Saturday, June 22, 2013

My last church - City on a Hill

Chapter One - My first church

When I was nine, I sang in a children's choir. The conductor was a Christian lady, and we would all pray together at the end of rehearsal. We sang songs about God's love and grace and about our best friend Jesus.

When I was ten, Mormons would come visit our house. I made friends with them because I thought they were nice and they taught me about Jesus and a man named Joseph Smith.

When I was twelve, a religious group came to my school and gave us all bibles. Most of the students had fun with these, tearing them apart, setting them on fire. But my bible was precious to me, and that night, I read the prayer in the back and invited Jesus into my heart.

At thirteen, I decided it was time for me to find a church. I went with my friend Angela to her church, my friend Emma to her church and my neighbour, Renae to her church. I liked them, but I didn't join them. Then I went with Aimee to her sister's new church.

It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. People were so happy. The music was fun and inviting. I was special. I was loved. I was hooked.

I went back with Aimee that night. We joined the youth group, the kids church, the music team. I left all my other extra curricular activities so I could devote my free time to the church. I was baptised, I began speaking in tongues, and hosting prayer meetings at school in my lunch hour.

The novelty never wore off for me, I loved my church until the day I left it, just over ten years later. But I left a very different girl with a very different relationship with God.

my baptism, 1998

singing on stage at a conference in Sydney, 2005 (second from the right)

one month before I left church, 2008

I moved to Melbourne in 2009 with a broken heart and a new hope. Hope, that God and I would find our way back together. I had lots of friends I could talk to about my journey, friends from all walks of life with God - friends who'd grown up in church, friends who'd found Him later in life, friends who were still looking but weren't prepared to give up. But I wasn't going to go to church. Not until I'd figured out what was right, in my heart. 

Skip forward four years, and I guess I was pretty cynical. Christians were constantly in the media, spreading messages of hate and judgement. My life meanwhile had found a new purpose, a new meaning that didn't involve me qualifying anybody else's choices, questioning anybody else's faith, or protesting against an individuals rights to choose.  

But cynicism aside, something made me want to go back. There was something about church I'd missed. Was it God? Was it worship? Was it the community? Communion? Maybe it was having a sense of being a part of something greater than myself. Instead of raging against my instincts, I gave in, and found an excuse to go back to church. That excuse was Sunday Service. The premise of Sunday Service had nothing to do with me, and everything to do about judging the Christian faith. 

But try as I might to fight it, going to Sunday church became all about me and God. It became a documentation of me searching for my faith again. And more than anything, it became evidence that I wasn't going to find what I was really looking for. 

Chapter Two - City on a Hill Melbourne

About a month ago I received an email from Sarah*. Sarah was introduced to my blog through a friend of hers and had contacted me to let me know that she related to what I was going through. Sarah told me about a church she'd been going to lately and asked if I'd like to go along. Something about Sarah made me want to meet her, so after a few failed hook up attempts, we finally met on Sunday night, just before the 6pm service. 

There was something about Sarah that made me trust her completely. I started sharing with her all my hopes and fears. Unfortunately, I had mostly fears to share. I told Sarah that after nearly 6 months of reaching out to God, I felt the furthest from him I'd ever been in my life. I felt like a non-believer. 

Sarah had always been in church, but she could understand where I was coming from. She said she too had doubts, but she'd chosen to believe. 

I thought about what it would take for me now to choose to believe in God. I thought about what I would have to give up if I was to return to the church properly, to return to my life pre-2008. 

There's no way I could do what Sarah has done. And I admire her so much for it. 

City on a Hill meets at the Melbourne Central Hoyts cinemas, which I loved. The seats were so comfy, the room smelled like popcorn. Sarah said the downside was that during worship she could really only hear herself and not the voices around her which was true. Lucky for me, Sarah had a beautiful singing voice. And although I really loved the idea of multi-purposing a cinema space, it did make it hard to not feel far from everyone else in the room. 

We'd spend too much time downstairs in the food court chatting and missed the very beginning of the service so they were in the middle of announcements when we walked in. There was a very relaxed vibe, it didn't seem to matter we were late, lots of people were still streaming in. I couldn't believe how nice it felt to walk into church with someone and not alone. I could see the welcome team as we approached, but I didn't need them. It was so much better having a friend. 

The young man doing the pre-service announcements started talking about his pet hate, people trading in their eternities for this life on earth, which as you know from my last blog, is my pet hate, except the exact opposite. It was almost comical, but I didn't feel like laughing - I felt like leaving. I honestly think if it wasn't for Sarah I would have just bailed. 

