Something Small Against Something Big

by Mandy

“I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment…and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.”

- Alain de Botton

It was because of something an atheist said that I started salivating for church again.

I haven’t gone to church for several months now, a decision that wasn’t made lightly, nor was it made with a spirit of finality.

My dad asked me recently about this decision. “But what do you do with the verse that says ‘Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’” (Hebrews 10:25)

“I don’t know,” I answered, wishing I had more words to offer that would ease his worry.

At the same time that I was in Ohio visiting my family, I visited with one of my English teachers from high school. The subject of church came up at one point and he said, ” Why don’t you do some interviews? Meet with some pastors or priests from a variety of different churches and tell them where you are in your faith and see if they feel like their church is a match.”

The thought intrigued me, if for nothing else than the learning opportunity. I loved the thought of having a discussion one-on-one with a variety of spiritual leaders as opposed to merely sitting in a church service. And as a writer, surely it could add to my storytelling.

Sitting in a park one day, letting my three-year-old play while we waited for his three siblings to get out of school, I started looking up churches on my phone. Episcopalian churches, Lutheran churches, Catholic churches, Unitarian Universalist churches, Church of the Open Arms, all of which had been recommended to me by one person or another. I glanced over their core beliefs, I perused their programs, I checked out what it means to be a member. I even attempted calling one, but then quickly hung up the phone after the first ring.

What was I doing? I didn’t have a good feeling about this. In fact, I felt like I was using a dating service, trying to set up blind dates when I wasn’t even really sure I was ready to get back in the ring. Why was this so difficult? When had I become such a skeptic?

Looking through all the churches websites made my stomach turn. What if the interview with the ordained clergy went okay? Would they expect me to check out their church, like I owed it to them? I started to imagine myself walking in on a Sunday morning where I would be greeted with what would feel like a conjured up warmness. Where I would sit and listen to the ordained tell me what to believe or feel convicted about. Where I would perhaps be introduced to the person that handles Visitor Relations: “Can we get you more reading material? Can we drop off a loaf of bread at your home sometime later in the week? Can we follow up with a phone call? Will you be returning next week? Have you seen our children’s programs? We have so many different places to get you plugged in to serve. We can get you into a small group that will make church feel more intimate.”

I don’t want to be the fresh meat at a church looking to save me, convert me, or get me to fill a seat, a volunteer spot or a budget goal.

I just want to feel God and converse on big wondrous, creative ideas with other wanderers in the flesh (not merely online). But truth be known, I’m terrified I would lose the wonder of God in a church. It seems I don’t trust anyone anymore who manages a gateway to God.

“Tony, I even looked at the Unitarian Universalist website, thinking maybe it’s just Christianity that bothers me, but even that one made me uncomfortable,” I said to my husband, baffled at my discoveries. “I don’t think it has to do with their doctrine as much as it has to do with the structure of it all. The organized church feels a bit too organized for the messy God I’ve come to believe in. And I know that must sound dreadfully prideful, but I don’t feel I’m being prideful by wanting to protect my own faith.”

Later in the week I was painting a logo on a window at my kids’ school and listening to a podcast where Krista Tippetts was interviewing Alain de Botton author of the book Religion for Atheists. He has started an organization or a community called The School of Life that offers guidance on how to live out the great challenges of life because he believes strongly in not doing life alone. Maybe I am still pining for a local church, I thought, as I heard him speak about his School of Life. Even his book, which I’m currently reading, is fascinating to me because he’s able to help me see some of the benefits of religious organizations, and help me understand why I am both drawn to and repelled from them.

At one point in the interview he mentions the grandeur of standing in a cathedral, how it makes you feel so small up against something so big. I decided that right there was what I needed a church to be. A place where people are having conversations about something indefinably small against something indefinably big, in which both the big and the small are of great worth.

“I find it so fascinating that I would have more in common with this atheist gentleman then I would with many Christians,” I said to a friend. “He just seems awake and alive. He seems like he still has questions left to live. I feel certain I could sit down with him and we could talk for hours.”

“Yes, it seems there is an awakening that goes deeper than just the surface of diligently meeting a religion’s standards,” she responded. “Those ‘awake and alive’ are the sort of people you’re looking to be around,” she said to me, “whether in an organized church setting or not. Those are the like-minded people you want to be ‘meeting together’ with, like your dad suggested in that scripture. Those are the people that breathe wonder into your faith instead of suck the wonder out of it.”

So the search continues, but really, deep down I know, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

 

37 Responses to “Something Small Against Something Big”

  1. Rebekah November 13, 2012 at 7:15 am #

    “Those are the people that breathe wonder into your faith instead of suck the wonder out of it.” Exactly what I long for and need.

    • Mandy November 14, 2012 at 5:12 am #

      May they come to us as we search for them.

