Monday, April 23, 2007

So What Good Is It To Go To Church?

This post is probably more fully in context read after my two earlier posts "The Good Work Thursday that became the Painful Friday" and "Proactive Prayer".

Plus this is also hitting on a few things that are all related ... so this post likely won't really be too linear, so much as a collection of related thoughts.

I guess getting hurt last Thursday and going to the doc on Friday has made me really consider some things; though I must confess I'd been meaning to post an entry like this for about two weeks now. It does, however, make more sense somehow to post it now, though.

I mentioned how we don't have a car right now, which also means that because we don't live near enough to the church we are members of -- or near enough to fellow members to catch a ride in to service -- we haven't been to church since before Christmas.

Frankly, I gotta admit not going to church has been a little weird.

And it's not like this is the first time I don't go to church -- I'd dropped going for a good few years when I was in my 20s. It's just weird and different to not be able to go when you want to.

This is also something that's not easily remedied by attending church "somewhere else that's closeby" in the meantime. We live in a part of town where there are literally no sidewalks. And no bus service on the weekends. You can't easily walk around to look for a substitute place to go then, since pedestrians don't have the right of way here. (But that's really a whole other bigger walk/Nashville/health issue, too.)

Now my journey so far with religion and figuring out my relationship with God has been interesting, to say the least. It's been a real struggle sometimes, figuring out what really fits. (Sometimes I wish we were all more tolerant and kinder to each other on our journey ...)

But I guess it's only fair to give context for my statements.

I was raised a Catholic -- and most of my family still are. By the time I was 16 I had been an altar girl, a catechism teacher, assistant to our nun staff, and had even worked as the church receptionist for a few months. My parents served and taught there as well, and led a prayer group.

Even with all this being in church 3 or 4 or more times a week, I still felt like I was literally spiritually starving ... for more of God. To me the time there was so much work to do, and yet the time we spent with God was only so much "sit-stand-kneel-sit-stand-kneel-sit-stand-kneel". There wasn't enough connection for me.

Sometime the year I was 16, a new pastor and new priest came to work at that parish. Soon, thanks to the one of the congregants (who wanted to curry favor for the sons she wanted to force into the priesthood and I don't think either ever joined after all) who gossiped to befriend him, one of the new guys began to cast doubts on my Dad's character. It was frightening how it developed.

As part of the prayer group, we're supposed to share stories on how God had helped us in various ways. One of the new guys didn't believe God had healed various people who had been prayed for there at the prayer meetings. It was crazy -- I mean, holy crap, isn't this guy a priest? Isn't he supposed to believe this sort of thing is possible?

This guy further called my Dad a liar for saying that God had been gracious enough to answer a prayer request of his directly! (See, Dad many years before, had prayed and asked God whether he should become a priest or marry my Mom. Obviously, Dad married Mom. Dad would share this story with people to help them know God does care about everything we do. I even drew a comic about this answered prayer.)

It's a terrible form of betrayal to have another person who "believes in God" basically tear you down in public, in front of a congregation you're supposed to both serve, and call you a liar for believing that God works and does what He says He does. If a situation develops where staff members need to clear the air about something, there is supposed to be a civilized manner in doing it. But here the pastor didn't know better. He just wasn't equipped to handle it. I can see that now. Back then it was just really bad.

After some awkward public scenes and several months of discord, in the interest of the greater peace, we had to leave that church. We had been there for over ten years and put in so much time with people. I was angry and thought we should have stayed and fought for the right to speak the truth. Prayers had been answered! Let the staff take it up with God if they didn't believe He truly helped.

I was very, very angry with those people. And also massively disgusted.

I had to figure out for myself WHY I wanted God in my life -- especially since I found His "Official Staff" seemed to contain idiots who inexplicably don't Trust Him. (Not all of them, mind you, just some. I didn't realize then that church -- just like everywhere else -- is staffed by people. Yes, people. Ordinary people with A Job To Do. Some of them have callings, and some actually don't. Some people do their jobs better than others. And bad workers do get batched up with good workers sometimes, just like at the office.)

