Working with congregations is a difficult thing to do, don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s a fulfilling and enriching way to help others connect with a spiritual experience, but pastoring requires every stretch of humanity you have in you – and then requires even more besides.
When I left church, I did what felt natural and right for me. I went to seminary, a school for those who want to study theology and religious history. It was a great experience, one I valued tremendously and for which I am grateful, even as I note the irony that it made it impossible for me to sit still during a normal church service. Seminaries are great at making it impossible for you to attend church unless you work for one. I know why a minister will translate a passage a certain way, the order and movement of a service – what every dimming of the light indicates, even how to hear the double clicks that go unnoticed by most visitors intonate genuflection for the experienced. Which is to say, in a very real sense, that there was a time when I was entirely useless to the modern world. I had been trained to be either an amazing critic of church, or a fantastic pastor – but an impossible congregant. It was a mutually exclusive deal; if I could not continue to lead a church, I could not abide in one. So I left.
As I have said elsewhere, there were several reasons for leaving Church – not just a local congregation, but fellowship with the global entity of religion. I had worked with religious groups for over a decade before going to seminary and each time I did this, felt diminished and damaged rather than resurrected or replenished. I left each with tears and gritted teeth. I left like an unwanted orphan. I left like a discarded lover. I left and then half a decade passed before I went back. As Serena Williams put it, “I felt defeated and disrespected by a sport that I love, one that I had dedicated my life to and that my family truly changed, not because we were welcomed, but because we wouldn’t stop winning.”
In the interim, I encouraged some friends to join me and walk away from religious abuse, even sadism masquerading as holiness. I encouraged some friends to leave because religious practice was a fruitless exercise for them and I believe that God – if there is such a familiar entity in the universe – doesn’t want humans to do things half-heartedly, especially proclaim an empty or absent love for deities who have our minimal attention. God, if there is such an entity, would insist that we discontinue work that diminishes us and replaces joy with obligation and resentment. One time, I even encouraged a former pastor to give up and become an atheist for a year just to see if he could. For years, whenever I drove past a church, I felt a physical pull. Yes, sometimes I felt anger. Sometimes I felt a whole lot. But the pull was constant for someone like me, knowing who I am and what a church offers to one’s spiritual life. This is an irony and a hypocrisy, it would seem. I admit this. I notice the importance of church fellowship while rejecting it entirely for years? You might say I was something of a disillusioned child.
When she was a little girl, my grandmother watched as her father, a minister in West Virginia and someone wealthy enough to own a coal mine before the Depression, fed and clothed their neighbors. He was generous to a fault and would help the people around him if it was in his power. An admirable quality, but “We were always the last,” my grandmother said. “And I resented him for that. Children ate last then, but there were lots of times when we didn’t have anything to eat because he had given it all away or someone would come late and eat before me and my brothers and sisters. So I think I grew up feeling that church was a threat to me. It was good, you know, going to church and listening to the Bible, but good for other people. Not always for me.” As a child and into adulthood, I always felt my grandmother’s bitterness. That she would marry a minister and find herself in that same cycle that was was raised in – of giving, then giving too much, to the loss of one’s own family – seemed a tragedy that I wished avoid.
But life is funny, as they say. It doesn’t always work out the way you conceive it. In my mid-twenties, I began to understand my grandmother’s stories more and more. I felt that same disillusionment, that same bitterness taking root. I joked that the reason I avoided joining a church was “because once you see how the sausage is made, the pork tastes a little different.” Friends would laugh. Bowling with pastor friends from Texas where both pork and church are vocation and vacation, this turn of phrase proved hilarious, “once you see how the sausage is made.” But I meant it. Churches are like all fields of employment – deeply satisfying for some, entertaining for many, occasionally out of step with most, and peripheral for all the rest. Once you pull back the facade and see the gory details, it’s never the same. Knowing your clothing was made by starving children makes each thread an indictment of your complicity. Knowing that a pastor begs for the “building fund” on Sunday morning and seeing that money build his pool takes the halo off “the Lord’s work.”
Still, I have remained optimistic despite the many faults that both churches and the Church manifest regularly. There are numerous qualities that first attracted me with work and study religion, and it was those same qualities that finally persuaded me to return. Don’t misunderstand, there are great difficulties in resuming church attendance in your thirties, but there remain perennial qualities to Church that attract new members every year and appeal, sometimes robustly, to a great many of us.
