freshen it up and keep it going.