So I started from scratch to figure out what was up with me and God ... but after about a week I figured out I missed Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for me, so I did want to stay Christian. (I just didn't know yet how deep that relationship can become.) Frankly I just wanted to shave my head and be a monk and live in the hills and get away from stupid people (I'm sure there are those who can relate). But that kinda set up was hard to find in NYC. So I just began looking for a new church to attend.

Fast forward over 20 years: At 18 I thought that to really serve God, I had to become a nun. I even visited a convent twice. Figured out by the end of the second visit that becoming a nun was just not my job. Kept looking. Met a new friend and started attending a Pentecostal church.

Got "Born Again". Just in time to quit going to church altogether. I prayed every week where we worked, but I didn't go to a real church for many, many years. Fell into a spiritual black hole and my life flat out unravelled.

At the very end of that rope (so to speak) I lost the leases to both my apartment and to the art studio on the same week. The apartment move almost wiped the last of what money I had (stupid rip-off moving company giving me a bad quote). I couldn't hire a moving company for all the studio crap I still had to move. I finally just prayed and literally asked God to cut me a break and help me find a "Man with Van" I could trust and afford.

The guy I hired to help move us turned out to be a Born Again Christian. Go figure. This guy literally prayed for me and the staff as we were moving. Like hands on pray, even. He helped me over two or three days, and before he left he gave me a copy of (don't laugh!) The Power of Positive Thinking (which actually does mention Jesus Christ here and there). I read that and realized what a horrible rut (canyon?) I had let myself fall into. I didn't liked what my life had become and I needed to change it.

I don't remember if it had been by or since the time Born Again Christian Moving Van Man had prayed for me, but it was around then when I started to go to that Pentecostal church again. I would go up to the altar during service and pray (and honestly, sometimes flat out fall asleep) but I always got up (woke up) and ran out before service ended so no one would stop and "preach at me". But I kept going there.

I became an official member of that church about a year later. Then got baptised maybe 2 years after that or so.

Once I became a member I found had to go to service two or three or four times a week. Not because they made me, or because they insisted (though they did insist because they were rather fundamentalist, but that's not why I went) I only went because I had to. (And I only really went on the days I enjoyed attending.)

I needed to be there. Sure, we had Sunday School and Sunday service, yeah, but we also had Prayer Mondays, Youth Group Tuesdays, Youth Meeting Wednesdays, Grown Up Service Thursdays, and Kids Service Fridays. I needed to go. My soul was still starving. I needed to hear the Word. I needed to hear and sing the songs at the top of my lungs and raise my arms and stomp my feet. I needed to kneel at the altar. I needed to kneel at the pews, I needed to pray to God. I was just in such desperate need of solace, of soul balming. The only real peace I could gain was in there.

And yeah, it wasn't perfect. Not by a long shot. We had some fanatical people in there. And yeah it was clumsy every once in a while, because they had a really strict doctrine that pretty much guaranteed they would always have a really small congregation. They didn't like TV or movies or even higher education cause it was all "corruptive". And don't get me started on the clothing rules. But I dealt with it and took it all with a grain of salt. Because I needed to understand what they understood. They had that all-intense focus by setting all that modern stuff aside not only because the bulk of them were over 60 and flat out didn't have any of that stuff when they were growing up, so they just didn't "get it" anyway -- but they did really know God works. To their deepest bone marrow they knew. He works NOW. Today. Here. With Us! And many of them experienced healing through prayer first hand. And I so needed that understanding. So much.

They knew it. They showed it. We prayed hard there.

So always while I was an active member, both when I was a Catholic kid and when I was a member of that Pentecostal church as a grown up, I really never lived further than 4 blocks away from church. I could get to church as I needed to during the week. Especially if I just needed to pray. It was easy. We were in NYC, where pedestrians have the right of way. All ya had to do was just walk to church.

When I married Chris and moved to Nashville, we became members of a Non-Denominational Christian church. The one we belong to had even started a branch up in NY right after 9/11/01 so I got to meet many of the Pastors before I moved.

