Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Its with some fear and trepidation that I begin this post. Sybil is upstairs screaming that people may misunderstand my heart on this one, but its something that's been brewing in me for some years now. Soooooooo, here goes.

About six years ago, it became my steadfast prayer that God would lead me into the truth. Of all the prayers that have gone unanswered, this one could not be counted as one of them. It's not been answered simply, or without pain that I never heard anyone at a conference warn me about. Do I have a handle on truth now? Do I have my mantra and theological statement neatly printed, bound, and tucked under my arm for easy reference? This is the greatest mystery of all. As mentioned several trillion times before, the more I learn, the less I know for sure. And what I know for sure is that He is good, likely bigger than I'd imagined, and probably controversial. I know its not my place to decide if I'm right, or you're right, or if they're right. Even if I had the whole theology thing tidy, and I'd take out my pointer for you, it would be entirely a waste of time unless that pointer would be held in a trembling and sweaty hand, knowing that the words coming forth were done so simply because I'd offered myself up as an intrument.

One of the themes along the way these past years has been hearing of people's sense of disillusionment with the organized church. Too showy. Too churchy. Too fake. Too hypocritical. Too happy. Too morbid. Too boring. Too isolating. Too pushy.

Then there was the church's frightened comebacks: the floats in the Saturday morning parades filled with ridiculously happy people dancing to loud Christian music and waving plastic palm branches and placards about determinedly. "So, you think church is boring?" they screamed, hoping to convince the dirty commoners below that they did indeed know how to have a good time. One or two of them might have worn a "Coors Lite" t-shirt, just to prove how easy they were to relate to. I wanted to squirm and duck. I felt embarrassed that our insecurity was that obvious.

If the peppy music didn't bring them in, how about small groups? This one made a bit of sense. People could meet, be relational, help meet one another's needs, bring others into community by living out the concept of loving your neighbor. I'd always wanted to have the nerve to use my former life as an eating disordered shattered person who learned how to put the pieces back together, so I optimistically packed up and headed out to Calgary for a huge "Small Group Conference". (Woo Hoo!!)

Once there, I waded through rooms and rooms full of literature that decoded every little thing God had ever said or even thought about saying or thinking. I ran into a woman I recognized from life-before-kids. She had hated me then, but now she was all grown up and leading small groups in her church with her husband. I signed up for some seminars. I'd come here for direction and chose my discussion groups accordingly. I had to run to the bathroom a great deal since I was pregnant with our third child. From within the stall, I overheard grown-up small-group leader tell her pretty friend something nasty about me. My first sigh of many.

We filed into the sanctuary to begin the day with worship and singing. I immediately recognized the leader as a man who had been busted for cheating on his wife, so he'd vacated town and church quickly and quietly, shaking our dust off his sandals as he went. I didn't remember any resolution to that minor lapse in morality, but it seemed that he'd found his way back to pointing us all to God. *sigh*

Off to my first seminar. An hour in, I wondered if I should go and recheck the label on the door. This was all about projections, visualizing, and then making things happen. We saw impressive mathematic formulas of how many times we'd have to do fund-raisers in order to build wings onto our church buildings. Growth, growth, growth, is what this thing was all about. And personal growth was not a prerequisate for this kind of gardening. It didn't sound as if we'd need a big, controversial God in any of this either. It was a lot tidier than that, all laid out in formulas on the whiteboard. I excused myself to go have a nap on the empty nursery floor. The smell of baby wipes and dirty carpet had a more honest scent about them.

I never was much of a small group leader.

The deeper I dig into this church post, fearing that I may begin to choke on my foot, fearing that I may be buried alive.... the more I recognize that unless you've come here to read a novel, there is no way that I can write this and call it a "post". We'll have to call it a mini-series. Maybe we could have a cell group about it or something.....