  2. Mark Champion November 13, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    Like minded is where rest and life is. The greatness of God and the intimacy of others is a wonderful paradox that reveals Christ to those with ears to hear and love to share.

    Journey on in Him!

  3. Diana Trautwein November 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    Mandy, you are such an honest searcher – and I love that. And let me just say that if you had stepped into my office, when I was pastoring? I’d have been happy to encourage you to continue to search any way you felt pushed/led to do so. Maybe my church would have been a good place for that, but maybe not. Maybe you need to do exactly what you’re doing. Maybe you need to sit in the back of a large, liturgical church and just listen, or look and listen and feel. (That’s actually what I ‘prescribe’ for a lot of people burned out on evangelical churches but still seeking after Jesus). We do need spaces in our lives that pit us against something bigger and wilder than we know. On a medical leave of absence once, I went up to the Old Mission in our town every Wednesday in Lent and just sat in the back – listening to the cantor in the balcony, the priest in the front, the people in the pews. And watching them hold their candles and gather round a large painted crucifix laid out on boxes for ‘adoration.’ I had NEVER seen anything like that in my life before – and I was grateful for it. Because it stretched me, hard. And I need stretching. And I need a wildness and a bigness to God as well as a nearness and a willingness to be small enough to inhabit our flesh. Stay open, stay honest, keep looking. You will be found.

    • Mandy November 14, 2012 at 5:25 am #

      i do need to do exactly what i’m doing. This much i know. it’s rich to me. in the searching there is a fullness and a wonder that i love and wouldn’t trade for the world and that is often misinterpreted by others as unhealthy discontentment.

      I love your story about the Old Mission. These are the sort of wandering “rituals” I will incorporate into my story as they make themselves known.

  4. rain November 13, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    i love how you value freedom and that you see your tribe of rebels and misfits and artists and soul-searchers as your church. <3 but i totally get wanting in the flesh sojourn. we NEED that. i hope this unfolds for you soon, love. <3

  5. Avery November 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    Yes, yes, yes. I long for church (community ) again. But I can’t see fitting in at all. It is the search for the *something big* , the community, the comfort of ritual. I seem to have put together a mish-mash of beliefs and ideas from rooms I didn’t think I would enter.

    I love how you’ve explained it <3

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:40 am #

      I know and love my own version of mish-mash.

  6. Shawn November 13, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    “Those ‘awake and alive’ are the sort of people you’re looking to be around,” she said to me, “whether in an organized church setting or not. Those are the like-minded people you want to be ‘meeting together’ with”

    That IS exactly what I long for! You put to words so very well exactly how I’ve been feeling about church lately. So refreshing – thank you!

  7. Karenee November 13, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    I haven’t chosen a church since mine ejected me either, for the same reasons. It’s all … too organized, too programmed, too ready to stamp you with a label and box you up neatly for processing. I’ve decided I’m looking for connection with a group of people who play the infinite game…. a concept stolen from Finite and Infinite Games by Carse.

    You would like that book, if you haven’t read it yet. “Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for a surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.”

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:42 am #

      The book looks very interesting. I was disappointed my library doesn’t have it. Thanks for suggesting it.

  8. Misti November 13, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    It has been 10 years since I have purposefully set foot in a church, other than wedding, funeral, or other event. Most of them are for reasons you listed above. I don’t feel guilty about it either. I too thought about other churches, the Unitarian too, but it is the organized part that I just can’t handle.

    Looking forward to seeing your journey….thinking of you!

    • Mandy November 14, 2012 at 5:32 am #

      Thank you, MIsti for commenting in this space. And thank you for walking out what can be a tough road and feeling as though you can do it without guilt. I don’t have guilt either. Though my path isn’t clear, it’s still mine, and I’m loving it.

  9. Miles O'Neal November 13, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    One of the main reasons we ended up members somewhere was that my wife’s job (at a faith-based pregnancy center) requires it. Thankfully we found a church that’s extrenmely un-churchy, in the modern sense of things.
    The Church is the community of believers. I think if you are getting with believers, you experience Church. I think it’s good to have a place or time (whether regular or not) to worship in a group. But it doesn’t have to be in a consecrated building, or in an official service, or with the same people each time.
    Even though we joined a “church”, we are likely to be elsewhere at least one Sunday a month, visiting another “church”, ministering, or just taking a needed break from a life full of times spent with either believers or people needing love (or even just people we love). And our pastors are totally down with this. They believe the Church is the Church is teh Church, and we are all inter-connected, so we need to connect.
    Otherwise, we’d have kept moseying.

    • Mandy November 14, 2012 at 5:34 am #

      You mention the importance of worshipping in a group. What’s “worship” look like for you? And why is it good to do it collectively?

