The Right Church
Well, no, actually, I didn't. But then, I stopped looking, so how could I find it?
Enough with the cryptic rhetorical responses to a cryptic evangelism campaign from the 1970s, already. This is a follow-up to last week's essay on being "done with church," in which I discussed several reasons why I'd rather do almost anything than go to church on a Sunday morning. That post got more views than my typical curmudgeonly rant--40 so far--which is encouraging. It also got something I rarely have: an eloquent response from a reader.
His name is Daryl, and in the late 1970s, we were classmates at Philomath High School. His grandfather had been the pastor of the College Evangelical United Brethren Church until the great merger of 1968, when it became the College United Methodist Church, and the hardline EUBs left to start their own church elsewhere in town. Seven years later, my father became pastor of the College UMC, and baptized me in its immersion baptistry (the only one that can be found in a Methodist church in the Pacific Northwest). So we have more in common than being fellow Warriors. Even so, I haven't had much contact with Daryl since graduation in 1979, except (since 2009, when I started friending fellow alums) on Facebook, which is where he posted his comment.
Daryl read my essay and became concerned for the state of my soul. This led him to take issue with my conclusion that church is not for me, and to insist that I just need to attend the "right church." I'm assuming he means the kind of church he goes to, a church where, in his words, "the gospel is preached, sin has no degree, God is worshiped and God's people bear each other's burdens."
And now comes the hard part.
I'm grateful to Daryl for being so sincerely concerned about my spiritual well-being. I want to stress that point: what Daryl is doing in his comment is a Christianmitzvah. He read my words about being post-Christian, and became worried that I'd lost whatever it was I "found" when I came to Jesus. He felt the need to respond to Christ's great commission to take the gospel to any who are without it. He felt I had lost my focus, that I needed to be in relationship with God, and the way to do that was to find a church that is right for me.
I appreciate his concern. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for evangelicals, probably because, as liberal as his politics may have been, my father was an evangelical. As a seminarian and pastor, I had many evangelical colleagues, some of them great friends, and I was often humbled by their sincerity and commitment. When they reach out to an unchurched person, I believe they really do have the best interests of that person at heart. They really do want to shelter us from the wrath to come, usher us back into the presence of the redeeming Creator, and encourage us to make the right decision that will save us from all our sins.
Appreciation is not, however, agreement. There are things Daryl doesn't know about me, reasons his plan for my redemption, as heartfelt as it may be, is just not going to work. The first, and foremost, is that we just don't agree on what constitutes the "right church."
In fact, I did find the right church for me, or as close to the right church as has ever existed, and I belonged to it for twelve years. It fit all Daryl's criteria: the gospel was preached, sin was indicted, God was worshiped, and, more than any other faith community I've known, people bore each other's burdens. Mind you, the gospel being preached, while powerfully consistent with scripture (and as a Biblical scholar, I know this to be the case), was almost always radically different from the gospel preached in whatever church it is Daryl wants me to join. It was a gospel of inclusion, liberation, and justice, good news to people marginalized by many a "Bible-believing" church. The sin that was castigated by this gospel was the sin of institutional power, of bigotry against people with same-gender orientation, of wealth and financial prosperity. Worship was at the heart of this community, and it happened every day of the week. And finally, and most significantly for me, this was a church that intentionally supported its members emotionally, physically, and (here's the most radical part) financially. Many a member, including myself, was helped through difficult times by the generous support of the community fund.
The church I'm talking about was the Metanoia Peace Community. It disbanded two years ago, unable to remain a functioning congregation without the leadership of its finally retired pastor, and I'm sorry it's gone. I know there are other communities like it scattered around the United States, though they can be hard to find. I know, too, that there are larger congregations that have many of the attributes that drew me to Metanoia. I attended one in Dallas, Texas, and my last church music job was with a United Church of Christ congregation that met most of my theological and political criteria. In a city like Portland, I'm sure I could find several other churches that would. But I'm not looking: Metanoia was my last church.
Why am I done with this quest? Is it that, as Daryl believes, I've lost my focus, that I've forgotten Christianity is, in his words, "not a religion but a personal relationship with the God of the universe"?
No. I'm sorry, Daryl, but it's not about my personal relationship with God--at least, not as evangelicals present it. It's certainly not losing my focus because, if anything, my criteria have narrowed that focus to such a fine point that there really is no longer a Christian church anywhere that I can call home. Even Metanoia was an imperfect fit.
My issues with Christianity run far deeper than worship style, musical quality, or preaching skill. They strike at the very heart of the gospel preached by every church last Sunday, because that gospel is constructed on a lie. I'm not talking about the resurrection, by the way. The issue that renders it impossible for me to call myself a Christian is its rejection of its parent religion and, much more than that, its millennia-long persecution of the members of that religion. From the very moment the gospels were written, the church has been engaged in a campaign to discredit, displace, disown, and, ultimately, destroy Judaism, while robbing it of its holiest texts and traditions. It took a Holocaust for the church to finally begin to admit its patricidal tendencies, and yet, even in the most enlightened of congregations, Jews are still blamed for the death of Jesus, a caricature of Judaism is contrasted with the right practices of Christians, and supercessionist doctrines are proclaimed. Some of my first writings in this blog were about these practices, and if you're interested, I encourage you to look atthis one in particular.
I will admit to finding myself far more at home spiritually in a secular Jewish family than I ever felt in my observant Christian family of origin. My father was diligent about table devotions, reading to us from The Upper Room, saying blessings at every meal, but somehow those traditions never quite worked for me. Perhaps the issue, to me, was that the main event was always Sunday morning: our religion was about church. I love that the heart of Jewish practice is the home, and that going to services is an adjunct to that. The most holy of Jewish observances, the Passover seder, is a meal that must be taken in a home for maximum impact. I've hungered for this for a very long time, and I'm sure much of the Metanoia appeal was that it met in a house, rather than a church building--which may also explain why, once that house was no longer available, the community only managed to stay together a year.
I must also say, though, that my issues run far deeper than locating the gospel either in a large community or a small living room. I've spent my entire life on the quest for meaning, the search for a connection with the ground of my being and the end of my becoming, and while there were times during which Christ seemed the answer to that quest, I have long since realized I need something both more awesome and more intimate than I can find in the New Testament--or the Old Testament, for that matter. Buddhist philosophy has informed this quest, as have my encounters with pagan practices. The spirituality I'm coming to is specific, personal, and as highly focused as it can be. I'm practicing it right now with my fingers as this essay flows from my mind onto the screen of my laptop. "Flow" is, in fact, the best word I can use for my spiritual practice. I'm immersed in it when I'm teaching, whether it's 33 rowdy first graders or one 60-year-old piano student. I'm rolling with it when I'm improvising at the piano. I'm cruising with it when I'm running, bicycling, skiing, hiking. It's me being utterly present, whether it's with the ones I love or the place I'm in. And that, Daryl and any other Christian who's concerned about the state of my soul, is when I feel most utterly connected to God. Given how many ways I've just spelled out for that to happen, you should by now be realizing that the state of my soul is as good as it's ever been, and promises to continue improving on a minute-by-minute basis for as long as I'm drawing breath.
The right church for me? Right here, right now.