It forces you to sing
In the winter of 2010, Prairie Home Companion reaired an episode with guest Martin Sheen, who sang “How Can I Keep From Singing?” Sheen is not a trained musician, so there were places where he goes off tune. I remember being deeply moved by his voice, reminding me of hymns from my grandparent’s churches. As some of you will recall, American forces were still invested in Afghanistan in 2010, still invested in Iraq, the housing crisis and financial bailouts had caused America to feel dazed and diminished. On top of all this, a relationship of mine had just ended and my family had placed another family member in a group home. This was probably one of the lowest seasons for me, but I remember Sheen’s voice crying the refrain that we still had a reason to sing, that the chaos and darkness all around us may very well push us to new reserves of consciousness and the creative expressions to overcome said darkness.
Churches bring music into our lives. Sometimes, yes, the songs are cheesy. Sometimes, yes, the production values outshine the lyrics and make us feel like we are at a concert instead of a congregation. The lyrics, especially during the mid-Aughts, were akin to love songs – “I want to sit at your feet and adore you, Jesus” meets “How long must I wait for your love?” But religious communities have often been a life raft for the arts during times of civil and social unrest, and communal singing is a standard of political activism and artistic expression.
I noticed, coming out of 2010, that I appreciated rough acapella hymns and spirituals more than ever before because they captured the pain I felt and nurtured the hope I needed. Churches routinely allow us to celebrate, to grieve, and to unite through song, to give words and notes and movement to the complex things we are feeling and experiencing.
It forces you to talk to people
As an introvert, I avoid large crowds. A recent trip to New York City left me a little frazzled and feeling more than a little drained. But I also know that I need to be around people to feel normal. Holing away and avoiding human interaction makes me feel alien and not entirely human. Churches allow us to be around other people on our own terms, to hug or shake hands, or even quietly avoid and just sit on the back row as we need it. If we take that adventurous step toward getting to know people, very often we will be surprised that a shared religious experience affords us an opportunity to ask and share why we are there, what we are looking for, and to speak freely on the needs we feel each day.
To be sure, some religious communities are better about this than others, though when you find the right “fit” you will also find that many other people feel that same way – and that there is a reason why this is the case. Our religious communities not only shape us, but attract us. Like meets like. Recognizing this helps us find a sense of place and belonging with other humans.
To slow down and focus, perhaps even meditate
My girlfriend’s mother is a Presbyterian minister and we recently visited her in New York. My experiences inside the churches of the South tended to be less formal than her mother’s order of service and I, like many other people on Sunday morning, felt myself wanting to nod off. The service was long and there were spaces where the congregation was not active, but encouraged to rest and reflect.
Like I said, this isn’t what I grew up with or accustomed. In the moment, I felt grateful. Yes, tired and yes, a little anxious (there was an important soccer match that morning I had wanted to watch), but I was grateful because I recognized that church services can be built for that very purpose – to give the congregation an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and “pause.”
Allow me to talk in a strange way here. I believe humans are able to warp time and space, or at least embody the laws of relativity as discussed by Einstein. In the 18 July 1929 issue of the periodical London Public Opinion, we have the first anecdotal explanation from Albert Einstein of his laws of relativity:
Professor Einstein’s secretary was so burdened with inquiries as to the meaning of “relativity” that the professor decided to help her out. He told her to answer these inquiries as follows: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
The same is true when we allow ourselves to sit and do nothing, to “pause” our lives. Churches are one of the only places that we are still allowed to sit and not do anything, not feel pressured to DO something, not perpetuate the cycle of adulthood that defines who we are by what we DO. For some of us, myself included, this slowing down makes us tired. I don’t imagine it is because the service is boring, although that is possible. Rather, we find ourselves nodding off between the music and sermon because, well, it’s the only place we’re allowed to experience this kind of rest.
Everywhere else, we have to be a parent or a caregiver or an employee or dot, dot, dot. And so it is that, if we are conscious of this, we can take that rest and allow our minds to drift, to slow down and focus on this or that or nothing at all – to meditate and repair what so many other areas of our lives have taken away.
It causes you to reflect, think, and process
This is not the same as meditation. My brain never rests as a result of complex trauma as a child, and where others are able to rest and relax, looking to the future, my mind frequently returns to the past. I reflect. I process. I organize. I relive the past and allow myself, in small moments to relive the events and, sometimes, make use of them.
When I allow my mind to suss out the events of the week during a church service, I wish I could say I find answers. I don’t. Not always. Instead, I find that I can review what happened and place it into some kind of order. Karen yelled on Thursday because she is working too many hours, not because “she’s a bitch.” Jeremy is working on his book, he is not intentionally ignoring me. Oh gosh, I never finished that review this week. I need to get back to that. And again, there are so few spaces where we are allowed the emotional and mental expanse to work through these things – usually, we have to pay someone by the hour for the quiet church allows us for free.