      • Miles O'Neal November 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

        Worship… There’s the obvious part, where we get together and sing/play to God, and get lost in communion pretty directly with him. But it doesn’t require music ( the right music at the time certainly helps!) It can be the act of communion. It can be just talking to God about how awesome he is, thaking him for all he does, etc. It can be just enjoying the beauty of nature. It can be sitting around, reading or reciting God’s word (Scriptures, things God gave us directly, whatever) that is meaningful at the moment. It can be holding hands and crying. There’s always an intimate component for me; love is always at the center of it.

        Worship as a group? In no particular order, here are a few reasons I think it’s a good idea.

        “When two or more of you come together, there am I in the midst.” Here we have a mystery, or a theological conundrum, if we choose to see it that way. After all, if we love him, Christ dwells in us. But he seemed to think there was something about us getting together.

        And in fact, when I am worshipping with others who really love God, I do find it even easier to go deeply into worship quickly, and stay there. Perhaps because His presence is stronger simply because we are together? I don’t know. I just know I find it to be true. (Another benefit is that this brings people together. Unity is about relationship, not doctrinal agreement. Jesus prayed we would all be one, and be in him and God as he was in God and God in him.)

        There are a number of places in Scriptures suggesting or telling us to do so, which tells me it has value. When I don’t do it, I miss it. It’s like kissing my wife. It’s recommended by the experts, which is a clue I should, but that’s not why I do it. And if I don’t get to for a while, I definitely miss it. Steve Ray Vaughn nailed it in the Telephone Song. “I’m tired a huggin’ my pillow at night. It sure don’t kiss as good as you!”

        At the same time, if one hasn’t experienced really awesome “corporate worship” (I sometimes hate that term, because of what “corporate” often denotes today), then I can see where one wouldn’t get it, just as you don’t know what you’ve been missing until you have been well and truly kissed by someone you love passionately who feels that way for you.

        • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:43 am #

          Thanks for the further explanation.

  10. Emelie November 14, 2012 at 5:46 am #

    “I’m terrified I would lose the wonder of God in a church”

    “I don’t think it has to do with their doctrine as much as it has to do with the structure of it all. The organized church feels a bit too organized for the messy God I’ve come to believe in. And I know that must sound dreadfully prideful, but I don’t feel I’m being prideful by wanting to protect my own faith.”

    Yes, yes, yes. I’ve been struggling so much with church lately and while bad and hurtful theology do make me kind of sick, it’s much bigger than that. Even the churches that don’t really have very rigid beliefs and welcome anyone willing to come, regardless of beliefs and lifestyle, creeps me out. It feels a bit paradoxal, because at the same time few places can make me feel more at home than church. It’s strange to be “on this side of the discussion”, I’ve spent so many years being the sold out Jesus freak that really just wants to go into ministry. I don’t know what to make of it all. I can’t let go of church and I can’t embrace it either. I’d prefer an unstructured circle of messy people doing life together, the small and the big, but where would I find them?

    Thank you for keeping this discussion going and making me feel less alone in the struggle.

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:48 am #

      I think the “where would I find them” question is a good one. I am finding the more I am willing to talk about my faith openly, the more I find like-minded “wanderers,” some of which even live locally. I think in some ways we can create what we need to find rather than waiting for it to magically show up in the structures that already exist. I’m patient to watch it unfold and overjoyed every time I meet another that “gets” me. Maybe church will look like something we’ve never seen before. Maybe we won’t even recognize it at first.

  11. Ashley November 14, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    Mmmmm, it is beautiful, not limiting the ways and people in which God talks to us. I know personally Atheists have surprisingly spoken the Lord’s truth into my life(and they have no idea how much they do!)just as much as my Christian friends. Every human is on their own spiritual journey, blessings as you continue to find the Joy in the journey of yours!

  12. Rebekah November 14, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    How can it be we have not talked this subject in so long…yet we are somehow swimming the same waters?
    I started “salivating for church again” too or maybe I’m just drooling over a restricted diet but I’m “both drawn to and repelled from them” because I know looks can be so deceiving to the taste. And what about my attraction to those seeming “so awake and alive” next to my skepticism, my complete distrust of “those managing (any) gateway to God.” It could be so easy to just write off what my experiences have taught me…but new experiences (with such beautifully awake people as you) have also grown my self trust and nurtured new curiosities!
    You have been rumaging around in my sleeping head again, Mandy…and oh how I’ve loved “waking up” next to you.
    I feel so rested and ready!

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      It’s been a luxury having you so close during this process. I value every conversation we have on the matter. Here’s to many more to come.

  13. Monica Smith November 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    Many;
    I just found your blog/site today. Thank you for this post. The title alone makes me want to curl up in the fetal position in God’s lap. I haven’t been to church in the past few weeks as I feel I get more of God alone than in a church setting. I do miss communion though, because once taken, I feel a deep connection with Jesus.

    I have to say your post made me realize that I want Him more than church.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Monica

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      I like hearing how communion makes you feel. I love hearing about the parts of church that others have a soft spot for. There certainly are things to love.

