Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Church and Me

Greetings from the 'sphere! I'm sorry to have been absent for so long - I've experienced a renewed focus in my Unborn Child and have decided once and for all to get this thing out of me. I'm nearly a third of the way through, due in part to my self-imposed deadlines to get chunks of the story to a good friend for review, (and soon another good friend for literary critique - though he doesn't know it yet).

I've barely logged into Facebook, I haven't posted a Tweet for days, and even had a week off of my story this week to focus on my other love - trivia. But by tomorrow night I will be a third of the way through it - or at least the skeleton.

This story is largely about faith - the desire for faith, the need to believe, the rationalization of the equally terrible and wonderful aspects of life - not faith in any one specific direction, but a study on faith itself, and what it can create for us. And as this allegory exits my brain and orders itself on paper, it has started teaching me as well, as I look at this thing that's been in my head from an outsider's perspective.

This story has brought to the surface all the vastly opposing, contradictory feelings I have for the Church. And while I say Church as a single entity here, I know I'm making an enormous generalization - but Church is far easier to type repeatedly than the sterile term "organized religion."

The Church and I run hot and cold - we have had our differences, but periodically I find myself returning to it. It's always a new experience, sometimes boring, sometimes insightful, sometimes refreshing - but it's never the same experience twice, probably because what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. (There are those very faithful that will stalwartly tell you otherwise, but that's another blog).

Some of my earliest memories of having a religious experience occurred at Lutheridge. This is a Lutheran Summer camp that I attended from around 8 years old through high school. It was at this mountain retreat in North Carolina that I first learned to equate the Devine with nature. We were taught to see Holiness in sunsets and sunrises, in the freezing cold creeks of the Appalachian mountains to the white water of the French Broad River, to the simple hikes to our meals. We were taught to find love and warmth in song and dance, and to appreciate those feelings as a gift. Because of Lutheridge, I understood the idea of divinity manifesting itself to us all the time if we just stop and listen, as at sunset Vespers and Morning Watch in the cold, dewy grass of this mountain refuge.

This feeling of harmony with nature, this finding of God in that harmony was a stark contrast to Sunday church services with my Grandmother. There you were to stand when you were told to stand, sit when you were told to sit, sing when you were told to sing. During Sunday School we would make crosses out of popsicle sticks and hear stories of Jesus' miracles. There was no spirituality here, only what had always been done.

Then there were those times I was on my own, walking through the woods, playing in the Saluda River, biking for hours with nothing but me and my thoughts and the world around me seeming at a distance. It was during these times that I could sometimes stop for a moment and recall those feelings at Morning Watch - there was divinity in the air around me. This was always a passing feeling, and only a few times in my life has it completely overwhelmed me as it seems to do to so many every Sunday. But it is a joyous feeling, this communion with the spiritual. It can't be brought on, but it happens from time to time.

And yet, for sixth and seventh grade I attended a Southern Baptist private school. Here I was taught that other religions were wrong, and that we were to either try to convince them to join the "correct path" or to pity them for their looming trip to eternal fire and brimstone. As a child who was searching for something - anything - I was easily swayed by revival weeks and prayer corners with school officials. My desire to fit in and believe overwhelmed my fear of telling anyone I was raised Lutheran. I even remember how one day in class the Science teacher was briefly touching on the world's religions. The subject of Lutheranism was raised, and a student asked "What do Lutherans believe?" The teacher actually told her that she didn't really know. I am not going to get into the birth of protestantism and why they are called "Lutherans" - but let's just say that the exchange between the Baptist teacher and student was at least a little ironic.

But discovering around the end of my seventh grade year that I was likely gay, I knew that if I told anyone I would either be expelled, told there was no hope for me, or prayed with for hours on end - likely all three. God loves everyone, as long as you are born attracted to the opposite sex, was my stance as I got older.

I swung from near Zealot to near completely anti-church within a year. I was disgusted by the fact that I was gay, felt tremendous guilt over it, but simultaneously hated the church for furthering myths about who I was. I saw the church as a hateful, judgmental establishment, aimed at growing membership - as long as those people fit into their societies. (Why are there still "black" churches and "white" churches? This astounds me).

It was a few years later that I discovered the predominantly-gay Metropolitan Community Church. If I didn't fit into the "straight" churches, I surely didn't fit in here. I went to three sermons and backed out. This is another story for another blog.

It was shortly after my brief run-in with the MCC that I began going off and on to the Unitarian Church. For years this seemed to fulfill my spiritual needs - all was okay here, all was accepted, we were all on our paths to find God as we saw Him or Her. I went back and forth to the Unitarian church for years, until I came to the conclusion that it was like drinking non-alcoholic beer. It filled a need for community, but spirituality was reduced to intellectual exercise. To me, this is just as bad as dissecting the divine with bureaucratic Dogma.

