Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Church Post (Saying a Hard Goodbye to First Methodist and an Issue Below the Surface)-- Part 1

So, I've been meaning to write this post about our church(s) up here for a long time. It's not especially easy to write and I want to choose my words carefully because it's an important one. It also ended up becoming a long one, so I've split it into two parts. Today is just the backstory.

I need to start by giving a little background. I actually at one point had a whole series planned about my entire faith journey- it's in my drafts with posts numbered and titled- I hope to finish them at some point. I haven't. Partly because I haven't had the energy to tackle it and partly because this important story involves important people and I want to do right by them with my words. Anyway, this is not that. But I do want to give some background about where I was spiritually when we moved.

First of all, I (mostly) grew up in the Methodist church. We didn't go all the time, but it's the church of my childhood if there was one. And there was one, even if we weren't every Sunday people. When I was ten or eleven, I was going to an Episcopal school and my friends mostly went to an Episcopal church that happened to be in our neighborhood. My parents were happy to let me go there if I desired to. And I did. I was confirmed in that church and subsequently had a host of negative experiences there. A few years later, I had changed schools and started going to the church Peyton and I are currently members of in Mississippi. I had a boyfriend that went there and he was pretty "on fire for the Lord" as we said in those days and every Wednesday and Sunday found us in his Jeep Wrangler on the way to First Methodist. We broke up after less than a year, he went through a period of rebellion, and I stayed- evidenced by how we are in fact on the membership roll currently and both my children were baptized in that church. When Peyton and I became serious, we visited different church and came back and settled on First Methodist. So practically speaking, that's the story.

Now for the heart. This will become more clear as I explain our church situation up here, but I was needing something different. Please do hear me say that over the years, First Methodist has feed me and us. In big and small ways. Ways that have brought me to my knees at times. There have been periods of that not happening, a particularly bleak one I've alluded to on here several times that occurred a few years prior to our move and lasted until about six months before it. It's not something I'll write in detail about, but it was a period of great difficulty for pretty much the entire church. As we prepared to leave, things totally and quickly turned around. I've written about, and praised the Lord for, those changes. Even still, I know some of what I carried up here was a sense of being completely depleted and hurt from what our church experience had been over the past several years. Peyton carried that too, I'm confident. Fortunately, our children are young enough they really had no idea what was going on. But it came from other things as well...

Listen, I did not come from a denomination considered "evangelical". The UMC is part of the mainline-- I know, the horror (to many folks)! and nationally it's growing pretty liberal. So what I'm about to say may be a shock to some people (because Evangelicalism gets a bad rap for this)....

I got too focused on behavior. 

I'll revisit this, but I do think our behavior is important. I will always love the Epistle of James. I will always think our actions matter. I will never stop focusing on tangible workings of the Spirit in my life and the lives of those around me. But, I got too focused on it, I think.  And to the exclusion of other important truths.

I think this is a result of a lot of things. I will tell you what it's not. I've never, in the course of four senior pastors and quite a few associates, heard a pastor at our church even so much hint at works based righteousness. Please don't think that. It's other things that made me feel this way.

First, I think this is probably common in Southern church culture to focus so much on behavior and appearances. Heck, I think it's common in human nature. I've seen it a lot of places, not just my specific house of worship.

I think such a strong emphasis on Holiness (something I love about the Wesleyan tradition), not just God's but personal holiness may have subconsciously been a factor. But I think more of it was the culture, as I said.

We attended a church in the middle of Rankin county with a good many older people. Now, I think Rankin county is wonderful to live and church in because it's decidedly not pretentious like some other areas can be and some of these older church people are truly dear to me. I mean, TRULY. They encouraged me and supported me in mothering and in a host of other ventures, especially in preparing for this experience in NYC. They loved me (and I loved them) in a very real way and I don't take that cross-generational relationships for granted because I don't think they are common, frankly. But I think there was a standard for behavior that sometimes I didn't agree with or really even understand. Additionally, Peyton and I held/hold some beliefs (mostly social/political and parenting ideas, rather than theological) that I assumed were probably at odds with the majority of the congregation.