Now Nashville is supposed to have the most churches per capita in the entire nation, and yet I found we had to DRIVE out of our neighborhood (okay like what, 25 minutes?) just to get to church. Say WHAT!? Now don't get me wrong, I know we're supposed to be members at this particular church, but driving so far out of your neighborhood to go to church ...? Is it me?

Is it that I've been spoiled by my church-can-be-walked to background? I'm just not used to living where there is so much sprawl. We couldn't get to all the cool things they had going on all there all the time during the week even when we HAD a car -- stuff like the bible classes and the church services on Wednesday nights.

So when our car broke down before Christmas I found myself for the first time not being able to go to church but really wanting to. That's actually never happened to me before.

I had to learn church has to also be portable.

I mean, yes, you can listen and watch church services on TV and play Christian CDs and read the Bible and pray all at home, or together in small groups, for instance. And all of these things I highly recommend. But there is also something about the actual going to church. To that building with other people. All joining in and sharing that prayer time, sharing that worship time with other people who just want to commune with the Spirit of God, that's just really valuable to do.

And yeah, sometimes they all rush out to "enjoy the rest of Sunday" once service is done, so you don't really connect with anyone afterwards and that can be a little sad. But I'm really just focusing in on that precious hour or two or so you're all actually there.

This not being able to go has further helped me discover what is it in me that is different because I'm not going ... or in other words, what good does going to church really do for me?

Well, I'm gonna be honest with you. It's a whole lot easier to swear when I'm not practicing self-discipline and feeding myself better Words to speak by going to church. It's also easier to lose my temper when I don't set aside specific time to worship God and cultivate peace and Word in my heart.

Now that I see this about myself, I will try to work harder on it. And yeah, I understand that kind of honesty makes some people uncomfortable. I mean, "a Christian that still swears? Oh no! You're supposed to be perfect!"

Look, I'm not bragging that I'm all potty-mouthed. I'm only saying I'm working on it. That I struggle. I'm just sharing with you because I think I should be truthful and because people have unrealistic expectations of what being a Christian means. That just gets in the way of true spiritual growth.

I'm not gonna pretend that I don't slip and say bad words because I really don't want you to be all shocked the next time I accidently say or deliberately write "damn". (Or something maybe worse.) So I'm saying I'm just working on it. And working on it forces me to think of other ways to express myself, as succinct and to the point as various bad words just might be on certain occasions.

Besides Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor. I'm trying to be a better neighbor by sharing my joy and not being a crazy, mean zealot fake perfectionist. (That tactic really just doesn't work.)

Church has helped me discover that I have to and need to be spiritually responsible and cultivate my spiritual development. There comes a point where all the priests and preachers in the world cannot do that for you. They are just trainers. They can only show you how to start off and how to maintain. They ultimately can't do the actual spiritual work for you. We each have to do that. That way too, should they ever personally screw up -- and they are only human, so that will happen sometimes -- you don't have to fall with them.

I mean we go to gyms to build muscles, we go to church to develop spiritual muscles. We go to cultivate literal spiritual fruit. Fruit which turns out to be modes of behavior, known as virtues. Peacefulness, even-temperedness, patience, joy, kindness -- all that healthy, good stuff. We're not always perfect at it but golly, we can work at it. It's not going to happen without any effort. Let's not fool ourselves.

Why is it we expect everyone else to take lessons or go to school to learn things and become a Doctor or a Teacher but the minute someone says they're a Christian they're supposed to know exactly how to behave perfectly and correctly right out of the box? Holy crap, talk about pressure! And then when one of them screws up along the way suddenly "ALL" Christians are then also idiots? I mean, if one doctor does malpractice, not all doctors become untrustworthy. That's not the way it works.

So yeah, I was mad at those stupid people way back when ... and yeah, the church actually closed some years later and the ground was sold and now it's all condos. I could be sad about it, and part of me is, but more for the sake of the people I knew there more than anything. I hope that all didn't cost them their relationship with God.

But on the other hand, in spite of some kooky or mean people, I've found going to church is good for something.

Church is not just the building I go to, or the people from the neighborhood. Church is all that and church is portable. Church is in the heart and house and church is in the small groups. Church is everyone that prayed for me when I got hurt.

Church is actually more intimate and also way bigger than I ever thought.

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