At the outset, let me say that I mean no disregard for the church or one’s individual slant of it in the above statement. And I certainly have the utmost respect for the rich panorama of diversity of thought and practice that makes up the Christian church for the last two millennia. And so when I say “the Christian church”, unlike some; but hopefully like a whole lot of others; I mean the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant expression–even with the checkered history all of them carry along as their preferred but often discounted baggage. I of course did not come to this supposition by upbringing or choice, but rather by dogged compulsion. The compulsion came from a lifetime of pouring through the texts of Holy Scripture, which attempt to speak for itself through the Spirit if we will but let them. Yet it also came from being a lifetime bibliophile that has wolfed down books from each side of the church isle, longing to hear some kernel of truth to help a poor beggar trying to find his way, ever searching for the crumbs around God’s vast church table. This has been for the purpose of mining the reservoir of particular richness that is the universal church, and to the otherwise exclusion that we would have all missed had we not settled down with our hearts, the Holy Spirit, and with our thinking caps, particularly in order to linger long and hard into what they had to show us should we care to give a little listen.
An Acquired Taste
This view has come from a church-school of hard knocks, and has carried a very high cost for me personally, as one who set out many years ago with a “calling” to “preach the gospel” in a setting that for me was the Protestant-Evangelical church. At the time, I had no idea how very much I would be the “square peg in the round hole” there, all the while struggling persistently to call it my home; even amidst sheep in wolves clothing who had no other intention than my demise and hopeful resolve to finally call it quits–or to simply sit down and shut up! And in the first chapter of that journey, the wolves had the sheep by one as I exited the “call” with a mound of school loan debt and a waning belief in a system that for me had far too many casualties than successes to increasingly speak of. And though my experience hemorrhaged out in everything that came forth from my lips and broken heart, not too awful many were listening; nor do they still at the time of this writing. And in fact, this snubbing of my damaged heart and prophetic desire to allow my life to be an open book everyone could read in regards to my reaction to my particular experience with the church was typically met with disdain, contempt, and a place on someone’s permanent “we’ll be praying for you” list, while equally waiting for me to eventually “see the light” and fall back in line. And though I never did, it wasn’t for the lack of umpteen years worth of a serious college try.
An Angry Lad
I’m sure part of the reason I was unsuccessful in making the trek back was because at first I was angry. Anger is hard to hide even when we speak with a s____ eating grin on our face. The Grinch towards church in us cannot be hidden behind it, and most can spot our “accident waiting to happen” in a few seconds flat. In fact, I can remember the time that a dear friend of mine had asked me whether or not I would like to help him start a church shortly after I had waived my white flag in my last pastorate, to which I simply replied, “If you want to see it fail miserably, then I’m your man”. Fortunately for me, this particular churchman and friend saw me for who I really was, and who imputed unto me what he alone could see, as he extended his graceful hand and listening ear with a continual push for me to give it another go and even share his pulpit. Perhaps he was on drugs, or perhaps he was the one light on a dark path the Father above allowed to remind me, that perhaps I still had something to say. And he was the someone who saved my life that dark night, and I thank God he had the discerning and sensitive eyes from which to see me with at that time.
Sad and Alone on the Journey
My anger eventually subsided and turned to one of sadness you might say. For one, I was sad for what I was now “relearning” again in the business world and in my travels, as I constantly met people who were enamored with the prospect of Jesus but no so much from the institution associated with his namesake. And although it is all too unsurprising now in its familiar sound to our ears, it is still increasingly #1 on the top 10 list of barriers to the gospel, and one that has caused me many a sleepless nights and a proverbial scratching of the head.
This sadness continued for quite some time in my life and I checked out for a time to lick the remainder of my wounds before this little engine that thought he could would get back into the church game. Yet I increasingly ran up against brick walls of all shapes, sizes and colors that I couldn’t get around, nor would it’s clerical cronies and guards allow me an alternate route. For while I thought these barriers were of my own making alone, yet as months turned into years with no end in sight, I began to realize that much of my struggle was an honest angst that I shared more with those on the outside looking in than those secure within the cozy womb of the institution of which they were apart. The sadness for me then easily mutated into aloneness, and both seemed to set up camp and stay for at least a month of Sundays.
This aloneness then led to a resolve to perhaps go solo this time around and break new ground. You see I increasingly struggled with the model of the church that I saw that seemed to expend most of it’s resources on itself and the professionals that would administer it; particularly when there was not much from a pragmatic standpoint to show for its efforts when all was said, and not much done. I peeked in, and besides looking at my own imperfect limp on the narrow path, I increasingly saw people take classes in evangelism, yet who still didn’t evangelize. I saw those who were commissioned to take up their cross and follow, but who preferred to simply wear them around their necks. And I increasingly witnessed a church that continually resorted to speaking a language to a postmodern world that no one even understood anymore, much less gave an honest listen to. And evidently, someone forgot to tell the church this was going on, as they stood continually stalwart and entrenched for battle against the very ones Jesus called us to eat, drink and die with and for. I waited and I waited, and then I decided to take the plunge in my own church planting effort, all the while fully expecting failure, due to the historic dark cloud of my former clergy existence.
