Bitten By A Camel: Leaving Church, Finding God

 

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I recently decided to take a break from church. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I decided to take a break from pretending I go to church. I haven’t been to a service since January and I probably only went a handful of times in 2016.  I was still clinging to this facade that I go to church. I had this ‘loyal soldier’ attitude when it came to church. It was hard to admit I wasn’t part of it any longer. Twenty-five years as a ‘pastor’s wife’ in an evangelical church will do that to you.

I’ve been surprised at how vibrant my faith continues to be. I had been led to believe that if I wasn’t part of a local church that I would be on a slippery slope to self-destruction. Instead, I’ve been quietly pursuing my faith in a way that has been quite life-giving. I’ve worked with a spiritual director for the past four years, spend time in nature, journal, pray, and have a community of friends who are open to talk about spiritual things. It has felt healthy and grounded.

This week I read a book that has given words to the journey I have been on in the past five to seven years. Bitten by a Camel: Leaving Church, Finding God by Kent Dobson is a book that explores many of the questions I have had to work through in my Faith Story.

I’ve been planning to write more about my journey because I haven’t read many stories written by people in my generation (I’m in my late 50’s) who were once completely committed to the evangelical church and began to question some of the theology and practices later in life. It can be quite lonely and alienating. People ask, “Are you still a Christian?” and your answer feels like you are evading the question. Mostly because you aren’t sure if what they mean by Christian is the same thing you mean by Christian.

I discovered when I picked at one thread, the whole thing unravelled. So, for a long time I kept up the pretense of going to church. It made everyone more comfortable. Until recently when I decided the truth would set me free. And I wanted to be truthful about where I really was in my journey.

It seems accepted that post-modern millennials would walk away from the church, deconstruct their faith and push theological boundaries.  But not a woman my age. There are very few voices over 50 asking these questions. No one like Rob Bell, Pete Rollins, or Rachel Held Evans. Our leaders were people like Bill Gothard, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Kay Arthur or Henry Blackby. We were given the answers and we accepted them. We did it for the team. We didn’t question the role of women, the existence of hell or the infallibility of scripture.

I’ve discovered books have been a strong ally on this journey.  I’m slowly discovering voices like Barbara Brown-Taylor, Diana Butler-Bass and Sue Monk Kidd.  I’m grateful for each once. And today, especially to Kent Dobson for sharing his story.  I see my life reflected in so much of his experience and I feel hopeful as I continue this re-story-ation of my soul that I am not alone.

 

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Spiritual CPR

I was late getting to the Rob Bell party. In fact, it was breaking up by the time I found out about it. I know my kids were into Nooma videos back in their youth group days. I’ve never watched one of them. I thought they were just some trendy church marketing ploy to engage a younger audience. Maybe they were. I still haven’t watched them.

It was about the time I was fully into my faith crisis that Love Wins was pubished. I was so critical of anything related to Christianity by then that reading any book, even one that was polarizing so many people, had very little appeal to me. I wasn’t about to trust some hip pastor with a trendy eyeglasses and some well produced videos to tell me anything about God.

A few years later, I read What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I think it is funny now, because I know how much weight Bell puts on titles. It was the title that drew me in. I really liked Huraki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I figured Rob Bell might be more informed culturally than my initial judgement if he was playing off that book title (and Raymond Carver‘s original title). I know I’m an idiot.

Now, I’m a fan girl. Well, fan woman. I really don’t like to be referred to as a girl. I listen to Rob Bell’s podcast as regularly as I used to attend church. Today was a world’s colliding episode. John Philip Newell was a guest. Newell and I share similar stories. His father was a big deal in the denomination I left. I went to camp with his sister. We were part of a group of Conservative Canadian Evangelicals.

It was so refreshing to hear Newell being interviewed and to have that feeling that I am not the only one on this journey. I’ve written before about my spiritual director’s challenge to me to not try and live my faith the way I used to live it. I’ve been rolling that around in my head for months. Pondering what I sensed was a deeper insight than I was grasping and not quite getting. Today, I found a bit more clarity.

Newell compared the idea of resucitation with resurrection. When Jesus died, his body was not found and resucitated. It was resurrected. Listening to this podcast, I realized that my faith has been resurrected. The new, that which I couldn’t possibly know, is unfolding. I have been invited to open up to what I don’t know. This is a theme for me right now. Something I am also seeing in business books, novels and movies. We are waiting for the future to emerge. Like pregnant women waiting to give birth.