Now, as the ELCA has decreed it okay for non-celibate, monogamous gay men and women to serve as pastors, I'm raising an eyebrow once again to the Lutheran church. I'm tipping my toes in those waters once more, and may even go to church soon. I have no desire to mold my spiritual beliefs to fit a system. Like any relationship, this will have to happen organically.

One question I haven't directly addressed here is this - do I believe in God? Without going into my explanation (which is my own and no one else's) I say yes, I do. I firmly believe in a divine presence. There is no doubt here.

I do not have this belief because I need it. I have it because I believe it. But I don't feel the need to justify it to anyone else. I don't feel the need to justify it with myself. I don't need to point out the perfection that is nature, that is our majestic universe, to illustrate logic or illogic in any direction. Logic is as pliable as faith. They can work with each other or against each other, and they can negate each other. So where spirituality is concerned I choose to throw them both out the window, and simply believe. Anything beyond that is simply filling in the blanks, and we're all quite adept at filling in those blanks.

The Church and I have some mending to do in our relationship. But with faith, all things are possible.


Iris Silk said...

I believe those who struggle with their faith grow stronger in it. And I know you have thoughtfully struggled. It is always a journey. Well-written as always. Mom

Mandy said...

Mom said it best. It is great to question. I think it is only true belief if it has been questioned and studied. It is easy to just accept things because that is what you were always taught, but it is much more meaningful if you can say you came to your beliefs through a thoughtful journey.

Darkwulfe said...

Excellent Post Will. I find your blog insightful and common sense. I can appreciate your struggle with church, as you know, and find your views on it oddly refreshing. One of the things I respect most are the people that do not pretend to defend WHY they believe what they believe. Sure, I love debate, but in the end...the bottom line is that you truly believe it enough to stand by it..and I have always respected people that are like that. I would be fascinated to read your blogs that you promis in this one...particularly your experience with MCC as I have often wondered about how they operate and such. Maybe a discussion for the future. Excellent post. (You might find Leslee Horner's blog from yesterday interesting )

Sherry at EX Marks the Spot said...

Excellent post, Will.
We had a "Day of Holy Conversation" today at St. Luke's. Well, actually, it was two hours of holy conversation instead of a whole day. The topic was the recent action by ELCA.

Evil Twin's Wife said...

You're dead on when you say all you need is faith. Good for you for exploring your feelings on the subject.

Margie Johnson said...

Oh how I loved reading your blog, Will and your exploration of faith and comments on church. Without a doubt, many of us have the tendency to define "church" by our own experiences with it as opposed to how God defines "church." They are often quite different. It is fascinating to study church from God's perspective as revealed in the Bible. I recently taught a class on this and it really enriched my own understanding. Of course, "church" is a New Testament word. In the Old Testament, God had a people-(the Israelites) as opposed to the church. The Bible does not define church as "organized religion" remember Jesus often went head to head with these folks calling them hypocrites and vipers. Biblically, the church is composed of believers engaging in 4 primary elements: worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism. Paul reminds us we are the bride of Christ and so beloved that Christ died for us. Studying the church through a biblical lens is historically absolutely Lutheran as expressed by Martin Luther with his emphasis on Sola Scriptura/ Sola Fide(Latin for scripture alone, faith alone) as opposed to the Roman Catholics which emphasize works and church tradition. Having said all that, I love church. I love worship. Neither necessarily happen in a building. BTW- our church (Shandon) is being picketed this month by Westboro Baptist Church. I'm not sure how Shandon Baptist got on their radar. Westboro is that huge, angry "protesting church" from Kansas (I think) and the home of the "God hates fags" website. So "church" can conjure up all sorts of images and meanings to different people. That's why we must go back to the Bible to see God's definition.

Simply Suthern said...

Great Post. I went to Lutheridge as a kid. I went with a scout troop that was hosted by a Luthern Church. Great Place.
A lot of people struggle with their faith. Sad thing is some just give up due to some rule they dont feel they can believe in or dont want to go where they feel someone is a hypocrit. I believe in Jesus Christ. Because of that I know to look beyond those and at Him. Keep searching. I hope you find what your heart is missing.

Princess L said...

I just stumbled on your blog and I love it. It's thoughtful and beautifully written. I've read a few of your posts now and I can't believe how much we think alike (on paper, we'd appear to be polar opposites). I'm glad your faith developed throughout your struggles, it makes it more genuine. You seem to be an amazing guy. Best of luck to you!

AmyZ1974 said...

I think your mom is right about those who struggle in faith grow deeper in it. I am working through some faith issues now. By the way, I am a lifelong Lutheran. Thank you for sharing your deep thoughts.