Sent into exile

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This is definitely the last post I’m going to write about how I left the church. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 are here. The phase of my life when I was trying out different churches ended quite abruptly and not entirely by my choice.

I met no lack of people who were eager to tell me about the churches they attended. Several people recommended a church in central London, and I eventually decided to try it out. On the day I visited, the sun was shining. Young people were approaching it from all directions. I felt hopeful. Perhaps I would find some peace here.

From the moment, I came in sight of the church, however, I felt a force pushing me back. It was like walking into a strong wind, except that the air was still. Determined to go on, and either ‘find God’ or prove that he wasn’t to be found, I pushed on. The force seemed to get stronger, the closer I got to the church. When I reached the church steps, it suddenly stopped.

I sat down in an empty pew at the back of the church, and became annoyed when a youngish man with greasy hair took the seat next to me. I cynically noted that the singing was led by an attractive, willowy blonde. When the pastor asked the congregation to make the sign of peace, the man beside me would not let go of my hand and began to chat me up. I decided that the only way to avoid him was to run out of the church..

It was the first time I had ever left a church in the middle of a service. I felt as if God had decided to send me into exile. From that day on, with very few exceptions, the only time I darkened the door of a church was when I attended a wedding or a funeral.

Looking back

I don’t want to make the narrative of this story that I never fitted into Protestant churches, because they were no good, and that if I had only started going to a Catholic church earlier, I would have been okay. I had, at times, a pretty appalling attitude when I attended church, and so it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t get much out of the experience. However, I think that the main reason I never found what I was looking for, was that I simply wasn’t ready. I had too negative an image of God and too many difficult experiences to get over. I simply couldn’t, at that stage in my life, really believe in God’s mercy.

These four posts about leaving the church have been difficult to write, but I wanted to show that I didn’t go from being a nice, devoted Protestant girl to switching my allegiance to becoming Catholic. I was a hard nut to crack. I viewed church-going as being as destructive and harmful a habit as smoking. I avoided events in church halls out of fear that someone would use the opportunity to proselyetise.

God used suffering to bring me back to the church. However, I can’t really explain what has happened, except that it’s some kind of miracle. Going to church doesn’t make sense until you start to see the sense in it. On the surface, churches don’t have a huge entertainment value. There may only be a few people gathered there (try going to a weekday mass in a small town), the responses might be lost in an unclear mumble, or the voices singing the hymns may be weak and wandering out of tune.

The miracle occurs within. I can’t explain the universe of feeling contained within the chant of the Kyrie Eleison, the only part of the liturgy still in the Greek language used by the early Church. Nor can I explain the longing I feel for the Eucharist and why a sliver of wafer and a sip of wine can make me feel as if I have attended a feast fit for a King.

I started this series of posts with a provocative statement: Don’t go to church until you find the church you can’t stay away from, and then keep going. Sometimes I start to forget this new way of seeing things and am tempted to think I’m too busy to go to church. Often it’s on these days, when I feel that I’m managing quite fine on my own, thank you very much, but still keep going,  that God has the most to say to me.

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Do we need to be born again?

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During the phase of my life when I was trying different churches, I was several times persuaded that I needed to be saved and to be born again. The young and enthusiastic Christians I came across, convinced me that if I just asked Jesus into my life, I would experience a dramatic and more or less instant change. I grasped at this in the hope that it would somehow take away my doubts and problems, spiritual and otherwise.

I wanted to be accepted by the bright, happy people around me. I wanted to smile like them and have all my worries wiped away. Each time I decided that I needed to be saved, I was carried along on a wave of positive feeling for several days. However, after the endorphins wore off, I settled back into doubts and depression, feeling even worse than I did before, convinced that I must be at fault if this magic cure didn’t work.

By the time I had tried to be born-again for the third time, and hadn’t experienced any major transformation in the way I thought or felt, I was embarrassed and disillusioned. I eventually became angry, because I felt that I had been manipulated and put under pressure to commit myself to something that wasn’t right for me. These feelings contributed to my cynicism about churches, and were certainly a big part of the reason why I steered clear of churches for many years.

I am still trying to understand these experiences. Why didn’t being saved and born again work for me? Was I like the hard ground by the path which Jesus talked about in his parable of the sower. The seed didn’t grow there, because the listeners didn’t understand the gospel and birds came and ate the seed before it could take root.

