Feeble Knees

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Me Four

Messy Christian and Irene and Michelle are all hitting me where I live with regards to the church these days. If I had the frequent flyer miles to collect all of us together from the U.S., Malaysia, and South Africa, I'd be booking the flights right now.

For me, it's been two and a half years since I last regularly attended church services. This was at my old Pentecostal fellowship. I've been to a couple of other churches since then, some you could probably describe as "emergent" but I can't say that I'm chomping at the bit to go back.

Part of it for me is the desire to return to my roots, I guess. My Mom was raised staunch Catholic, but later broke with the church, not long after Vatican II, I believe. The year I was born, she became what is so often referred to as "Born Again". From that time on she devoted herself to independent Bible study alone at our kitchen table. As a matter of fact, from the earliest I can remember, church was our kitchen table.

It was there she read to me out of the Bible and we'd sit and talk about it. It was there that I first starting reading for myself. It was there that many serious family conflicts were confronted and addressed lovingly and prayerfully. She made sure to teach us that we did not need to go into a church to approach God, nor did we need man's intervention to appeal to His mercy. Most of all, she prayed and urged us to discover Jesus for our own selves, to touch and feel and see whether nor not He was who He claimed to be.

So that's the picture of what church was for me growing up. Sure we went to weddings and funerals, but I never felt the presence of God in those places the way I did when I was just talking to him by myself at home, or whenever and wherever I had the greatest need and desire for Him.

Until I started going to church in my mid-twenties, the biggest thing between God and I was this matter of me running around after all manner of unprofitable things. But once that got straightened out and my heart was turned back to God, it was just as it had been back at the old kitchen table. Then I started going to church.

I still remember feeling stung the first time someone used the term "lone-ranger Christian" and derided people who thought they could walk in faith without going to church. I could feel the tips of my ears burn with embarrassment. Was that the reason that I'd led such a wild existence in my teens and twenties? Might I not have done all those things if I'd been raised properly in church? After all, as a child I'd had a great interest in Jesus and a desire to follow God. Perhaps if I'd been going to church faithfully all along, I would have never veered off the straight and narrow.

It took about five and half years, give or take a few months for me to realize that not only would attending church probably not have kept me from going off the beam, but *not* going to church all those years probably prevented me from becoming even more hard-hearted and rebellious. At least, when things got bad, I had a notion that at any time, any place I could cry out and ask for forgiveness and Jesus would hear me. But after years of faithful church attendance and becoming so convinced that I was doing everything wrong, I began to despair that I would ever be received in heaven.

At some point, I'm not sure when, the thought occurred to me that because of my obsession with being a good church member, I was in danger of not believing in the sufficiency of Christ's atonement. If it was true that being late to Sunday School was sinful, or refusing attend a prayer meeting held by someone who's authority I did not accept was rebellion, and these things were going to damn me to hell, then what on earth was the point of Christ's suffering and death? If God's own plan from the foundation of the world could be subverted by my failure to tithe my time in prayer down-to-the-last-minute one exact tenth of my day every day, well then it wasn't a very good plan now, was it?

More disturbing to me was the thought that the riches of God's presence were much more palpable to me at home in my living room while I was listening to secular music and reading the Bible while smoking a cigarette. Sunday after Sunday I was deader than the wooden pews I sat on, longing for those days when it was just me and Him, back when He seemed to hover just out of sight. Jesus' was presence so real to me that I thought I might just glimpse him out of the corner of my eye, or in a mirror across the hall as I passed by.

I do believe that God pours out the grace on new or young believers. As a parent must do all to nurture a helpless infant to keep living, I think Jesus does the same when we are at our weakest. Some more eloquent than I have suggested that after a period of time, God withdraws His hand in order that we might learn to walk towards Him. It can be a time of horrible confusion and bewilderment. We want to go back to being fed by his hand and showered with love and comfort. I'm thirty three years old. There are days I would give anything to be six, sitting at that kitchen table while Mum made me tea and cinnamon-sugar toast. It just ain't ever going to be that easy or simple again. I begrudgingly accept that. Some days that's easier than others.

When we are in the midst of a church and God withdraws from us, it's twice as troubling. Not only are we missing the comforts of His presence, but there's this whole matter of unraveling in a rather disconcertingly public way. You're not in step with everyone else and you know it. Everything seems to still come easy to everyone else, their veneer is still infuriatingly intact. For someone like me who seems to be naturally predisposed to melancholy anyway, the instinct is to bolt and find someplace to hide. I think of Elijah.

And he (Elijah) arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.
And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?
1 Kings 19:8-9

It is the most hopeful thing in the world to me to read that God didn't abandon Elijah to rot in that cave. Not only did God not leave him alone, but He sent Elijah sustenance out there in the wilderness. Most importantly, He recalibrated Elijah's heart and taught him how to listen for the voice of God. Far removed from Jerusalem and the rest of society, Elijah learned how to hide his life in God.

I'd like to think that's what's going on with me, though I must admit the phrase "there shall be a great falling away", in reference to the onset of Armageddon never fails to send a jolt up my spine. Could I be one of those? Am I among those who have fallen away? My heart tells me I love Jesus, and maybe in my little cocoon of self, my Adversary is all too content to let me remain here, stunted and ineffective. This is my greatest fear.

Ironically enough, while on the brink of decision, when I knew I wanted to leave church my biggest fear was deception. I prayed earnestly that no matter what, that God would not allow me to be deceived. If I was wrong, if I sinned, I could take His chastening. It would be far better for me, as Jesus said to cast my sinful nature into the fire than to fall into it whole, body and soul combined. I still pray that way. The psalmist wrote that the human heart is wickedly deceptive, who can know it?

As for the whole emergent church thing, I eye it with suspicion. My problem with church isn't so much that I feel it needs to be relaunched, but rather that it has never really successfully gotten off the ground in the first place. C.S. Lewis once said that Christianity hasn't failed, rather it hadn't really ever been tried yet.

If Jesus claims to be the way, the truth and the life, then it seems to me I have nothing to lose by clinging to Him. If He is the vine, and I am the wild branch grafted in, I will do what I can to remain in Him and abide. It was not any agent of the church that fitted me into the body of Christ, but Christ Himself. It was not any particular fad or school of thought that guaranteed my ransom, it was His blood. Knowing my heart as He does, He must have known there would be a day like this, and yet knowing that, He did not abandon me to the rubbish pile.

I can only attribute it to His unfathomable depth and ability to love that I remain here today, still clinging to a raggedy shred of faith. I no longer have faith in my ability to be a good, church-going Christian. No more do I believe that one particular pastor or denomination has all the answers that elude me. It is with much confidence that I can assure you that left to my own devices, I will totally screw up this whole walk of faith thing on my own, whether I am in or out of church.

One day it occurred to me that even with all my striving, I was no better a person than I'd been at the outset, and in many ways I'd become worse. A realization dawned on me and I remember trying to tell one of my pastors about it, and the look of total puzzlement on his face. "I'm only ever going to be a mess that needs God," I said joyfully. "I'm a mess! I'm just a mess! I'm always going to be a mess, and I need God, I'm always going to need God." I don't know if he ever did get what I was trying to say. That made me sad. I was hoping for such a different reaction.

Jesus is it. He's my only hope. If He can't save the mess that I am, then no person, no community, and certainly no church is going to be able to do it either.
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