The music was next, and I didn't know any of the songs. I assumed they were written in house. The singer was apparently "on audition" for the Music Director role in the church and I thought he was very good and not at all "performancey" like some others I'd seen, especially if he was on trial. They took advantage of the massive screen and had highly visual lyrics and why not? In fact, they continued to make the most of the screen throughout the service.

It's funny, because if this was a purpose built space, I would have hated it, but because they were just working with the space they had, I thought it was wonderful. 

Pastor Guy was speaking today, from his favourite scripture, 1 Peter 3:18. He opened by talking about his background in PR, how it was his job to keep companies on message. He linked to Christianity's job to keep to their message - which is Christ, and the message of the gospel. 

Pastor Guy then did something pretty extraordinary. He started talking about what happened to Jesus on the cross. I don't mean in a "he died for our sins" way, but rather a graphic, "Passion of the Christ" retelling of events. He spoke about Jesus being beaten with sticks that had hooks on the end to tear out his ribs, the nails hammered through his hands... he went on for quite a while. I'd been a bit distracted taking in the space when he started this, but he quickly had my, and everyones attention. The room was frozen. 

Its a gutsy thing to do, and I'm not sure he pulled it off. It was the second time I'd wanted to leave his church that service, and it wasn't the last. Do I think churches should talk about the crucifixion? Absolutely I do, its a cornerstone of their faith. But not in a family service. And not when you have guests. 

Towards the end of his "message" (I use this device because I never figured out exactly what his message was) he said "You can't be a Christian if you don't love Christ".

Again, I believe the point he was making was entirely correct. And that's why I haven't called myself a Christian for years. But at this point in the service I wrote myself this note - It's time for me to walk away. I didn't mean from the service, I meant from Christian churches. 

No, I don't call myself a Christian, for many reasons that I won't go in to, but I do continuously attend Christian churches. And this pastor had just made me feel like I wasn't welcome to do that. I spoke to some of the congregants after the service who said how devastated Guy would be to think I'd interpreted him that way, but it wasn't even his words, or the way he said them. It was the truth behind them.

Why is a non-Christian hanging around Christian churches? Why am I standing through praise and worship? Why am I saying "Amen" and the end of their prayers? I don't share their faith. 

Pastor Guy also quoted Christopher Hitchens from this interview, defining who has the right to call themselves a Christian. Guy spoke about Christians who dream of a heaven with golden paths, never ending ice cream, mansions and all the time in the world to learn the piano, Christians who remove God from Heaven all together. I really liked Pastor Guy's no nonsense attitude towards his church. He told it like it was. Unfortunately for me, it was the final nail in the coffin for my Christianity. 

After the service I spoke to Sarah and her friend, Pam, about how I felt I'd just been punched in the guts, just been showed the door. I told them about my desire to be a part of something, to believe in something, but that I had no faith left at all. Pam told me the story of her friend who, after ten years of marriage and being involved in the church, he'd recently admitted to his wife, and himself, that he didn't believe in God. It was tearing their family apart, but he couldn't keep pretending to believe in something he didn't. 

And I guess what City on a Hill gave me permission to finally do, is admit I don't have faith anymore. Admit I'll never find the church I'm looking for, because faith is mandatory. Faith is what takes a room of people and makes them a church. 

*not her real name, obviously. 

Chapter Three - It's not over

When I left church in 2008, my pastor warned me "If you leave the church, you'll lose God". I remember replying, "I'd like to believe we wouldn't let that happen". God and I had been in relationship for ten years. We'd make it work. 

It took a month for me to stop being a Christian.

It's taken five years for me to admit it, but I'm probably an atheist. 

Here's what I've learned so far on this journey:
  1. Yes, there are people out there living like Jesus did. And they are amazing and not like the assholes on Q&A speaking on their behalf.  
  2. Trust your heart. Trust yourself. Because that's the only thing you'll ever know for sure. 
  3. Keep an open heart, an open mind and always hope for a miracle. I know I still am. 

And I say its not over, because I'm not prepared for it to be. I figure I've got at least fifty more years for God to make an appearance and prove me wrong. And I'd so love to be wrong on this. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Church of Thought Part II - Heaven special

Once again, I couldn't motivate myself to get out of bed, into the cold and head into an unfamiliar environment. Once again, this decision made me feel guilty.

As it is, I only commit to going to church once a fortnight. I used to go 3-4 times a week. Also this "commitment"? It exists only to myself - a decision I made about what I would do this year. I don't have a Pastor, a Minister, a Priest checking in on me, wondering where I am. I don't even have a congregation who will notice my absence. I don't even have a church.