  14. Gary November 15, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Mandy, Congratulations on your openness and honesty. My path led me to the Christian Pentecostal One God faith and doctrine. I believed God led me to the Truth I was searching for but I still had questions.

    Over 36 years later, I am content, this truth is right, yet I desire more action. I learned one infallible lesson. When a person desires, craves, cannot live without more of God, He will prepare you then fill up your plate.

    Sounds like you are in the Hungry State. Don’t settle for scraps, the wonderful food is prepared for you.

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:52 am #

      A part of me hopes I’m always hungry. Food seems to taste better when you’ve known hunger.

  15. kat November 24, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    oh my…this has has caused a lump in my throat…I have been struggling to know how to communicate these thoughts about church and you have done so in such an articulate way, thank you. There is such a resonance is what you say and makes me realise that perhaps i am not so rebellious and unwilling to conform after all? and that i am not alone in this. thank you for your openess and honesty, i so appreciate and value your words.

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 9:56 am #

      Rebellion is not all bad. Sometimes rebellion is the only way to take care of yourself and protect your mustard seed of faith.

  16. Aubrey November 26, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    There is something about you that I am drawn to. Maybe a part of me that I’m not quite in tune with, or that I deny in some ways. You do have this wandering spirit, and I know that you have taken risks sharing your most vulnerable thoughts and I truly admire you for that. Sometimes, I have to admit, I get scared by what I’ll read from you, mostly out of fear of how the words will affect me. I feel closer and connected to God more now than I ever have, but I think sometimes I crave more than a corporate worship experience. All that to say, I love my church, I love my small group, and I can be open and honest within my community, but sometimes I get an urge to strip it all away, but don’t really know how. Even though you feel as though you’re still searching and wondering, I think you’re probably closer than you think to what is true to you. God uses you to stir me up a little bit, in a scary way, but equally as good.

    • Mandy November 27, 2012 at 10:05 am #

      Thank you Aubrey. I’m glad you feel that closeness with God. My words don’t have any sort of controlling power. You are totally free to be you and act accordingly. But I do think fear is a very valuable emotion that when traced to its source can reveal a lot about yourself, your faith and your views on God. In fact, it was looking at my anger and fear honestly that has led me to where I am. The most important thing in all of this is that you’re honest with yourself and then make choices accordingly. I love the honesty of this comment from you. It’s a gift.

  17. boho girl December 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    oh Mandy. was lead to you through Rain, which led me to your site and then here…to read this:

    “I don’t think it has to do with their doctrine as much as it has to do with the structure of it all. The organized church feels a bit too organized for the messy God I’ve come to believe in. And I know that must sound dreadfully prideful, but I don’t feel I’m being prideful by wanting to protect my own faith.”

    …as one who was raised with Christian faith, went to bible college, was in the ministry, took pause from church and organized religion 15 years ago and has been on a quest to sort out why…these words resonated deep. I’m still wandering, still trying to sort out my heart, my faith and spirituality. still wondering if it is skepticism or just my inner truth guiding me. it feels messy. and finding this here felt very validating. I’m grateful for your bravery in this space.

    • Mandy December 14, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      It takes as long as it takes. We need be in no hurry. Your wandering becomes you.

  18. Sharon May 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    I’m drawn to your amazing spirit and this post is amazing. I too stopped attending for many reasons. But I have found HIM more despite it.. And your voice speaks things I don’t know how to say. Stirs up stories in my heart that are yet to be told, about the wonderment that you speak of. Aren’t we are connected through spirit anyway and all living out our lives under the same starry skies.. I just started a blog.. I haven’t even began this journey yet to express my soul.. But you are one who inspires me to not only begin but also to bring into being what I have seen and found.. So many of us need your freedom and expression of who we are ourselves – truth be told we all need each others story and uniqueness..
    I believe as we do this we will all understand better together..

  19. Cassie May 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    “What was I doing? I didn’t have a good feeling about this. In fact, I felt like I was using a dating service, trying to set up blind dates when I wasn’t even really sure I was ready to get back in the ring. Why was this so difficult? When had I become such a skeptic?

    I don’t want to be the fresh meat at a church looking to save me, convert me, or get me to fill a seat, a volunteer spot or a budget goal.

    I just want to feel God and converse on big wondrous, creative ideas with other wanderers in the flesh (not merely online). But truth be known, I’m terrified I would lose the wonder of God in a church. It seems I don’t trust anyone anymore who manages a gateway to God.”

    You don’t know me, but I’ve meandered by your site(s) quite a few times over the past 12 months or so. You are gifted; anointed (if I may use that word, without the religious connotations traditionally associated-I mean in the old, beautiful, simultaneously mystical & spiritual way). I have never found quite the right words to explain to anyone my soul searching journey. Until now.

    For that-I thank you.

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