I actually LOVE church. For the first eighteen years of my life, I went to the dullest, most legalistic, drab, uninteresting church in the history of homo escapeons. And I loved it. I loved the familiar, the richness of tradition, roles, consistency. I loved the sincerity that I caught glimpses of there. I loved the swish of ladies in their girdles, squirming, sweating, staring at the wall clock and worrying about the chicken dinner over-cooking. I loved the tidy pews, the unused choir "loft", the tone whistle that the farsinger used to start us off on an endless hymn with no notes. The sermons were dreadful and dull, but I loved watching the man, farmer by week, preacher on Sunday morning. I enjoyed hearing his wife's loud snoring as well...

I went some years without really going to church that much at all. It was all so complicated. The preachers were having affairs, and lying about it; the people were all very pretty and talked about Jesus a lot but they were terribly hostile and intimidating. Then if you got involved at all, you became subject to long speeches about "commitment" and how to "just DO it" and developing "leadership skills". Sometimes you'd get sent home to change for coming to worship team practise wearing the wrong colours. Tiresome really.

That's all behind me now. Now I'm to the point where I also tire of hearing people fight about God's love. I just don't get it.

I go to church now, and I cry whenever possible. The cheaters and the fat people link arms with the pretty people and the faithful ones. We laugh and cry and eat together. Sometimes we'll bring a pizza to someone who looks hungry. Or maybe we'll throw some money into a dish to pay for a funeral. When we sing, I let my arms do what they want to. I sing with my whole body: the sound of the mysteries fills me up and overwhelms me. I wish this honesty for the cheating preacher, the horny music pastor, the self-righteous small group leader, the business men from the seminar.

I volunteer for nothing organized. I listen to that still small voice and shut my ears to propoganda of being so godly that more people will want to come into church and we could build a wing in red brick or something.

And my heart aches for all the misunderstood, broken, passed over whom the church has trampled over to reach those almighty projected numbers.


Brian the Mennonite said...

Gott im Himmel, that was good, Joyce.
"The cheaters and the fat people link arms..." That is something quite evident at Maranatha. I hope it will be part of the evolution of faith for many more places, but, sadly, it's not that likely. It may occur in small pockets here and there but, the larger church is, well, just that...LARGE...and seemingly more concerned with getting larger.
I'm liking what I am seeing in the MCC organization. They are not so concerned with the gospel presentation in PRINT, but more and more so with ACTION. If the gospel is as good a news item as we claim it to be, then it will show itself to be true through showing and not just telling. I think it should be SHOW, and then, if still necessary, TELL.

Romeo Morningwood said...

You're a real digger Joyce, an Agapeologist. I know what you're looking for and I hope that you find it.
Here in the Western Hemisphere Religion has morphed into an Entertainment/Political Business..transformed to accomodate the Yuppy Boomer Demographic of the 80s.
Unfortunately the emergence of the so-called Super Church has tainted the entire spectrum. If you watch any of those Televangelists you know that they are all about Market Share and Prosperity...
something that traditionally Scholars suggested that Jesus had little interest in.
If you can manage to ignore the hypocrites that you so tastefully forgave you will have a far greater chance of finding your treasure.
Thank You for complicating (screwing up) my Oscar Wilde People Metre: In your case folks are not just Good or Bad, they are either Charming/Bad or Charming/Good or Tedious/Bad or Tedious/Good...
Keep Digging.

mmichele said...

oh my.

and still you bother.


Roo said...

thank you for sharing this. i'm glad you live here.

Judy said...

I had a brief conversation with my sister today. I informed her that I had just figured out what is wrong with so many churches.

"They" want to reach "Them".

That's the problem.

Unless we realize that we are all always "Them" we will never be able to reach anybody.

The farther I go 'in Christ' the more he reveals to me what a real mess I am.

He isn't so interested in cleaning me up as he is in flowing out through my wounds.

How, oh how have we missed that?

Such good thoughts, Joyce. As always.

Queenheroical said...

Once again, once again that is why I am giving you this - a thinking blogger award -- check out my blog for more details.


Anonymous said...

