Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Looking for a New Church

For several months I’ve wondered whether True Light Covenant would be my church “home”. Sunday morning I got my answer loud and clear: Absolutely not.

Ironically, when I walked in things actually felt better than normal - several people greeted me, very kindly, with smiles, shook my hand, and I truly felt welcomed. The worship set was good, also, and the sermon introduction sounded promising: the idea that God calls us to excel, not just get by with “good enough”. I had thought, if only for those brief minutes, that today finally things would turn around - True Light would become my home.

Unfortunately, the pastor took a turn for the worse while talking about sexual morality. And of course he had to go off on what I now commonly refer to as “the issue” (aka, homosexuality). And he railed on the ELCA for their recent vote to approve of partnered clergy, saying “they voted on a sin!”

I was ready to walk out then and there. Before I did, I prayed, and I felt God calling me to stay, that there would be something worthwhile for me before I left. And I suppose I also hoped the pastor might somehow finagle himself back out of this hole he had dug.

The latter did not happen; the former did… marginally. Unfortunately at this point I was fuming so terribly that I could no longer focus with any degree of clarity. I heard something about excelling in the work place… something something. And to the pastor’s credit, he did also spend equal time going off about premarital sex for heterosexual couples, so that was a pleasant change from how most off-the-deep-end conservative sermons go.

At this point I suppose I ought to explain why, exactly, I was so furious. The answer is really quite simple: while I myself am straight, half of my absolute closest friends are GLBT (and a significant number of my second and third tier friends, as well).

Secondly, hearing one too many conservative nut-jobs on the radio was what drove me away from the church several years ago, and it’s been a very long road coming back. It’s those sermons that make me ashamed to have any connection to “Christianity.”

Thirdly, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time studying the theology - I’ve heard all the arguments, I think they’re all bunk, and it’s fairly easy to systematically prove that… to any reasonable human being who’s actually willing to listen, rather than just regurgitate Old Testament theology (that, in my humble opinion, doesn’t really have a home in modern day Christian thought; count, for example, the number of times Jesus ever mentions anything that could even remotely relate to homosexuality: 0).

This is an important issue to me - I quit one of my web design jobs last year because of this. And so, as I said, I was fuming.

As soon as the service ended, while the congregation was singing along with the praise team, I scurried out right behind the pastor. In the back, he smiled and held out his hand to shake mine. I refused. “Well,” I said, “I’ve been wondering if this would be my church home, and now I have my answer. I can’t feel at home here, I will never be back.”

I began walking away, and he looked at me incredulously and asked, “Why?” I told him: “A few months ago, Dan [the former worship leader] said that he had met a lesbian who didn’t go to church and he told her that she’d be welcome at True Light. And now I find out that that’s absolutely not true. You just alienated half of my closest friends.”

At this point the conversation became heated. And people were starting to come out of the chapel, so I just wanted to leave and not make a scene. As I continued to edge nearer the door, he retorted that “of course they’re still welcome”. If I’d been thinking more quickly, my ideal response would have been akin to “Not after the gospel of hate you just preached”. Instead, my reply was less well-thought-out: “No they’re not” or something. What really hurt was his audacity to then declare that I “just don’t understand.” My reply was most definitely out of sheer anger, bordering on hate. I told him I would never come back to this church, and that I hoped never to see him again.

In retrospect, I know this was an overreaction. In the heat of the moment, emotions win. And there were some powerful emotions that day.

It’s very hard to separate the sin from the person. I’m struggling. It’s hard not to look at him and place blame for all that’s wrong with Christianity in America. It’s harder to remember that I’m no better, just in different ways.

In rehashing the memory in my mind, I reconstruct the scene similarly to a scene near the end of Star Wars III, where ObiWan is crying/yelling at Anakin: “You were the Chosen One!” If you know the scene, allow me to rewrite O-W Kenobi’s dialog: “You’re a Pastor! You’re supposed to be a reflection of God’s Love in this world, not one who fills it with hatred!” If only I’d been so quick-witted.

When I got home, I did the most logical thing anyone does after a traumatic experience: I updated my Facebook status.

Jeremy Gustafson is sad. And angry. And upset. God is good, and Christ is Good, so why are Christians such self-righteous and hateful jerks? (ie, I'm never going back to True Light Covenant ever again)

By the end of the day, numerous people had commented. And I want to respond to those now:

Comment 1: Good. Judging by the name of it, it's not a righteous place anyway (if there can be any righteousness in a place). The TRUE and the only light?

Truth be told, it’s not the place, it was just the one man. The people overall are friendly, and I harbor no ill feelings toward them. I honestly fear for the new Christians in the group, though.

Comment 2: Gandhi is often quoted as having said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I have a Muslim friend who thinks the same of the Taliban. Whenever they come up in conversation, she asks, "are we even reading the same book?" I am beginning to think the same of Christians sometimes.

I completely agree. This quote came to mind even before you wrote it - it’s been a constant companion to me for a long time :)

Comment 3: Why even read the book? It's filled with hatred and stories of revenge... sanctioned by god. Gives me shivers.

The Old Testament is filled with such stories. The New Testament (which is most definitely not from where Sunday’s sermon heralded) tells a much different story… I’ve never really been one to actually recommended reading the Bible, but in this case I’ll break my trend: check out Luke (you can read it online for free at www.biblegateway.com).

Or, if you’re strapped for time, I’m sure there’s SparkNotes or Wikipedia entries that summarize it. My point is, the NT gives a dramatically different picture of God.

Lastly, from a secular point of view, it’s important to have basic Biblical literacy in order to understand the vast majority of English literature.

Comment 4: Hey Jeremy, just thinking about you and I hope all is well for you. Maybe someday you can visit my church. I think you would like it.

I’ll definitely check it out. I’ll message you soon…

Comment 5: Not all who claim to be Christians, are Christians...Real Christians will never make you feel the way you do now. So let's not loose our faith in Christianity because of a few pretenders. That line of thinking is the easiest way to justify turning your back on Christ.

You’ve nailed it. The last line in particular. The first time I dealt with this issue, that was my solution: to run away. This time, I know better. My faith in the church has certainly taken a significant hit, but my faith in God, in Christ, will not waver because of the actions of men. Thank you, sincerely, for the reminder.

Comment 6: I feel your pain, I have a similar situation here, but I believe God has called me to pray for them and help them repent. I will pray for you to love in spite of them.

It’s been hard - I’m not at a point yet where I’ve been able to pray sincerely for the pastor. Unless half-hearted prayers count for something… Blessings and peace to you as well, though, as you deal with your situation. Maybe we’ll form a support group for each other :)

Comment 7: These are the people being addressed in the book of Jude, I think. It's short - read it. Then come to Bethlehem Covenant. Ryan Eikenbary-Barber is back!

I’ll check out Jude sometime soon. And I might come to Bethlehem sometime; I find it very difficult to worship in traditional worship services, though, so I won’t promise being a regular attender.

That's enough for one blog post. New Church recommendations welcome. And prayers, also: for my former pastor, for that congregation, for the Church as a whole, for love and reconciliation.