7 Lessons Learned In My Year Away From Church

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Photo Credit: Inna Yasinka Photography / Check her out at http://www.innayas.com and @innayas 

It was one year ago today that I walked out of a Sunday morning service and made a conscientious decision to unlearn old patterns of thinking and choose a different path for my life. It was a time of wrestling with the things I thought were important and allowing myself to be okay with being confused and not having all the answers. Looking back, it was the right decision. The unlearning made space for exploration, and in the process, I’ve also learned a few things.

1. The earth is a beautiful place

I’ve read about the heavens declaring the glory of God and the earth proclaiming his handiwork, but I never fully experienced it until I got my face out of the book and took my body outdoors for walks and hikes and easy days at the beach. These are things I didn’t have time for when I was busy or exhausted with churchy things like volunteering and leading and caring for people with every free minute of my week. Creation is beautiful. And I’ve never appreciated it more than in the past year.

Since my Sundays are now agenda-free, I’ve spent many of them outdoors, taking in sky and ocean, trees and grass, clouds and dirt. When you grow up thinking that God is eventually going to destroy the earth anyway, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be bothered about it. And if you see Creation as “fallen” from some higher ideal, then it’s hard to find any reason to care for it. But I find a greater, deeper, more meaningful experience of God and his glory when I come face to face with all the beauty in the world around me. God is in the ladybugs. God is in the wind. God is in the minutia and all the “earthly things”.

2. God really is everywhere

Like for real, folks! I like to use the analogy of a fish tank. Once you leave the fish tank and realize that there are oceans and streams and rivers and creeks and lakes and seas out there, going back to fish-tank ways of thinking are not an option. My understanding of God has shifted so significantly in such a remarkable way. When Paul talks about living and moving and having our being in Christ. Wow. I thought I understood that before. But that whole idea blows my mind every day.

We really kid ourselves into thinking that if we somehow seek harder, only then will God be found. But God is everywhere. There is no running from him. And there is no searching for him. He is already everywhere you might think to look. Even when you think you’re hiding from God, you’re actually hiding in God. I could selah that from here to kingdom come.

3. You can choose

I’ve stopped over-spiritualizing the decision making process. I think we worry and fret and lose sleep over what is and isn’t “God’s will”. We wait around forever, pray, ponder, talk to “leaders”, second guess ourselves, and basically participate in this parade of piety that often leaves us more confused than when we started. So I’m here to tell you: You can choose. Yeah, you. Can choose. That career, that spouse, that house, that hair colour, those friends. And it will be okay.

God is not and will not be mad at you. Everyone who has made a bad decision thought it was a good decision at some point. And everyone who has made a good decision has second-guessed themselves and wondered if it was a bad decision at some point. So let’s just all take a collective deep breath, and do our best to live life fully and wholeheartedly. Let’s pay attention to our heart, our leanings, and our intuition instead of debasing these good and godlike traits of our humanity and personhood.

4. You can have community without the trappings of congregation

It’s funny how as humans, we like to classify and categorize and file everything into their respective boxes. But the thing about the church is that it’s a dynamic, living organism. It’s a tragedy that we’ve turned something so beautifully organic into an organization. Instead of connecting with our neighbors, we drive across the city to connect with the ones who think like us, believe like us, and oftentimes even look like us and talk like us. We spend our money paying for lights and sound and a bigger building, leaving nothing to help our friends or those in need.

Church is not a building. And God isn’t confined to the four walls of your congregation. I have found that you can have a community of sisters and brothers, people who care about you and who you care about in a completely natural, unforced way. Yes, God is building his Church in the world. But it is not some exclusive, password protected organization for those who have prayed the magical prayer and accepted the free gift of fire insurance to escape the end of the world. It’s SO much more.

We have missed the point if we’re willing to dig a little deeper in our wallets to pay off a building or attend a concert, but settle for “thoughts and prayers” when a brother or sister is suffering. You can’t turn the upside-down kingdom right side up and slap a God-label on it. God isn’t building a building. The reality is that there is probably more “church” happening at Saturday morning brunch with your girlfriends than your nearest local pew.

5. Church attendance does not indicate spiritual growth

And spiritual growth is not the same as behaviour modification. Turns out that the Gospel is actually the Good News. Imagine that! If your faith has become all about behaviour modification disguised as “holiness” or “purity” or “pleasing God”, rest assured you’ve missed the point. But don’t worry, because the invitation to taste and see still stands. It is not an invitation to sin less. It is an invitation to accept the finished work of the Cross. Because it is always God’s kindness that leads to a change of heart. Because mercy always triumphs over judgement. And because love always wins. This is the Good News. And any other gospel is no gospel at all.