To listen instead of speak
As a college professor (and before that, a lecturer in churches), my mouth was continually moving for years. It was only after I stepped outside of a pulpit that I became aware of the need to turn the lights down, put the microphone down, and stop giving priority to my opinions. I need to sit and listen, to absorb the wisdom of others instead of feeling the need to answer everything, know every thing, and be all things to all people at all times.
Listening is a lost art in America. We rush in to silent spaces and enlarge ourselves.
Perhaps we are scared of emptiness. At least I am aware of this fear within myself. We fear the silence because it reminds us of how empty we are… or how empty our “stuff” is. We speak, sometimes, because we feel a need to defend our choices, who we have chosen to become and the accumulation with which we surround or insulate ourselves. We speak because we want to brag. We speak because we are insecure and want someone else to know that we are smart or lovely, to have someone value us, to give us their attention – my god, would you put down your phone and just look at me for a goddamn minute?! I am important too!! We speak, we fill the space, because we want to be seen and known. We speak because we cannot handle the silence and futility. We speak because we feel alone.
Listening to a sermon, hearing the passion in someone else’s voice, the pleas for justice and mercy, informs us, yes, but it also makes us aware that we are not alone. Hearing someone else’s thoughts is a kind of kinetic energy – the movement of another gives us energy in turn. We think, we feel, we become aware of new spaces and experiences and we grow. We listen to recognize ah, you too? I thought I was alone this whole time!
It allows you to confess your faith
When I worked with Baptist and Pentecostal churches, it was rare that we ever said what we believed as a community. Maybe once a year, we would have Membership Sunday and have a short sermon on the “fundamental truths” of the denomination, but confessions of faith were painfully absent. Rather, we shared what we believed in classes or retreats, if at all. We tucked our beliefs away and went along with the ride.
I began to notice this is a very American thing to do – reduce our thoughts, tuck them away, then allow them to explode at inopportune times. Think about all the videos we see online or men and women yelling in the middle of a fast food restaurant. These people are bleeding in public because they have nowhere to share their experiences.
- “Man Freaks Out in Bagel Shop” (Vice.com, 10 July 2019)
- “New Yorker Berates Trumpet Player” (YouTube.com, 14 Oct. 2013)
- “Women Freaks Out Over Chicken McNuggets” (YouTube.com, 5 June 2016)
When I worked with Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, they were quick to recite their confessions. It was part of the order of service, making public declarations of what they believed. And let me tell you something – I was there for it. I was all about this part of the service. I absolutely love being clear about what I believe and hearing similar declarations or silences or rewordings where we might differ from the confession. I loved hearing where my fellow believers stood. I loved that there was space to say what you believed instead of quietly following along. There is evidence that sharing thoughts in collective space builds empathy and understanding (both sorely lacking in Evangelicalism today) as much as “intentionally created intimacy.” Sometimes, those beliefs are raw, offensive, hurtful, damaging. Sometimes, they are so ephemeral as to mean almost nothing at all. This is why we share those beliefs in community, with people we trust – not just anyone. People are often cruel without context and understanding. But within the community of a religious group, we can open ourselves to share and open ourselves to scrutiny.
In seminary, one of my favorite activities was the beer-laden talks with classmates. What do you think of this? Ah, you say you believe a teaching but what about this specific test of that belief? I wanted to know where people stood and how they organized their lives around a belief, a worldview, a system of thought.
I enjoyed these discussions not for the debate but because I’m the odd duck who wants to know what people think, feel, and believe. I want to know the intricate workings of who you are and why you are. I want to share that space with people. And confessions – public, or even within the more intimate setting of a class or retreat – allow us to more fully define who we are, why we think and feel the way that we do, perhaps even share about our lives and the events that have oriented us to a collection of beliefs.
On social media, we do this same thing, but only in snippets. We “out woke” one another or go on tweet storms because we want to know someone is listening. If we commit it to print, commit it to the millions who navigate the Internet, maybe just one person will see us, hear us, and “like” or “heart” what we have to say. Churches provide this experience, not to the void of technology or echo chamber of those who already think and feel the way we do, but instead with immediacy and consequences. We must work these beliefs out with one another and we start by making those declarations of faith, to being present for one another, to listen and reflect back what we are hearing. Perhaps to grow and learn and experience our own beliefs changed, absorbed, shared.
