Sunday, September 22, 2013

From Blest Atheist to Blessed Believer

I have been come across a number of thoughtful blogs in recent days written by people who have left the church to find another path to God. All of them express cogent reasons for this. For example, Barb (A Former Leader's Journey) describes a painful discernment process that led her away from her role as a leader in a church that moved from mainstream into a pecking-order organized group that demanded conformity. Alex (Oikos Community) proposes the concept of an "organic" church (a term coined by T. Austin-Sparks), i.e. "a non-traditional church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs." And D (Loving Jesus, Leaving Church) tells of growing up as a pastor's child, serving the church in many capacities, and ultimately becoming so busy with church that, in her opinion, she lost out on a relationship with Jesus.

In some ways, I can relate to these complaints and disaffections. As a teenage atheist forced to attend church by an abusive family (not abusive because of the church thing but scandalously physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive), I managed to get my entire family permanently expelled from our local Baptist Church. An award-winning public speaker in high school, I was asked to give the sermon on Youth Sunday, to which I agreed as long as I could write my own, not read someone else's. My sermon pointed out many of the things that those critical of the church have written in various blogs, as well as the specific "sins" of our church leaders such as which deacon was sleeping with someone else's wife and the like, and ended with the challenge to the parents in the congregation to be honest about life and raise their children in an atheist home. It was a small Maine community of 500 farm and village folk. You can imagine the uproar! It has never been forgotten and that was 40 years ago!

Now, brought to God by God, I find myself in another small community, this time in California. Our small town has only 1700 people, at least 60% of which are children. Everyone knows everyone. We have no fast food joints, no malls or upscale stores, no doctors or vets (those are 10 miles away), no theaters, no roller rinks, and no youth activities (except catechism classes, which are filled to the brim perhaps in part because they are the only activity in town). We do have two small grocery stores, one on each side of town (within walking distance of each other), a one-room city hall, a one-truck fire department, one part-time sheriff, two statues (both commemorating saints, one of which the town is named for), an elementary school, and, among the outlying ranches, a regional high school. More essential to the nature and being of our town, in addition to several blocks of historic buildings maintained for the public by the state, is the mission, built in the expansive arches-and-garden tradition of the Mexican missions founded in California. Connected to the mission, in addition to the church and cemetery, is a monastery, convent, and Franciscan retreat center (which is also home to our Secular Franciscan Order), all very humble-looking places that contain vibrant life. Masses are held daily, and in more than 200 years this town has never missed a mass or been without a priest, which may be surprising when one considers that we have three kinds of masses: modern mass in the vernacular (English), Mexican style in Spanish (almost everyone here speaks Spanish), and high and low mass in Latin. It may be less surprising if one knows how blessed this tiny, historic community is with priests. We have four priests right now: a Franciscan mystic (always ready to interpret my spiritual "events" for me), a pre-Vatican II traditionalist, a post-Vatican II ecumenicalist from Ireland, and an immigrant from Spain (who, when necessary, is substituted by a fifth, visiting, priest from Colombia). Our priests range from young 30s to young 80s. Plus, we have some additional priests at the monastery and retreat center who step in, as needed. Perhaps because we have so many priests and so many different approaches to worship, there is an understanding that one's relationship with God is not dependent upon any particular clergyman but is a personal matter. For that reason, I have found a home in the church, not outside it, and in this town, which a Russian Orthodox visitor called "namolein" (soaked in prayer). Visitors do feel a special connectedness with the divine here. I consider myself extremely blessed to have become situated in this town, something that was a bit of an accident (if one wants to believe that it was really an accident). I would also note from my experience here that there can be good church experiences as well as bad ones.

Not long ago I read a joke, not sure where, probably on the Internet. It went something like this:

A man showed up at a fancy city church, dressed in jeans, dirt-encrusted boots, and a cowboy shirt. He would have fit right in with our local congregation, but at this church, where everyone was dressed in fancy clothes, he stood out. After the service, one of the deacons welcomed him and suggested that if he were to come again, he might consider dressing more appropriately. The man appeared the next Sunday, dressed the same way. The deacon spoke to him again and this time suggested that he discuss his dress code with God. The man came a third Sunday, dressed the same way. After the service, the deacon asked in exasperated tones whether the visitor had discussed his attire with God. The visitor responded, "Well, yes I did, but God did not know how to advise me. He said He does not come to this church!"

I know that God comes to our mission church. His presence is profoundly felt there by just about anyone in the congregation, including visitors. But then, given that many of them are ranchers, our parishioners are very apt to show up in jeans and cowboy boots!

I love my parish. The people are, in general, rather poor, but that is not uncomfortable for me. After all, I have spent most of my life in the Land of Splat! (although I have to admit that God has been very kind to me in recent days, and I have approached Splat!'s very border). Moreover, the priests here have considerably enriched my life. (I will write about them in another post because, for sure, they have been a gift from God.)

The other side of the matter is that I struggle with the spirituality vs. faith split. Yes, I admit that there does not need to be a split, but I see one frequently, and those living by faith and dogma, at least in my experience, far outnumber those experiencing spirituality. I find myself yearning for the company of people who have had the kinds of spiritual experiences that the desert fathers describe and that I encounter from somewhat frequently.

I would love to hear from others who have had good experiences with church for I believe that God wants His people to commune with him with each other ("where two are together..."), and a good church, it seems to me, is a great place to start. Further, do you sense a split between faith and spirituality within your church or am I being overly sensitive (and perhaps even greedy) in desiring the company of contemporary Saint Theresas of Avila and Saint Johns of the Cross?


  1. I need to think seriously how to converse on this subject. A lovely young man, new Christian, spent his first year in our congregation - then felt constrained by some of pastor's answers to compelling questions. I read of Pope Francis' comments - leaped upon for headlines, but barely mentioning his confirmation that doctrine remains unchanged. This has not lessened my faith, but raises questions how to share it with others in love, without impeding their progress. Of course, this doesn't make sense - but know I leave this page with a new appreciation!

  2. Hello Elizabeth
    well I don't know that I fall into to company but would hope to think I would not be too far enchanted as simply be privileged to find myself along side one who is basking in the joy of humility for the sake of relationship. I too find the gatherings a far off from the joy of the friendship held close to my heart in Gods' kindness toward me.
    I would be like that cowboy once it would be shown that I am not such the conformist as the seeker of kindness. Church sounds hollow and the bells that sound seem purposed not the wind in the belfry but the pulling of a rope to make a show.
    I love Him He is my God in whom I can trust and rest.
    I know he loves us. I love him

  3. Actually, it does make sense, Phyllis. I hope you do find a way. It is not easy.

    Thanks for writing, Donetta. It is sad that it *can* seem hollow since "church" is supposed to be the people, not the building, but rather the body of Christ. Well, if Pope Francis calls himself a sinner, I guess the rest of us have a long way to go! :)