I have stopped doing spiritual CPR on a faith that is dead. For too many years, I was like the town’s people in Waking Ned Devine. Completely aware that this faith I was dragging around was dead but if I could just be convincing enough I would get the payoff. If I could just keep going with business as usual it would be OK. There are so many religious institutions trying to sell us on resucitation instead of resurrection. So many people who are perpetuating the illusion because they don’t know what else to do. We have entire systems built on it. It is hard to step into the unknown but I don’t want to keep the charade going. I want to be honest and truthful about who I am. I want to be part of what is waiting to be born.

 

I’m Not Defending the Christian Faith

This morning I was working through Danielle Laporte’s Desire Map. If you aren’t familiar with it, Desire Mapping is a process where you identify how you want to feel in your life and then using those core desires, you begin to set goals. As I was working through the process I wrote, “I want to live my truth without having to defend it.” And then I stopped cold. Wasn’t I supposed to be the defender of my faith?  I began to get curious about where my need to defend my truth came from.

Why do I feel like I need to defend my truth? 

I decided to do a Google search on ‘defend your faith’. Wow! There before my eyes flashed a large portion of my evangelical Christian experience. All those courses! All those apologetics ministries offering downloads including “Over 12 hours of teaching in Defending your Faith.” I even found a blog titled, 65 Apologetics Questions Every Christian Parent Needs to Answer. I didn’t even check iTunes but I am guessing there are some podcasts on defending your faith.

In my early spiritual formation I was schooled in apologetics. We had answers to every question we might be asked. My husband and I founded a cult information service in Toronto. We could break down religious systems for you. I specialized in Eckankar. I used phrases like ‘esoteric gap’ routinely.

Of course, like most evangelical Christians reading this post, I immediately started thinking about a verse in the Bible I had committed to heart (our word for memorizing) ‘Aways be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have’ (1 Peter 3:15).  And because I am in the remaking phase of my faith I thought I would explore it. My spiritual director and I have discussed how one of my blocks in reconstructing my faith is how deeply I have internalized some of these things. In his words, “even though you don’t believe the same things any longer, you are still trying to do your faith the way you always have.”

I wonder if that verse actually meant having all the answers to all the questions people have concerning every possible facet of the Christian faith. I am not sure that is what the bible was teaching. I know that the word used here ‘ready to give an answer’ means an apologetic, a reasoned response. In our Western mind that means a rationale explanation. It means being able to scientifically, mathematically with complete accuracy defend our belief. I don’t know if that was what it meant.

Reading through different translations it seems that the intention of this verse was to focus on your own relationship with God. And if anyone asked you about the hope you have then gently with great respect explain it to them. I don’t think it means we have to be able to answer every question ever asked about the Christian faith.

Those questions are the journey of the person asking them. I’ve been trying to live in the questions instead of having all the answers. I want to live my truth and not defend it. And if I get questions, I’ll do my best to explain the hope I have as irrational as it may be.

Make the bed, shake the bed and …

I am a bed maker. A routine person who likes order in her life. In my reality that means every morning I make my bed. I recently have thought about my faith in terms of bed making. Make the bed in the morning, get in it at night and then remake it in the morning. A cycle repeated daily in my home unless someone is sick or something unusual happens that disrupts my life so much I don’t get my bed made!

You get the point. Order/Chaos/Order. It’s a pattern I am both familiar with and comfortable with in 24 hours cycles. I like making order out of chaos. It must be the image bearer in me! It’s a good thing.

I’ve been thinking about my faith as a bed I was making every day.  My mom used to say when I was growing up, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”  As a Christian I was pretty happy with my bed and I was OK lying in it. I could remake it when it got a little messy. I knew exactly how to chop the pillows for the right effect.

And then I had a moment like Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly.

I realized that I didn’t have to make my bed (spiritually speaking). I went a little nuts. Maybe even stabbed the mattress a few times in the process. And I stopped making my bed. In fact, I couldn’t make the bed. I didn’t want to make it anymore. I just avoided it completely. It was quite a mess with those feathers everywhere.

The spiritual making, unmaking and remaking of my faith has taken many years. In the past little while I’ve been remaking my bed. Some days. It’s been good. It definitely doesn’t look the same. It’s not perfect anymore but it feels good. It feels like grace.

 

 

The Umbrella

The alternative title to this post was Bullshit I Once Believed but I realized that could be the title of almost all of my blog posts. Maybe it will be a book title instead! I am still trying to put together some sort of belief system having torn down most of the old one I had spent 25 years constructing.