So who is this 'they' I'm referring to? Is it Christians? Well I haven't seen any today. In fact, now I'm not going to church I'm unlikely to bump into a Christian for another two weeks. Is it the memory of churches past? If so, why haven't I been feeling bad the last five years I haven't been in church? I know when I wrote that status I meant "churches" but if this last 6 months has taught me anything, it's that there is no such thing as the collective church. Every church I've been to has been far removed from any other, with only one common denominator - faith. And it's this notion of faith I've been thinking about for weeks.

It was the Officer's closing remarks at the Salvation Army church that challenged me. She was addressing a congregation with real need. They were living with addiction, homelessness, mental illness. She said it was best to remember that while our struggles seem impossible now, we have the promise of Heaven in front of us, and our problems now, however hard, will just be a blip in the eternity of our lives.

Heaven itself, as a concept, is something I've been 'figuring out' for years. Back in 2008 when I started re-defining what my faith was, Heaven was a non-negotiable. I'd lost a best friend that year, and nobody was going to tell me he was anywhere other than with his Father in Heaven - right where he wanted, and deserved to be.

Over the last while though, I've had a big think about Heaven. I've read the work of several scientists, including neuroscientists, who explain what happens to our bodies and "souls" in death and the absence of an afterlife. I must admit, their evidence seems pretty foolproof. Even Eric & Mary at the Jehovah's Witnesses church told me their bible doesn't teach Heaven as a place where people go when they die - rather it's the place where God and Angels live, and there is no such thing as a soul.

I spoke with my dad about my struggle to accept a world without a Heaven. It certainly is a place that makes everything we go through seem more than worth it. And it takes death and makes it something wonderful, or at least hopeful. I told my dad that I wasn't okay with my friend simply being gone forever. He had to be somewhere.

Dad said that my friend was somewhere. He was with me. In my heart, in my memories. And not only was he still with me, he was in the hearts and memories of everyone who knew him. For as long as we live, he lives with us.

Once I saw the beauty in this, I was able to settle in my heart what I'd truly known for years - I don't believe in Heaven. And on this particular Sunday at the Salvation Army church, it really affected me.

Here's why.

As I've said, these congregants had real need. They weren't spoilt Pentecostals who needed more money or a better job. They needed food, clothes, peace. Their problems weren't trivial. They were basic human needs. And their needs should be met - in this lifetime.

By offering them the promise of Heaven, we're not addressing their issues, we're telling them they're irrelevant - a "blip in eternity" if you will. By passing off these needs as token, we're not performing the work that Christians, or fellow citizens for that matter, should be doing. We need to help these people solve their problems - not wave faith at them and hope for the best.

Example one: Lets say Liz (from the Salvation Army) has ten years left of her life. She finds a church that tells her in ten years, everything will be okay. She will be warm, loved and safe. Liz feels hope for the first time since her husband died in the war and she was left with nothing (dramatisation). She feels happy. She feels loved by God.

But she leaves the church, and she's still hungry. She still has to spend her afternoon trying to find somewhere to sleep that night. She still has to spend that day in the same filthy clothes she's been wearing for weeks. She is still alone.

Example two: Liz has ten years left of her life. She finds a church that makes her feel special, cherished. They take her in and give her something to eat. They keep her safe until they can find somewhere for her to live. They buy her new clothes and take her old ones to the laundromat. Liz has people in her life that love her and care for her. Liz feels stronger everyday, and on Sundays, she now helps make cups of tea for the other visitors to church. She has purpose. She has hope. She feels happy.

Faith offers something to people who have nothing - no doubt. But it isn't a solution to real problems. And we shouldn't use it as an excuse to ignore the reality of their world. Especially because, odds are, this is it. And even if you do believe in Heaven, isn't it God's own prayer that we have 'Heaven on Earth'? Why shouldn't we be working towards providing this type of sanctuary for all man?

This is why I said at the end of my visit to the Salvation Army I felt myself moving closer to atheism. Atheism puts the responsibility solely on us. No cop outs. If people don't do something to fix the world, it'll remain broken. I guess I'm beginning to understand the 'new atheist' arguments against the very notion of faith itself. Faith that causes us to sit back isn't good for anyone.

And to be fair to the Christians I meet - they're not sitting on their hands waiting for God to make the world change. They are doing what they think is right. But I just wonder, if the promise of Heaven is causing us to feel a little more comfortable than we ought.