Put Me In Coach
Yet deep inside of me, I long envisioned a church that might actually be both distinct, and yet at the same time attractive to people who were truly lost, and who occasionally peeked around the corner to listen and see if anyone could perhaps point the way forward. A year and a half later; after much prayer, tenuous effort, and thousands of dollars spent, I was unable to find those who were willing to be peculiar with me for a short time in order to see something so obviously true and right become a reality for those outside Christendom’s stained-glass door. I knew many were secretly hoping and patiently waiting for my failure, while a few really broken people who actually knew they were, longed to see something they too no longer believed in. And then one day, I decided to pull the plug. I tapped out again. Perhaps it was not the fish, but the fisherman with the problem. I could vaguely hear my mentors from afar assuring me of this all too predictable fish story.
A Recurring But Ever Evasive Dream
It’s been several years later now and I moved to an eastern shore to forget about it all for just a smidgeon, and find God somewhere in the crashing waves right down the street and inside my restless and wayward heart. I pretty much lost everything the world holds dear in this thing called life, partially by trying to serve up my family some version of an American Dream. But I mostly lost it due to the willingness to give whatever I had for a chance to see God show up to validate my tenured thesis, and who would perhaps once again “call” me to say “Thus saith the Lord” behind a sacred desk of a local church. So far the day has not yet come. Yet even through all the dangers, toils and snares I have already come from, trying desperately to fit in and be loved by the bride of Christ as she played hard to get, I too have many times left her at the altar for another time and place, or another bride altogether. All the while, the Lord has never let me shake the constant desire to see the bride become beautiful again, while longing for her to admit her ogre tendencies in the night. I have also never ceased wanting to bring my Shrek self along with her, knowing that somehow, someway, God needs me to bring my brokenness alongside to perhaps tease her hair and make here a little more desirable to the sinners in such desperate need of her loving touch and embrace.
Through some 16 years now since my exit stage left from the one thing I just knew was the reason I breathed for besides my wife and children, but that I ultimately walked away from, I have looked high and low for the one “true” church that I could finally call “home”. The one place where I would finally become one of it’s own, and yet still be an inquisitive gadfly in continual search of God’s whole truth and nothing but the truth. So far, those teasing wolves are now up by two.
A Quick and Fantastic Distraction
I must say however that for a long time now the sacramental church of the Orthodox and Catholic variety has sure got my wandering eye. At times they sure are “smoking hot” compared to the anything goes, fly by the seat of your pants rock n roll shows of protestant-evangelicalism. For sure their mystical and ancient beauty has caught me looking hard and long a time or two. And yet, increasingly; as I watch each of these wonderful traditions not even begin to be able to (within themselves) “un-schism” what was once the one holy catholic church, and who swear by the necessity of uniformity and conformity of their own expression as being the “one true church”, I am increasingly left no longer holding my breath–nor desire to be left holding their bag. That is not to say they don’t shine a compelling light though, especially among a protestant-evangelicalism that seems always ready to take up occasional allegiance with the cultural Joneses, and still have no idea who they want to be when they grow up. And they are a light we still all need, but nonetheless one which is I’m afraid only a microcosm of the kaleidoscope of light that is “the church”, and one that God seems to use, even as we squabble amongst ourselves as to who actually has the damn keys! Perhaps we have forgotten that we still all ultimately see through the glass darkly, and when all is said and done, the church exists for others and not ourselves as to what really matters. Or perhaps we’re also too busy trying to be the victor in the fight, forgetting that our faith was founded by the one who willingly threw in the towel.
A Child in Search of…
At present I’m hanging out with a bunch of Calvinists these days, and they certainly have something as well to bring to the table. I’ve been attending quite regularly, and though I don’t put all my eggs in their basket either, I haven’t told them as of yet. Because for now, I’m too smitten yet again with the prospect of a beautiful bride that extends the invitation of a permanent “family” in the making, with a lifetime of loving commitment to lost souls just like myself, and to those outside looking for a place to belong and extra room at the family eucharist table. And though I have ended my search for the one true church, I must say, I have yet to cease longing for and belief in a place that I can call home. After all, isn’t everyone?
Beautiful post. You did what God wanted you to do, you did not fail, you jumped in faith, and I promise you it will pay off.