To confess your sins
Together with our beliefs, we also are afforded the opportunity to share out faults. Living in that “intentionally created intimacy” and shared space demands that we be honest and up front about where we have failed ourselves, one another, and our community.
It doesn’t always go well. As I have written about elsewhere, publicly admitting your sins can result in unpredictable results. You never know how someone will respond, where and how they will be triggered or take out their frustrations. Though I have also observed that it is entirely possible to find relief and forgiveness. The goal is not to confess so that we can get the result we want. Confession of sins does not mean we are instantaneously forgiven and absolved. Rather, confession allows us to unburden ourselves and be honest, to admit we screw up instead of walking around in a false narrative, a lie, as though we have never done anything wrong. That kind of life, the one where we maintain the lie and insist we are always right, sets us up for devastating failure. I know. I’ve failed. Tremendously. I have hurt people. Repeatedly. And maintaining that lie, insisting that I have not done those things, only makes it all the more traumatic when my sins are finally exposed by someone else. Failure to confess empowers someone else to reveal, but confessing our sins allows us to set aside those falsities, deal with the consequences as they come, and move forward unencumbered by having to hold ourselves up under the weight of the lie.
To deal with your morality and mortality
Related, confessing our sins and even to some extent listening to someone else confess theirs allows us to deal with our morality and mortality – two very different things – in deeply existential, often practical ways. When we are confronted with issues in community, we work through why we react the way that we do.
Historically, we know this can go to excess. The Puritans of America dealt with morality in extreme ways like public shaming, executions, even burning people alive. The great failure of the Puritans is that they created such an unbalanced society, surely, but isn’t it also true that we feel so disgusted by the Puritans today not because they were categorically wrong but because they never stopped to think about what they were doing to themselves? Putting people to death shapes the people who witness that death. Killing people in the name of God shapes the people who pull the lever and cheer on the ones who do, and perpetuates a culture of false perfection. It demands that we either “get right” or get more creative at hiding our faults lest we find ourselves on the wrong end of justice one day.
What if the Puritans had paused long enough to observe who they were becoming? What if they had understood morality in personal terms? Isn’t this what the rise of Evangelicalism promised in the 19th Century – the reorientation from community (where we had gotten it wrong with the Puritans) to the private (where we could “accept Jesus into our hearts”)? Evangelicalism has also failure, surely, but the original idea of personal accountability, reflection on one’s behavior and the sins as much as the graces that compel us was very much a step in the right direction.
Attending a church, participating in the global experience of Church, allows us to look within and confront not just our sins and faults, but the learned behaviors that caused us to commit those offenses in the first place. It allows us to see in one another the consequences of those decisions and confront not just our morality but our mortality.
My father’s father, for example, was a life long racist. Billy believed attending church was a good thing, sure. When he died, he was given a Catholic funeral with promises from a priest (who had never met him, mind you) that “all would be forgiven” – all the offenses, all the hatred, all the evil that resided in Billy’s heart. And how was that, exactly? Because Billy “accepted Jesus in his final moments.”
As someone who knew Billy…
And saw the consequences of how he lived his life…
How his morality shaped the decisions he made…
How those decisions affected others…
… I say that is bullshit.
If Hell is a reality of the soul, Billy is surely there. All was not forgiven because of a deathbed muttering of “sorry…”
Morality has consequences. How we live our lives has consequences. As N.T. Wright has said many times in his lectures, sermons, and studies, we bring Heaven or Hell into the present reality every day, with each decision that we make, with each behavior we participate in. When we insulate ourselves off and apart, when we live in isolation apart from a community, the only place we can look is within. When we lived a shared life with others, we can look within while also looking across the way at one another. Had Billy lived in community, had he attended church, I wonder whether his conscience would have upset him. I wonder whether someone would have ever approached him to say, “You know, Billy… burning those crosses on your lawn and calling your neighbors ‘a nigger’ is no way to live.” I wonder whether he would have approached his death with fear and the sober awareness that a lifetime of hatred and violence had hurt the people who desperately wanted to love him. And I wonder whether any of this would have compelled him to start over, to build where he had torn down. I wonder whether Billy would have ver embodied the resurrection that the followers of Jesus were so excited about, or participated in the repairing of the world (tikkun olam) of Judaism, whether he would have ever been charitable as Islam insists, whether he would have been patient and kind as Buddhism instructs. Whether his life would have ever built something of value.
Wright continues on this thought in Surprised by Hope (2009): “The point of the resurrection… is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it… What you do in the present by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself, will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
To receive forgiveness – and to accept it
One of the great blessings of church services is when we are able to receive forgiveness and have this affirmed, corroborated, and supported within a community – especially and particularly by those whom we have most offended. It is one thing to pray privately and declare you are forgiven.