Occasionally, I have memories of a teaching that I either embraced or didn’t think critically enough about to question. This post is about one of those beliefs. I was just talking to my spiritual director about this one and so it is right at the top of my mind.

Last week I was away for a few days on a mini-vacation, and as it happened, the first two days it rained all day. Not wanting to let the rain slow me down I decided to borrow an umbrella from the place I was staying and go for my morning walk and explore the area.  I discovered an old church with a labryinth nearby and after walking it I was in a reflective mood.

I started thinking about the umbrella I was carrying and then a memory came rushing into my mind. I recalled this phrase that used to be tossed about in my slightly charismatic evangelical church. (What that church desciption means is that they thought they were “balanced in their teaching about the gifts of the Spirit.” The denomination had an expression for it: Seek Not/Forbid Not.  As I write this post I think it is a version of the military’s phrase: Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. But I digress.)man-hood-field

The phrase I recalled was “the umbrella of God’s protection.” It was a phrase that was used in a variety of contexts generally relating to authority. In my memory, it was specifically linked to teaching on women and submission. To challenge your husband meant you were out from under the umbrella of God’s protection. And that, for evangelical Christian women, is a scary place to be.

One of the administrator’s at the church told me once she didn’t wear her favourite colour because her husband didn’t like it. And she didn’t want to be out from under the umbrella of God’s protection by not being submissive. Yeah. Truth.

As I was walking and thinking about the rain and the umbrella and this teaching that I as a woman would not be protected by God’s love if I didn’t submit to my husband, I felt that familiar sadness that I have wrestled with these past few years. I find it hard to believe that I could get it so wrong. That I, an intelligent woman, allowed myself to be so controlled by these doctrines and beliefs without critically examining them.

I closed my umbrella and walked in the rain. Grateful for the awareness that here, in the midst of the storm, God’s love is present. Her love is bigger than any umbrella.

 

Is painting in church services the new liturgical dancing? 

I’m sitting here trying to decide whether or not to go to church today. It is Easter Sunday and I feel like not going today could be the final nail in the coffin for church.  And seriously, how bad is it to use a coffin metaphor on Resurrection Sunday?  

I’m trying to sort out why I don’t want to go. What happened to me that has left me feeling so ambivalent about church?  I can’t believe how cynical I feel about it and I would say the church I go to has a lot going for it.

I just scrolled through Facebook and Instagram where I saw a number of posts from Easter Sunday services. Balloons, confetti, barefoot artists painting in the background while ministers preach.  There was a laser light show in one post. Lots of full bands playing energetic music. Lots of hype.  Lots of emotion.  Lots of ‘resurrection’ and ‘new life’ talk.  The church I attend has asked everyone to bring instruments or noise makers. Apparently today’s plans include a lot of noise. I’m expecting a party atmosphere. And yet, I can’t quite get myself all hyped up for the show. 

Am I the only one who feels like all of this is so contrived? 

The Women’s Issue

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed today and as well curated as it is, (read: I’ve tried to limit the crazies on my friend list) someone had posted an article about women in leadership. It was an article citing six famous Christian theologians who endorse the position that women can be in church leadership. I suppose the article was published with the intention of swaying or influencing the opinion of those who continue to see women in church leadership in conflict with their deeply held interpretation of the Bible.

My first thought was, “Why is this still an issue in churches today?” I experienced a lot of emotions when I saw the post. I was simultaneously both angry and sad that people still think this way. I was happy that I am no longer part of any religious community that supports directly (or indirectly through denominational ambiguity) the view that women are not equal to men. It was a lot of feelings for someone having breakfast!

It reminded me of an article I read recently in a denominational magazine that celebrated the opinion of a young woman who saw herself as a gifted teacher but was willing to put aside her own gifts so she could be part of a church that didn’t agree with women in leadership.  Apparently she thought she was doing a good thing for the community and was being held up as an example to other young women. I was so sad when I read the article. Talk about burying your talents!

And then I thought about the word ‘issue’. According to the dictionary, an issue, as I understand it being used in this situation is defined as: a point in question or a matter that is in dispute, as between contending parties in an action at law. And there it was, when we use the word issue, we are talking about something that is in dispute. I wonder if that word itself polarizes us. When we discuss a topic for example, it doesn’t seem as loaded. I am just thinking this use of language through. I know that this topic is not an issue for me. And I hope that more women choose to leave systems that hold women back. You aren’t doing anyone any favours by perpetuating the idea that women in leadership is an ‘issue’.