Wow, you have a gift girl.....amazing stuff...you actually put into words what's in my head...thank-you....Lindalew

Rosster said...

"but small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life..."

I used to think this was referring to those inside or outside of the church, when I saw the world through my "us" vs. "them" (see comment above)spectacles . I have come to believe that the path to life means often being the fish swimming against the current of the Christain culture.

I think if I had the gift of putting my thoughts into words, and the courage to share them, and decided to write a post called Church, it would look a lot like this.

joyce said...

grawsh, thanks Rosster. I too have thought a lot about that passage that you shared here. (worthy of another post) I'm beginning to wonder if its narrow because so often we miss the forest for the trees.

Anonymous said...

Life is messy, isn't it? So is religion, faith, all of it. I went to church for years as well, Christian Reform Church. I loved the singing and the rituals but the people were hard to take sometime, especially how they looked at me. When I got pregnant and refused to get married, the judgements became to much and I gave up.

I miss church though. Whenever I travel, I love to visit churches. There's something peaceful in a church, especially an empty church, that makes me feel just a little closer to god.

joyce said...

Babe-o-rama: Thanks for the nod. I'm always thrilled when you comment, instead of "skimming".

HO- happy to be of "mucking about" service... And just for the record, I think I have found "it", but I thought this wasn't quite the forum for writing a biography...

Michele- I love church to the ends of the earth. I hate missing it.

Ruth: ditto. Coming here is a huge part of that answered prayer I spoke of. (and I think: SO ARE YOU)

Judy- as often before, you were a part of the impetus for me to let this stream out of my brain. Too often when hurting people come into the church, the greeter is already looking past them to see how many others will be coming. It would be neat if they instead looked into their eyes and hearts.

Queen: we all need each other. We all need to listen more.
And thank you.

Linda- What has often been my curse turns out to be "used for good" (that's my prayer anyway).
I actually prayed aloud this morning, staring at my screen and seeing the comments that indicated how this resonated for people. I don't want to become a member of the disgruntled and embittered, but I want to be honest and create a forum for others to be safe in honesty as well. Mostly I want to be "ME" but that as used by God who knows way more than I do. He knows timing and understanding and what he meant by "loving our neighbor". I know that when I see you at the grocery store now, I'm seeing someone I didn't see before. And its really wonderful.

Heather Plett said...

You are wise. We are all so flawed, and we bring those flaws with us to church in one form or another. It's so much easier to be in a circle of people who ADMIT they're flawed though.

Your conference experience sounds a little similar to mine last week in Dallas.

Rosster said...

Buechner (here he goes again on his Buechner rant...) says the closest picture to what he thinks the church should look like is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The lawyers and bankers in a circle alongside the down and outers, made equal through their weakness and brokeness, relying on a higher power and each other...It is an intereting and powerful image..

Anonymous said...

With Peter Popoff selling holy water on late night television, what's a church to do? Dismantle the whole thing and start over?
Chocolate Jesus is looking pretty good about now.
And I mean that in the most reverent way possible.
Your post is heartbreakingly true.

Linda said...

What a poignant post. I became tired of sighing and found another faith community (I don't want to use the church word because it comes with so much baggage) which I love to attend.

I love what rosster said about being a fish swimming against Christian culture. I often feel that way.

it's a gong show... said...

It is so sad that this is what the "church" has become.

Anonymous said...

I know six million people have already commented on this post but that won't stop me!

Except I have nothing either poetic or intelligent to add.

I just couldn't let this post pass by unremarked on because it is so good.

Anonymous said...

Well said....I have been experiencing mixed feelings about my home church for over a year now...one of the reasons I am dwelling quite heavily in Acts....I really appreciate what you had to say in this marvelous 'mini series'.

Romeo Morningwood said...

I read somewhere that
'religion' is what the mob at the basecamp practices while they are busy arguing about HOW everybody else should climb
and those who actually ignored them and climbed to the summit by themselves or in small groups found 'spirituality' instead.

Anonymous said...

