On Leaving Church

I am on the threshold of leaving church. Not just my church, but church in general. I’m not finding what I need in it. I’m finding that it keeps people back. It doesn’t empower them. The entire structure of church as we know it these days does not teach people how to be ministers. It teaches them how to be sheep.

I don’t have butterflies in my stomach about this. They are larger than butterflies, and not as pretty. These are owls. They are large and mysterious, and they hit me when I’m alone. When I’m busy with other things they fly away. When I’m off the desk at work, or at night, they hit. They represent fear. Fear of not doing the right thing. Fear of not doing what is expected of me. Fear of straying from the path. Fear of getting lost, of getting hurt.

So – the best way to confront fear is to face it head on. Funny that it was part of the discernment process to be a deacon that taught me this. What I’ve learned from yoga and Buddhism has helped too. And there is a lot of nonviolent conflict resolution going on in this mix.

I’m standing on this cliff. I feel that everything in my life has led me to this place. I feel that the more I look at all I have learned, all the classes I’ve taken, all the books I’ve read in the past three years, have led me here and given me the strength.

What are my tools? The Diversity in Dialogue classes at the Scarritt-Bennett Center. Books such as “Codependent No More,” “Boundaries,” and “Difficult Conversations.” The homework from the deacon discernment process for the Episcopal Church. Journaling. Prayer. My entire life history – remembering the times I’ve walked out in faith away from something I knew to be wrong. I say I’m walking out in faith because I don’t know where I’m going, but I know it is time for a change.

I’m getting strength from a verse my spiritual director gave me. It is from Isaiah 30:21. It is “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”” I’m also getting strength from her teaching to “ask Jesus into it.” Any time I feel fear or angry or hurt or lost – ask Jesus into it. That way I’m not alone with my hard feelings. No priest has every taught me something so simple yet essential. I feel like they have consistently hidden something important from me.

It is time to look behind that curtain. I’m starting to see the entire structure of church as a magic trick. The magicians, the ministers, have all the tricks. They have all the power. They don’t want the punters to know how the trick works, so they can keep up the illusion that they are in charge. This is exactly like when Dorothy and her pals looked behind the curtain and saw the Wizard. He wasn’t big and powerful. He was tiny and weak. He used his machines to make him seem much bigger and louder.

What exactly am I afraid of? Being disconnected from God? God isn’t in a church. God isn’t in a building. God is in everything and in everyone. Time to dig deeper into this. What else is there?

I’m afraid of what happens if I’m not taking communion. But what is communion? A symbol. The wafer and the wine aren’t anything special. The priest doesn’t do anything except remind us that this is a reenactment of the Last Supper. The Catholics think that all other priests are doing it wrong anyway. They think only they have the ability to “confect” the elements. “Confect” is Catholic for “do magic” essentially. They think they are actually converting the wafer and the wine into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. That is not only creepy, it is another sign of control. Come to us – we serve the only pure Jesus. Everybody else has the watered down Jesus. We have the full-strength version.

I think, maybe I just need to go to another church. Another Episcopal church, or try another Christian denomination. Or maybe even Unitarian or Baha’i. Or Buddhist.

I get more owls from thinking like that. Big flopping wings. But then I face them on – why does that frighten me to leave church? Do I think it means I’m leaving God? Am I afraid of going out on my own and getting lost?

It is like church has slapped training wheels on my bicycle. And they haven’t even begun to tell me how to ride without them. They are afraid of my independence. They are afraid that I’ll go rogue. Look out for all those lost sheep, Jesus says. Gotta go save every one.

But I’m tired of being a sheep. I don’t want to be a shepherd either. I don’t want anybody to follow me. I want them to be strong enough to hear God’s call on their own. I want them to be strong enough to find other lost people and empower them.

I remember a time in a club I was in where I was talking about teaching other people how to do something. I made glass beads and the other person made arrows. I was one of the few people in this part of the country who knew how to make glass beads by melting rods of glass onto a clay-coated mandrel. I was taught by a fourth-generation glassblower and lampworker. My friend was very good at making arrows, and had won awards for it. He was self taught. Our disagreement came when I said I taught my students everything I’d learned. I taught them all that my teacher had taught me, and everything I’d figured out on my own behind the torch, and everything I’d read in books. Meanwhile, he taught them the basics, but nothing extra. He admitted that he didn’t want his students excelling him. I strongly disagree with this way of thinking. I want my students to excel. I want them to surprise me. I want them to be able to teach me something.

I feel like the church is more like my friend than anybody wants to admit. Maybe I haven’t found the right church. Maybe that church doesn’t exist yet.

My Mom didn’t want to teach me to drive because she was afraid that I’d get lost. She knew that I was directionally impaired. She was afraid that I’d call her, wailing, lost, and because I didn’t know where I was, I’d not be able to tell her so she wouldn’t be able to rescue me. Perhaps there was kindness in her thoughts. Perhaps she really was concerned for me. Perhaps she wasn’t trying to control me. But she didn’t think of the solution. Teach me how to read a map. Give me a compass.

Every good teacher should teach their students how to be self sufficient. Students need to learn how to think, rather than what to think.

In church, I asked for training and oversight. I got put into positions of responsibility and when it was felt I’d overstepped, that position was taken away. This has happened multiple times. I’m starting to feel betrayed. When a person asks for training, it means they think they can’t do what they are called to do. To put them into a leadership position without training will only set them up for failure. To then take away that position when they cause concern does not teach them anything.

There are training programs that exist within the Episcopal church, but we don’t have them at my parish. They are EFM (Education for Ministry) and the Stephen Ministry. Both teach people how to be lay ministers.

I saw a picture of one of my favorite Christian authors (Sara Miles) distributing the ashes on Ash Wednesday, out on the streets in San Francisco. I was shocked. A lay person handling the ashes? And then I thought, why not? I went to a different church last Sunday and saw a deacon was distributing the wafers. I thought the same – that is never done. And then I thought, why not?

I got chastised by the priest for writing “My problem with church.” The conversation began with “So, did you mean to be the school shooter? Did you mean to plant the bomb on the racetrack?” This is not constructive criticism. This is very harsh. This does not open up a dialogue. I was told that I’d hurt a lot of people with what I’d written. I’m wondering why they didn’t contact me, as we are instructed to do by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. 15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Go, and point it out to them alone. Don’t tattle on them to the teacher. I told her to look at that post as well, because I thought she needed to know where my thought processes were going these days. So it isn’t like I was doing anything in secret. But to complain to the priest instead of the person you have issue with is immature.

I started to think about who are my friends in church. There aren’t many, because there aren’t that many people in church who are anywhere near my age level. But then I thought further. All the people I’ve befriended have either already left already or are in the process of leaving. Several of them I’ve talked into staying. I’ve talked three different people into staying, trying to smooth over a disagreement that they had with either the priest or with church in general.

I feel like the point of that post has been proven, along with the one called “On Ministers, and Spoon-fed Faith.” Instead of learning “humility” as I was told I needed to learn by the priest, I’m gathering up steam.

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