As I begin writing this, I am sitting in the lobby of our local megachurch. I am still very much coming to terms with my relationship with the church at large, but I’ve decided that I shouldn’t lay my personal trip on my wife and daughters. If Ram Dass is right that it really all is “grist for the mill,” then who am I to say one path is better than the others?
While the church is fortunately big enough that nobody questions why I don’t go into service, I still get enough glances from people I know that I still try to hide off in random corners of the churches. Let me be fair though, those glances aren’t necessarily judgy. They can be sometimes, but most of the time they are looks of confusion. Yet — I know how wishy-washy I sound here — I can’t help but feel defensive about all looks.
And so this morning, I tried a thought experiment to put my mind in their shoes. Shoes that I once wore myself for many years. The first feeling that came to me was a more superficial one: a feeling of light moral superiority. Looking back at me as I am today as a sinner dooming himself.
But I didn’t feel it was fair to stop there. After all, this ego is like an onion with many layers. Stopping at the first layer would be a disservice to people whom I should consider brothers and sisters in this Great Mystery. So I took it a step further and found a very heavy trip. A reminder of why I began this spiritual journey anew in the first place.
Before going forward I’d like to clarify between Christ and Christian tradition. When I refer to Christian tradition, I’m talking about all the theological doctrine and “baggage” that was added in the many centuries after the time of Jesus. I feel it is important to draw that distinction because I do find the words of Jesus to be a wellspring of truth and wisdom, but when filtered through this modern Christian tradition, they get distorted into a heavy trip.
I think this heavy trip stems from this simple concept of salvation. (Ironically, as I type this piece, I can hear the worship band singing a song about salvation.) As much as we pretend like salvation has a cut and dried understanding, that is not at all the case. Let me reiterate what that is for the uninitiated: the Christian tradition generally states that you can earn salvation (aka a post-death life in heaven instead of hell) by simply accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Simple enough, right?
Except what does it mean to accept Jesus as your Savior? Does that mean praying a prayer? Do you have to be baptized? And if you’re baptized, does it have to involve full immersion? And does that baptism have to be public or can it be private?
And in order to maintain my salvation, do I need to regularly participate in communion? How often is regular? Do the elements physically transform themselves into the actual body and blood of Jesus? (Isn’t that a little cannibalistic?) Will I lose my salvation if I don’t participate in communion? Setting communion aside, will I lose my salvation if I kill somebody? Sleep with my neighbor’s wife? Illegally download a song??
You can see how much this quickly spirals out of control. The most honest truth about this “simple salvation” is that the Christian tradition has no idea how to properly interpret what that means. Need proof? Why do you think so many denominations exist? Why is there a big difference between Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy? It’s because at one point, some people disagreed enough on a theological point that it caused a historical schism. Sometimes these schisms are big (e.g. the Great Schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) while others are small (e.g. when a church splits over the color of carpet in the sanctuary).
What a heavy trip! These schisms have occurred so many times across so many centuries… and then we come to the modern individual. The kid who just walked past me wearing an Avengers t-shirt. We’re telling that kid one particular flavor of doctrine that has come as the result of a lot of conflict. How do we expect him to resolve this? How do we expect him to know he got it right??
My heart goes out to these people because there is some reason compelling these people to come here. (Okay… some were dragged by their parents or partners.) These people are just like me: they want to feel loved and safe. And I have to be fair: the church can be a very loving place at a purely relational level. But that relational level really is “agnostic” to the faith tenets, meaning that that relationality is no different than how a neighbor or coworker or non-Christian friend shows love. No biff to the church in this regard, but let’s not associate it too closely the undergirding faith.
No, the people who really take the faith seriously tend to go nuts. These people have a strong desire to do what is right, and the trauma enters when they cannot reconcile what they feel is right and how they interpret the Bible to say what is right.
As a concrete example, let’s talk about co-habitation. In case you’re not aware, church tradition espouses that living together before marriage is STRONGLY looked down upon. It doesn’t matter that these two people tend to have a very healthy relationship and are very eager to serve the church, most churches will actually prevent you from serving if you are living together. Even more ironically, most churches will refuse to marry a couple already living together!
Of course, this is just one example. Many people can’t reconcile other ideas like…
- Gay marriage
- Women in leadership
- Healthy, recreational drug use
- Drinking alcohol
- Can’t serve unless member of a church
And the list goes on.
If you are really diehard about the Christian tradition, you will go insane. You will constantly worry that your salvation is in jeopardy if you even think the wrong thing. (Because don’t forget, God can read your mind!) And if you can’t hold it in, it will spill over into your real life. You’ll drink to forget. You’ll spend money to make you happy. You’ll become a righteous zealot to overcompensate for your “dark heart.” Serve more, give more, act more…
Heavy. Heavy, heavy, heavy.
This is the mindset I’ve been trying to extricate myself from, but I have to admit, this old complex remains a ghost that haunts the back of my mind. I sit here in this church lobby listening to this pastor’s message and once again feel those pangs of familiar guilt. Reminders of a life once lived.
So my heart goes out to those living this quietly traumatic life even if they don’t want to admit that to themselves. The church tradition teaches to put on a strong face. These “demons” you’re facing are from “Satan.” With the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, you can banish them all! Amen!
(I hope you catch the sarcasm here.)
Friends… if this is you, I do have good news for you: There is a life free from this old pain. It’s far too long to approach in this one post, but I promise you that real freedom exists. Not going to lie: it won’t be an easy path (clearly I’m still dealing with my own ghosts), but it’s well worth it.
May the real grace and peace of the Christ who freely gives salvation to all blanket all your steps.