Thursday, September 3, 2009

Organized Religion

The revelation that has struck me in the past few months is that organized religion, and particularly the christian church in america (in my case the Episcopal Church, but perhaps any church) evokes a sort of bipolar reaction in me. On one hand, I love the church. For all its flaws, and wingnuts, it is a place of community and of love at its best. On the other hand, the church can be as divisive and contrary as any other place on earth. Perhaps that is at its worst.

I have trouble with the idea of leaving it behind. Perhaps it's my upbringing. Or maybe all of the kind souls I've met there (or by connection with) that make me want to stay and see what's next. I'm not sure.

As a child the church was a comfort to me. My home life often felt chaotic and I often felt neglected. I was a needy child. I wanted someone to care about me and what I was doing. I found people like that in the church. The first example was probably my Pastor - the same guy who baptized me at 20 days old, confirmed me at 13 years old and was a support all through high school until his retirement in my college years. He was, and remains in my mind, one of the most compassionate and caring people I've ever met. Later, in my pre-teens and teen years it was youth counselors- all three of which I still maintain contact with despite our moves to different states and different lives. All three of those folks were Jesus with skin on for me. They loved and supported me through the turbulent years of my adolescense.

When I was in high school I started attending Teens Encounter Christ weekends (TEC). Those weekends were eye-opening, and I really began to come into my own in those years. I became less a follower and more a leader. I learned who I was in the light of my faith, and my faith became a living, breathing thing during that time in my life.

Later, in college, I found my way to the Episcopal church. I felt at ease there and enjoyed spending time with the priest and deacon at the church I was involved in during those four years. They were both, in vastly different ways, important influences for me.

From the time I graduated from college until perhaps 2003, I stumbled from church to church. I never felt at home, and I didn't stay any one place long. Part of this was actual geograhic moves from Tennessee to mid-Missouri back to the St. Louis area, and part of it was the changes in my life. The man who became my husband (who I met within 6 months of completing college) didn't particularly value church, and so I took my cues from him to some degree. Beginning around the time I gave birth to my daughter, I again began to yearn for a church home. At the time we were living in the City of St. Louis and so I attended the cathedral there. I loved worship there. The pomp and circumstance was beautiful, and I didn't stick out. I also didn't try very hard to become part of the community there. I was a new mother, working a lot of hours at a job I hated, trying to balance my life. I didn't make the time.

Slowly I moved away from church again, until about 8 months ago. My daughter, who is now 6, was beginning to ask me a lot of questions about church, God and death. She attended a Christian based preschool and then a catholic school, so her questions were a natural progression. I decided that it made sense to try and find a church home that could provide her with the community I felt as a child and teen. Almost completely by accident, I happened upon St. Stephens - an Episcopal church in a neighboring community from where we live. I started going there in February of this year with both of my babies - the little one came along in 2006.

The part I struggle with is the animosity. The gossip. The conflict. My idea of church is not defined by these things, and yet they exist. For all of the love and roses above about my "church history" - there were conflicts. One of the youth workers of my teenage years was forced out of our church over politics. In my childhood church our board of elders was constantly making life difficult for those that were not behaving as they should. TEC had its share of scandals and issues with those that were not Lutherans. For all the good, there was bad too I suppose. My last church home split over the ordination of Bishop Robinson a few years ago. All is not perfect. I get that. After all we humans run our churches. It can't be perfect.

What I find disheartening, or perhaps why I find myself feeling like a square peg at times is that I don't really care about the conflicts. I want to worship. I want to feel part of a community. That's about it. The color of the curtains, who sings at one point in the service and whether someone has Buddhist tendencies really don't much matter to me. I have gotten to the point in my life where I truly believe there are many paths to God. And I don't have a corner on the market. While I choose to recite (and to believe) the words of the Nicene Creed, I don't insist that you do the same thing. The church at times seems a confining and limiting institution that is outgrowing its usefulness. That's me stating it at its worst I suppose.

I'm still not sure I fit. For all the affection I feel for the church, I still feel as if I'm outside looking in. Perhaps it's me that hasn't figured out how to walk through the door yet.

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