There's another factor, too. In the last several years, while a lot of stuff was going on within the church as I mentioned, Peyton and intentionally placed ourselves (and even lead) a lot of groups focused on different books. That's not a bad thing and the books weren't a bad thing, either. But we read a lot of a certain kind of book and even when the style was vastly different the content was similar. Over the course of two years, we read Crazy Love, Radical, and then Called to Be Holy. Peyton and I later read 7 together and did the whole experiment.  We enjoyed and gained a lot from all these books. But they weren't balanced with anything else and honestly, taken too far, I really think books like this can be bereft of grace. And truthfully (though it's, of course, possible not to), it's hard not to read these and take them to far. Because then you'll feel like a failure-- like you're not radical enough, you don't love in a crazy way, your holiness hasn't been perfected in love, and you just don't have enough mutiny in your life but you do have way too much excess. [Well, that was my experience, okay?]

And I am quick to say that some of this is me. I always wanted something concrete from the pages. I'm a very literal person and I was far more comfortable when the directive seemed to be "Quit cable. Adopt a child. Move to Africa. Do something important with your life." than when it was pages of abstract prose about mutinies and being radical. So maybe I clung to the particulars a bit too much. And obviously, I also just allowed myself to become over-saturated with this theme.

Anyway, all this to say, I had just grown tired of hearing the Gospel equated with a list of do's and don'ts in different places around me. I didn't realize the extent of it until we got here, but it was under the surface. [As a side note, this piece I linked to really resonated- my upbringing was not like this, but in my life, I have seen a lot in Christian culture of "teaching kids (and congregations) the right thing to say and do without letting them experience their need for Jesus". This became more apparent when I had little kids of my own.]

I need to make sure to say this one more time. We were in a very good place when we left. I wrote more about it here. It was actually very difficult to leave because as the leadership of the church changed and I saw new growth and fresh things happening all around me and also inside me. It was one of the hard goodbyes I really hadn't anticipated being as devastating as it was.

And then we moved. We visited a few churches and are currently attending two. And I'd like to tell you about them.



Kristal said...

I loved reading this, mostly because I can relate to so much of it. I'm looking forward to your next post!

I would love to write a post like this, though I won't for fear of offending too many people. :-/ I wish so badly there was a more liberal church option in my hometown, but there just isn't. And I love so much about our home church. But I was simultaneously so frustrated by it as well. It's a hard place to be.

Interesting analysis of those books. I actually have Seven and haven't read it specifically becasue I have a similar personality and was afraid I'd turn it all into a directive. When you are raised in legalism, it can be hard not to default to it, even when everything in you is bucking that standard.

Thanks for sharing!

Lindsey said...

So this is probably going to be A LOT coming from a random first time commenter! But I have been reading you for a a few years and I think if I've never said anything yet, this is a good time! I can't tell you how similar my experience with this entire issue has been.It's not all entirely the same, but close enough for me to completely relate. For a long time I just felt like it was my fault and I was just hearing everything all wrong; taking in the wrong message. But coupled with in-laws that are fiercely legalistic and have indoctrinated me with lies that I am still trying to find my way out of....I have found myself in a place where I have got to change something. Luckily our current church is not focusing on works based at all - and the grace and support is there. It's just that I tend to take everything as what I need to change....regarding my behavior, my to do list, etc. So much so that it has driven me to a place of complete exasperation and exhaustion. I am burned out and taking a break from almost everything right now.I even started a new blog because I realized just how behavior based I had started to sound and how the previous legalistic teachings were still affecting just my everyday living- even when I thought I had completely denounced those beliefs. That's the nature of that kind of (let's just say what it is) religious abuse. Anyway, all that background just to say....I appreciate it wholeheartedly when people open up and are transparent about these things. I am very interested in the second part of this. Thanks for sharing this.