It’s been 207 days now since I have been to church.
It’s been 207 days now since I have received the Eucharist, what once was to me the Body and Blood of God. There have been two exceptions: Rachel’s funeral and my wedding. (And I’m not sure the one at my wedding even counted, since we didn’t invoke the name of Christ per se. If a man and a woman break bread and wine in the woods and serve it to their friends in the name of Love, is it Eucharist?)
It’s been 207 days now since I have have been to church, and I have not for a moment regretted this choice. It is the best decision I have made all year. Every single week, I am grateful to not be smothered under the weight of churchdread.
Last time we talked, it was Lent. I had given up.
Easter came and went. There was no tidy resurrection narrative for me. No glowing Jesus clothed in luminous white bidding my weary soul return to him. No longing to be in the house of the Lord. No sudden quickening of my traumatized spirit.
There was only green grass and sunlight. I sat on the front steps of wife’s parents’ house and drank coffee while my kids chased hidden plastic eggs and our dog sat on my feet.
And God saw that it was good.
Do you know what I mean?
I have felt it every Saturday night, every Sunday morning as long as I can remember. Like weight on my shoulders, like weight on my chest. Like everything in my body saying “please don’t make me go back there”. Forced by the weight of religious duty and expectation to put myself and my family in the van and drive to a place that has never, never felt like what it was supposed to feel like.
Try a different one every few years and see if it feels different. Pews, folding chairs, stained glass, warehouse. Take your pick, they all feel the same. See if the Bible verses read aloud don’t ring like clanging cymbals in your ears. See if the music doesn’t sound like love songs to someone you’ve never known. See if all the imagery and aesthetic of your childhood religion don’t still feel like a millstone around your own neck. (They do, but pretend they don’t.)
Maybe this time it will feel different. Maybe this time it will be ok.
The church doesn’t know what to do with churchdread.
They try: What if it was more casual? What if our pastor said a swear? What if we were authentic? What if we grabbed coffee?
I try too. What if I went someplace completely different? Try someplace with a steeple this time, maybe a rainbow flag out front. Organs instead of guitars. Liturgy instead of praise bands. Even now, the thought dances through my mind: try again?
And as soon as the thought takes form, my body speaks — I feel it in my ribs, I feel it in my breath, I feel it in my muscles tensing. It’s not safe. It’s not ok. Please, no. Please, listen to your body.
Some people ask what it would take to eliminate the churchdread, to make me feel ok.
What do you want?
Better music? Better theology? Better snacks?
It’s a lovely sentiment. But it’s not enough to make church feel like a place I can be, and be safe. I have too many stories in my chest of abuse by scripture, abuse by leadership, abuse by theology, abuse by community.
But we could try.
Get rid of all the Bible verses. Sure, they are God-breathed and have been used by God-followers forever. Sure, they testify to Christ. Sure, if you don’t use them as weapons of evil they can be lovely, even divine. For me, they are violence. I was abused by the Bible, over and over again and I am not able to hear it as anything other violence against my soul. It doesn’t matter how cool your theology is, as soon as the Bible verses come out, my body wants to nope the fuck out of there. And I don’t blame it.
Get rid of the music. All the songs about me not being good, because they light me up with shame. All the songs about God being good, because they unlock landslides of bad theology planted in my soul years ago — theology that says God can be abusive and we still have to think He’s good. Get rid of all the music written and published by anti-gay megachurches who still profit off the oppression of our queer siblings, for God’s sake. Get rid of all the songs about how lovely and beautiful all this shit is, all the songs about how much we love Jesus, because I am sick and tired of singing along to shit I don’t mean, feeling like I’m the only one who doesn’t feel all these magnificent feelings, feeling like it’s my fault.
Get rid of the doctrine. Invite skepticism, disillusionment, doubt. Not as a problem to be solved, or a felt need to be met, but as a legitimate way of moving through the world. Fuck “questioning”, fuck “wrestling”. These are words that churches use to trick us into letting our guards down so that they can shove the right answers down our throats. I cannot play religion. I am a believer convinced of nothing. I am agnostic who doubts my own unbelief. We are fleeting flesh-organisms on a fleck of dirt in an infinite universe that is mostly cold and dark. Maybe God loves us very much. Maybe God doesn’t exist and we make all of this up so that we can get through one more meaningless spiral around our dying star. Can we please for the love of God be honest about that?
Do you see the problem here? I do.
By the time you take away all the shit that makes church feel like hell for me, it’s no longer recognizable as church. I know that. I know these are unreasonable requests. That is why I walked away, why I stay away. I do not expect the church to change for me.
I am coming to accept that perhaps church is not for me at all. I am coming to accept that the damage done to my soul by religion may not be undone in this lifetime, and that church may never be a place where I can let down my guard enough to encounter my fellow humans and encounter the divine in the way I wish I could. This is ok.
I don’t feel sad about that, not really. A little lonely maybe, but not sad.
But mostly I feel free. Especially on Sunday mornings.
The churches I used to go to liked to talk a lot about freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from fear. Freedom from death. It was so much talk, talk that never matched the experience I was having in my body. While we sang songs and preached sermons about freedom, I felt myself entangled in shame, drowning in anxiety, staggering beneath the weight of churchdread.
For a long time I hoped that some theological shift, some confessions, some spiritual practice, some experience of Christ would bring me the freedom I craved, the freedom I was promised.
207 days ago I gave up. I turned in my letter of resignation to the church, told Jesus I’d catch him on the other side (maybe).
What if the freedom I was seeking in church could only be found by leaving church?
It would be flippant and naive to suggest that the answer is that simple. Nothing is simple. Answers are a mirage.
But for 207 days, I have not felt the weight of church dread. I have not gone to sleep on Saturday night fearing the sunrise. I have not sat hollow on Sunday afternoons wondering what the fuck is wrong with me that it feels like such a goddamn chore to go the house of the Lord. I have not forced my body through the doors of a building where it cannot feel safe. I have not sung the words of songs I don’t mean, prayed prayers I don’t believe.
For that, thanks be to god.
[ photo: Lucas Botz ]
published September 26, 2019
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