Do we need to be born again? In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus made it clear that we do. No-one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the spirit.

My problem lay in seeing being born again as a formula that would more or less instantly change my life. As anyone who has had a child knows, giving birth is not a quick and pain-free process and it doesn’t take the same time for everyone. My first labour lasted from 8 am to 5 pm precisely. Afterwards my boss wrily remarked that I had just put in an average day’s work. I know many people, however, who have endured labour pains for two days.

The traditional church in which I grew up put a lot of emphasis on people’s lives turning around in a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion, so much so, that people who didn’t have this experience doubted whether they were really Christians. However, although Saul’s life changed direction in an instant, he didn’t become the apostle Paul overnight. In Galations 1, he tells us that he spent three years in the desert before travelling to Jerusalem to begin his ministry.

A new life in Christ isn’t a strong drug that instantly cures our doubts and uncertainties and worries. I was young and immature. I thought that being born again would bring me into some Disneyland-like Nirvana where I would be happy and untroubled. I didn’t realise that to really grow spiritually, I had to go into the desert, and face my fears and doubts in a place where God was the only one I could turn to.

This has been a difficult post to write. I have had to work through lingering feelings of anger and resentment, and realise that the people who pushed me into having born-again experiences were well-meaning and enthusiastic. The prayers I made then did mean something. I am sure that they helped me in some way to eventually find a spiritual path, but God, thankfully, didn’t answer them in the way I hoped he would.

A friend was talking to me about ambitious parents who try to get their children to talk or walk or read before they’ve reached that developmental stage. He said, “You can’t get grass to grow any faster by pulling it.”

We might be given the job of sowing a seed, but it’s God who prepares the ground and provides the right conditions for it to grow. That seed may lie in the ground a long time before it is warm and moist enough for it to germinate. My life is proof of that.

I took a scunner to churches

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I took a scunner to churches, (for a full definition of scunner, see previous post) but before I gave up on organised religion, I visited a lot of different ones.

I moved to London, where there were churches aplenty, and became angrily determined to try as many churches as possible until I either found the right one, which would make Christianity click into place, or bitterly declared that I had tried everything, and that there was absolutely nothing in this religion business.

My attitude to finding the ‘right church’, was as immature as my hope that I would find my one True Love who would swing me onto his horse, metaphorically-speaking, of course, before we galloped off to the happily ever-after. I longed for something I called God, to fill in the cracks and inadequacies in my life. I went to church looking for nice feelings, but I wasn’t spiritually mature enough to realise that faith isn’t just about feelings. Genuine faith means going on, even when you feel desperately alone, in the belief that God is still there.I wasn’t yet ready to realise that God isn’t like a dose of paracetamol or a swig of alcohol, taken to lessen pain or provide a brief high.

When I went to churches, I took with me a wistful longing, but it was wrapped deep in my cynical, critical attitudes. I didn’t go to church with the kind of humble, receptive frame of mind which is required in order to get something out of it.

One example sticks out. I usually tried to slip out without speaking to anyone, but when I visited a church in the States, I was caught at the top of the steps by a beaming man who asked me how I had enjoyed the church service.

I coldly informed him that I had not enjoyed the choruses or the band, because my church permitted us to sing nothing but the Psalms of David without musical accompaniment.

I cringe inwardly as I remember the way his smile collapsed into a look of bewilderment. Before he could recover, I swept down the steps with all the haughtiness of a nineteenth century debutante practising for her presentation to the Queen.

With attitudes like these, it’s not surprising that I got very little out of trying different churches. Sometimes, however, things did penetrate my hard carapace. I remember attending a charismatic church with a friend who was concerned about me. Afterwards we talked for a while with an older person in the church, and I trusted him with parts of my story.

What he said about God’s love cut through all my defences. I realised that although I gave intellectual assent to what the Bible said about God’s love, the words were actually devoid of meaning. My deity placed impossible demands on me and called it love. The gulf between my idea of God’s love and what love should actually be, was impassable and unbridgeable. I didn’t know how I would ever manage to trust God.

In the next post, I’ll continue the story of how I finally stopped going to church.