Three examples of people I am intimately acquainted with:
- My mother refuses to believe she is forgiven for two specific sins she committed decades ago, despite decades of privately praying for forgiveness. Despite being told that she was (and remains) forgiven by those to whom she has confessed, she lives with cycles of guilt and apology, but never a sense of forgiveness.
- My father openly declares he is forgiven for every insult, every major offense, and every crime he has committed because “God said so.” He does not feel a need to discuss it further since “Jesus died and that settles it.”
- I fall somewhere in between. I am convinced that I am forgiven for certain sins because I have gone to the offended parties and directly apologized, tried to make things right, accepted their anger, and finally heard them say that they forgive me. But other sins, for example the books I have stolen or the lies I have told, I am not sure I am forgiven of these sins even if they are comparatively minor and “victimless.”
I share these because they are convenient, yes, but also because I, more than anyone, know how my parents have responded to their sins over the years. I have watched them, named their hypocrisies and faults as well as observed their better qualities. It would be easy to point to the gendered nature of forgiveness, how women are more likely to carry a sense of guilt and shame thanks to embedded patriarchy in religious systems. And this is true – I both acknowledge and agree with this truth. I also share these examples because I am acquainted with them and know the power of public forgiveness.
During this recent trip to New York to see my girlfriend’s mother preach, I was reminded that in the order of service for “high church”, one of the sacraments offered is the proclamation of forgiveness. The minister invites the congregation to declare their sinfulness together – “where we have failed intentionally and unintentionally” – as part of a liturgy, then have a moment of silence to reflect on one’s personal sins. Here, the congregation has about a minute or two of complete silence as we do that very thing, going over the sins that weigh on us, perhaps reflect on where we made mistakes during the week, and then the service resumes. Bowed heads lift. The minister loudly declares the congregation is forgiven and, in the process of affirming this, we are asked to “offer each other fellowship” or “pass the peace.” Here, members greet one another, shake hands, share a quick word, and declare peace over one another. This part is quite literal, we say the words “Peace be with you” or “The peace of Christ be with you.” It’s a small thing, this declaration, but it is meant as a communal act of forgiveness and restoration. Surely, there are some sins that are egregious and need to be confessed with more intentionality than gripping a wooden pew in front of us and returning to normality a minute later. But the act, the symbol of this forgiveness, the democratic nature of it, affords an opportunity to have immediate feedback to one’s confession. Unlike the example of my parents, the sins don’t linger – am I forgiven? Can I even forgiven? What if I’m not? How do I know?
Said another way, the sacrament of public forgiveness is not about being forgiven but instead is about offering a very intentional, purposeful reset to our lives. Here we are, admitting silently and privately within our own conscience that we are wrong. That we have screwed up. That there are consequences. But instead of staying there and dwelling in our awfulness, a moment later we are allowed another chance. We are offered kindness. Someone sees us, touches us, hears us, and blesses us with peace. Peace! The very idea of this offends the psychology of Modernism, doesn’t it? To be told we can start over and to begin again, immediately, with peace and acceptance seems almost impossible. For Christians, this is considered a sacrament, or a holy act. It embodies the resurrection of Jesus Christ and allows us to reorient ourselves to that process of starting over and beginning a new week in a different way.
It’s not that forgiveness allows us to excuse what we have done, but rather that we accept a new life is possible. There are still consequences, yes, and we must continue to restore where it is possible. But the sacrament of forgiveness allows us to have that sense that a new life is possible. Outside of a religious community, the only place we are able to experience something like this is at a therapist’s office, or (hopefully!) an intimate relationship with a partner or close friend. Nowhere else are we given space to confess our sins and – what’s more – be given a sense of forgiveness, peace, and welcoming “back” to our right selves.
To connect to something that is shared
What I have been trying to thread into each of the previous notes is that we must find a way to return to the shared life.
As Chris McCandless wrote just a few days before he died, “And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness… And this was most vexing of all.
Happiness is only real when shared. I was wrong. I think it is time for me to return home, to right the wrongs.”
In the end, I returned to church because Christendom is riddled with wrongs right now. Evangelicalism has been hijacked by Republican nationalism by a people swayed by stars and bars instead of justice and mercy or even (God forgive them) the direct and explicit teachings of Jesus. I have maintained that what unites us is greater than what divides us and, sheepishly, it is time that I return to embodying such a belief and this same shared happiness that McCandless wrote about even as his poisoned limbs lost their strength.