When I stopped trying so hard and learned to relax into the grace of God, I found true freedom. But here’s the thing: When you move away from the sterility of perfection towards the messiness of courage, the status quo will accuse you of witchcraft. This is because they prefer the subdued, disempowered, rule-bound, anxiety-ridden soul, rather than the thriving, empowered, unapologetic, unconventional soul. Is it any wonder though? The latter is more difficult to control. So I’m not after goodness or purity or holiness. I’m after that which moves my soul in ways that my mind cannot comprehend or resist responding to. And sometimes that looks and feels messy. But it always turns out beautiful. And that, my friends, is spiritual growth.

6. God really is Love

This is by far my favourite lesson learned. It was less a lesson and more of a soul-level realization. I want to come at this point from a very personal and unique angle. You see, I am a woman, a first-born daughter, to Malayalee Indian parents, who immigrated to North America, and found fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. I have to hand it to my folks for assimilating so well into the community they became a part of, but it has not been an easy road. So despite being taught that God is love, I was petrified of him.

I have carried the weight of my gender, tied into my sibling order, coupled with my culture, jammed into my religion, and all of the burdens and expectations that accompany my social location. The message of purity, obedience, and high standards came from both church and culture. Be pure. Be obedient. Be an example. Because I am a girl, I was never allowed. Because I am a girl, it might not be safe. Because I am a girl, I have to protect my reputation. I had to be the example. I had to be responsible. I had to be pure. I had to be obedient. And you better believe that religion was so tied into this overarching oppressive message that it’s near impossible to see where religion ends and patriarchy starts.

It’s no wonder anxiety has been a problem for me for most of my life. Social anxiety. Performance anxiety. General anxiety. I worried about everything from whether my parents would divorce, to whether my siblings would grow up to be good people, to whether I would make my parents proud, or whether I would fulfill my purpose in life, or whether I would miss the rapture, and an overwhelming number of other worries. I developed serious, life threatening physical conditions directly related to my anxiety and sported a robust and emotionally numbing amount of denial to mask the problem. And yet, it was a problem.

It took moving away from my family and finally leaving the church to one-by-one unlearn the bullshit and actually find out that God really truly is Love. That God likes me, just as I am. Not the good and perfect me. Just me—faults, failures, flaws and all. I learned that I am formed in the image and likeness of Love. My true self is formed by Love, in Love, and with Love. Not sin, not wretchedness, not evil. But Love. When I came face to face with this revelation, I became a changed person. I no longer felt the need to be the moral police, or split hairs on what is sin and not sin.

One last point, if the God you think you serve doesn’t look like the Jesus you read about in the Gospels, you can be certain that your theology is fundamentally flawed. God looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, acts like Jesus, and is one with Jesus. Brian Zahnd says it best: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known this—but now we do.” It doesn’t matter what Bible verses and historical precedents support your view. If your theology doesn’t look and feel like Jesus, then it simply isn’t Christian.

7. You are allowed to love yourself

In the Christian world, we perversely glorify self-sacrifice, a good reputation, absolute obedience, and denying oneself to the point of abuse. Looking back, I realize how these concepts were used by those in authority to maintain power and control. I grew up never learning how to care for myself and my own needs and serving and giving until I was completely spent. I would feel guilty when I did something for myself. I have lived most of my life trying to please everyone at the cost of my own well-being. It was a toxic way to live and it wasn’t long before I was burnt out, fatigued, and angry.

Learning to love myself and coming to the understanding that God actually liked me was revolutionary. I learned that Jesus didn’t die to make me perfect. He died to set me free from the system that demands my perfection. Love frees me to be me authentically. And the new me, operating in a new reality, of this beautiful, upside-down, cruciform Gospel of the Kingdom of God, is so much better than the rule-keeping, people-pleasing, slave-to-my-reputation me.

So the lesson? Love yourself. Freely and fiercely. We tend to forget that at the heart of the Golden Rule is one’s relationship to one’s self. If you don’t believe me, go read it again. The love revolution doesn’t start with awkward, forced, random acts of kindness towards strangers. It starts with self-love and self-compassion. When I can love myself, then I can love the world. See, we like to call each other “sinner” or “saint”. But God? He calls us “beloved”. Because you, darling, are so worth loving.

In closing, you might say, “Beni, these are lessons you could have learned by going to a better, healthier church.”  Maybe you’re right. But that’s not how it worked for me. I grew up in church. I’ve been deeply involved with every church I’ve ever called home. I’ve been on committees and leadership. I’ve led worship and taught Sunday school. I’ve gone to conferences and camps. I’ve launched youth programs and ushered. I’ve even laid low and just attended. These are not lessons I learned in any of those positions or places. I can’t speak for the world, I can only speak for myself. I needed to leave. I needed to wrestle. I needed space. And I haven’t figured it all out yet. I’m still learning. Still wrestling. And still asking questions. And I’m okay.

P.S. 7 Reasons to Leave a Church, The Shunning, The Universe Washed My Feet,Letters to Brené: On Leaving a Cult, and follow me on Instagram!

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

 

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