During a morning leadership meeting I attended before church a week ago, much of the discussion focused on a recent controversial change in church policy. I took a risk in expressing my belief that, whatever the intentions and reasoning behind the policy change, the larger challenge remained for each of us to reach out in love and inclusion to those who feel marginalized or hurt. I expressed my conviction that ministry is a higher calling than judgement.
Then another person asked: “If people don’t agree, why don’t they just leave?”
At the time, this man’s disdainful comment felt like a sucker punch aimed at people whose experiences he truly didn’t understand. After further conversation with him and with a few others after the meeting, my heart ached so much that I burst into tears and rushed outside to gather myself for a few minutes before returning to attend the worship service with my wife and kids.
Here’s my sincere personal answer to “why I don’t just leave.”
It’s Not For Lack of Trying
While I’ve always felt a yearning for God, and while I’ve tried to follow the teachings of my church to the best of my ability, certain convictions or witnesses haven’t come to me—and it isn’t for lack of trying.
I think my experience is probably genuinely mystifying to people who have experienced more direct and clear answers to their prayers, for people who see the world in black and white, or for people who experience faith in a very straightforward way. They might think that I’m not trying hard enough, praying in the right way, approaching God with enough willingness to follow His answers, or exerting enough “real” faith. And although I’m certain that I have room for improvement, those evaluations of me are so very, very unfair.
Although I have lots of room for growth, I put a lot of devotion into my spiritual life. I read, I pray, I fast, I attend worship services. I serve. I love. Like so many good people in the church, I try to minister to others, and to keep the promises I’ve made to God. I don’t say these things to praise myself; I’m just clarifying that I’m not looking for an easy path, or for excuses to sin (as some people have suspected when they’ve learned of my doubts). Yet despite these efforts for many years, I still have many questions that remain unanswered.
It’s Not Black & White
In the church I attend, we tend to like things that are black and white (we’re certainly not alone in this tendency). We’re uncomfortable with ambiguity. We don’t talk a lot about the complexity of communication with the divine, about what to do when good people get opposing answers, or about the times when God doesn’t witness to us that a commonly accepted teaching or practice is “true.” So we tend to privilege and emphasize the language of certainty, while pitying, judging, or getting uncomfortable with those who doubt.
I resonate with these words from Chieko Okazaki:
“Sometimes I think we don’t create a very hospitable climate for questions…. Sometimes we give people the very clear message that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t know something already, or if they don’t see it the same way…. So people lie. They say they understand when they really don’t. Or they say they agree when they really don’t. Or they find one point they can agree on and swallow the four points they disagree on. Or they suppress the perfectly wonderful questions they have, because they’re afraid that the questions may sound accusatory or faithless. As a result, no miracles happen…. If we don’t have questions, there won’t be any miracles for us” (Disciples, pp. 229-230, emphasis added).
As sincere as they are in their loving desires, some of the leaders in my church seem to vacillate in their responses to those of us who still lack a certain level of knowledge, clarity, or conviction. On the one hand, we’re told that we’re needed and that there’s a place for us in the church. I’ve been a thankful recipient of such healing affirmation and inclusiveness. On the other hand, some church leaders seem to express increased exasperation with those of us who still have questions. We’re sometimes spoken to (or about) in a way that is invalidating, blaming, and defensive. Sometimes we’re given answers that evade our questions. At other times we’re told that we’re not doing it right. We’re treated as if we’re trying to rebel, when we’re just longing to reconcile our understanding of eternal things. We’re told not to “unplug the spotlight,” and to “doubt our doubts.” I understand the logic behind this advice, and I see some wisdom in it too. But for those of us who aren’t trying to unplug anything, who are continually striving, and who still have deep questions that aren’t getting addressed, church becomes a very mixed experience. Now, on top of our struggles, we’re judged or marginalized as well, because apparently our very sincere and continued efforts aren’t good enough.
Believe me, I’d love for my questions and struggles to be cleared up too.
Why I Stay
So, asks a member my church, why don’t I just leave? Why do people like me stay?
Because, despite our lack of certain convictions, we still love God, and He loves us. Because we need God, and the “body of Christ” isn’t complete without any of us. Because “it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). Because we see His love reflected in many of the teachings and practices of the church, and in the marvelous faces and lives of many of its members. Because it’s not black and white. Because the church is meant for us as much as it is for people who possess more certainty or different viewpoints. Because the church is meant for all of us. Because, even if we’re not sure that all that is taught in the church is 100% true, we know that we are brought closer to God by many of its teachings, and that our communion with others in the church setting has deep spiritual value. Because, despite the human frailty that is nearly constantly evident in both ourselves and in others (including church leaders), we’re trying extend the same patience, mercy, and forgiveness that we so desperately need to receive. Because when we disagree, and despite our many differences, we still want to sustain each other in our common desire to know and love God more fully. Because we want to serve, stretch, love, and grow toward our divine potential, and we need each other’s help in the process. Because we know that our personal worship and relationship with the divine is complemented by learning to live together in love.
Because we too are God’s children.
Because God wants us here, even if some people would prefer for us to take our questions and leave.
I don’t know that certain teachings of the church are exactly God’s will. There are some things that I’ll likely never agree with. I do have faith that God works (as well as He can) through this church and its leaders, among the many other places that His love is made manifest in the world. I also accept that well-intentioned people whom God has called are still subject to human frailty in judgement, perception, speech, and action. This is as true of me as it is of anyone.
Notwithstanding the difficulty of trusting a church so full of human frailty (no different from any other organization), these things don’t matter as much to me as they used to. These days I’m trying to focus less on the inevitable vexing human elements in the church, and less on the “answers” that haven’t been forthcoming so far. I’m trying to focus more on the things that build my faith: God’s incredible love for me, my family, and all humankind. I’m trying to focus on the most simple version of the gospel: Christ’s invitation for us to love God and to love one another. I’m trying to leave judgment entirely to God (although I don’t think “judge” is His chosen title or primary role; His chosen title and primary relationship with us is as our loving Father).
When things taught in the church draw me closer to God, I cherish them. When something taught in the church causes me pain, confusion, or doubt, I’m trying to practice patience and graciousness. I’m trying to follow the apostle Paul’s counsel to not place my trust “in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” Paul also taught that even though prophesies would fail and knowledge would vanish away, one thing would never fail: Christ and his loving charity for all of us. Even though I don’t know that certain things are “true” in the same way that many in my church sincerely profess, I feel blessed in countless ways by my membership there, and by many of its lovely people.
We All Have So Much to Offer
Is there a place for me at church? I hope so.
I have so much to learn from everyone there. And, like all of God’s children, I have a lot of love, devotion, insight, and sweetness to offer. I hope that you and I can join together in the great work of love rendered by the church and its beautifully diverse people.
It would be a shame if any of us missed out on each other.
P.S. If you know someone who can resonate with this message, please share it with them by clicking on the social medial buttons below! Also, I’m always interested in hearing your comments.