Recently found you on Judy's blog...in comments. I do so understand what you write here. One thing that has so puzzled me and was the last straw at the last church we tried to attend a couple years ago...when those who come in the door of a church of their own accord are not made to feel welcome, for what earthly reason do they feel the need to canvas the neighborhood and invite the neighbors??? If they just ministered to those who came on their own, there would be no more room! Ah, well, we found our niche, we meet privately with a small group of like minded folks. And studying more intensely what was left out everywhere else has brought peace and joy to our hearts. I do hope you will find something like that too!! Your last sentence is just so true!! The Messiah asked a very hard question that we cannot get away from in Luke 18:8b. A sign of the times we live in, I fear. We were in church from the age of 2 weeks on...till a few years ago. We appreciate the heritage we had but it is not enough for us to continue. We have been blessed with those HE has given us to fellowship with. Must pray others will find like as well. Blessings on you and thanks for being so honest!!

Melissa said...

I go to church now, and I cry whenever possible. The cheaters and the fat people link arms with the pretty people and the faithful ones. We laugh and cry and eat together. Sometimes we'll bring a pizza to someone who looks hungry. Or maybe we'll throw some money into a dish to pay for a funeral. When we sing, I let my arms do what they want to. I sing with my whole body: the sound of the mysteries fills me up and overwhelms me. I wish this honesty for the cheating preacher, the horny music pastor, the self-righteous small group leader, the business men from the seminar.

The inescapable brokenness that brings us all together...

Karla MG said...

Joyce, sorry I'm a bit late in catching this. Hmmm...last week I was busy "doing" churchy things...simultaneous sighs and glorious moments! I love how you wrote what you wrote...and I "get" it! I agree with it.

For background, I was BNR (born-n-raised)in Midwestern small town church. Moved to different small town near big city college. Did "obligatory" church attendance in same denom church as raised in--had some fun but didn't grow much. "Real" growth happened outside the normal sanctuary setting: during Wed. night FCA meetings, doing performance ministry with crazy-fun (but intensely real)interdenom "evangelism" troupe, while exploring other denoms & faith traditions w/ classmates, while being a religion major.

I loved growing up in the church for all the reasons you listed and more. I love being in church now, for those reasons...and more. During confirmation in jr. high, I naively commented that I loved my church and that I'd "always be a (insert denom title here)" My wise and knowing pastor risked it all when he replied "don't be so sure, K, when you're really following God, you can't guess where He'll lead you...be open to wherever He moves, then you'll be in the right place." How many of us are trying to be in the right place, but not listening to and following God? It's like the narrow door...do we walk right past it in our self-determined view of how it should be? Mega thoughts swirling now. Awesome expression, Joyce! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

G'day Joyful Joyce! You have no idea how many years I have tried to find you! Then of all places!!! I couldn't sleep last night hoping you may get my message on Brian's site. WOW!! Then as I peruse your site, I fight back the tears. There is more to this story but.... I read your words and just miss you and the years in between. Then your story about the church. Maybe I'm not fit to comment, but I've never been one much for following the rules! I am still a pastor's wife and follow the philosophy of 'when you have no kids, you have 10 ideas on how you will raise them, and then when you have 10 kids you have no ideas!' I have learnt that the only person I can ever really do anything about or change is myself. I want to see our churches grow but more in than out. My example is Jesus and his life, the only one i can hang my hat on! I am so far from where I would like to be!!! but i look back year after year to hope that I've moved a little, grown a little. Even in Oz we battle. Just yesterday I was thinking once again of quitting, It never lasts long because I too love the church, the people too much to give up. My heart is for Jesus and I will spend my life trying to become more like him, that is my purpose!! Anyway, very heavy for our first conversation in how many years, but I am thrilled to be able to comment on your site. I Love You. Good Day Eh! x

Anonymous said...

I realize I am about a year late in posting. But this one deserves all the posts it can get. I loved it! So true. I too, love going to church... Going to ladies retreats where they lock you in a room until everybody cries...don't like them so much.