On leaving the church

Manuscript from a speech presented on September 24, 2018 to the 2018 Pastors Conference of the Florida-Georgia District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The topic of the conference was The Gospel In A Secular Age.

For a few more years, more of my Sundays will have been spent in the church pew than out of it.

I was raised in the church and blessed with a stable family.

I was part of a weekly church service and given leadership and growth opportunities while there.

I had a healthy relationship with my pastor who guided me from baptism through confirmation.

I was, in more ways than not, the statistic that should have made it to being an active adult member in one of your churches.

But I’m not.

My home church, the church I was baptized and confirmed in, is Woodlands Lutheran Church in central Florida.

Growing up, looking from the pew towards the cross I could see outside through a simple and expansive wood-lined glass wall.

Behind the cross, behind the glass, is a patch of sprawling live oaks, saw palmettos, and Spanish moss.

Every Sunday, I would look out at that during service, seeing the sunlight shift on the bark of the oaks as the sermon progressed, seeing the moss move gently one day then like a gray, flickering fire beneath the trees on another, seeing that just behind the cross was creation in all its continuous glory and covenant.

Beside the church was Woodlands Lutheran Campground and I often spent weekends, afternoons, and summers there on its nearly 200 acres.

Fishing, walking aimlessly, camping, working. By my teens, I felt comfortable outdoors in the woods, alone.

It was out there in nature, really, that I first felt the depth of God.

Now, I experienced yearning in church. I would feel moved by God when reflecting on scripture. I would often hear God in the sermon. And I loved spotting God in the eyes of people sitting in the pews.

But, it was in the patterns on the tiny scales of fence lizards that I really met God.

It was watching the wind move through a pine tree, that is where our relationship developed.

In nature, I discovered meaning and significance. To me, the natural world is God. The integrity of creation is all there, on display, to dissect and to explore, to get to know and to prod.

To caretake and to come to love.

I won’t deny that it wasn’t very long before I felt restless in the pew.

But it didn’t come from a loss of belief or a loss of transcendent meaning.

I wanted to feel God, and for that, I looked past the cross in the church and past the glass wall and towards the live oaks and the resurrection fern and the palm.

I grew angry at times at the glass, wanting instead to be out in the wind and the warmth of the sun.

The wooden pews, they were just a crude human scribble beside the artistic elegance of a southern red maple.

To hear God in the pileated woodpeckers and the shuffling of armadillos, that is the sermon I longed for.

 

My childhood was light on pain and trauma. I did not feel wretched or unworthy, I am the first-born son in a first-world modern republic.

It’s not that surprising then for me to connect my faith to the ordering and enjoyment of creation as a child, since I did not have to face God and belief from the position of physical need or suffering.

In many different ways, I grew up with privileges that focused my expectations of belief and my needs from God. I was loved deeply and encouraged to succeed. I squirmed and rebelled where I could, as most kids do, but life never felt impossible and goals never felt unattainable.

That is a piece of this secular framework we have here in the developed, modern world, a framework that makes just as much room for entitlement as it does for equality.

But part of maturing, part of growing up, is coming to see and grapple with the pain and suffering in the world. No matter your social positioning, your faith, your race, your economic status, we all come to see the shadow and darkness of sorrow.

Youth uncover meaning here through the cultural and religious framework that is handed down to them, through the examples they see in their community, their books and movies, and in their churches.

In the Western world, where biological needs have been mostly met in spades, we tend to throw ourselves into the workings of culture and law, to approach and address the subtler shades of pain, to focus on, for instance, the trauma that’s occurred between the natural and the civilized.  

You see, where I saw the effects of suburban sprawl, the fragmentation of wild places, the rapidfire home construction and the rampant expressions of capitalism, I saw it through the lens of my expectations of belief.

I came to see society more and more as an agitator to God, not as a place of its people. I saw idolaters of Capital and consumption, I saw a decay of meaningful living, I saw a watering down of any expressions of grace.

I saw development as an affront against God. As a desecration of the glory of creation, as deliberate rebuttal to the preservation of life.

The more I began to learn of the world as a youth, the less I saw people moved by the spirit of Christ and more moved by the weight and power of earthly judgement or the promise of profit.

Is that perspective right?

Certainly not completely.

But out of that understanding, I felt moved to defend the sanctity of creation. I felt called to act, to speak up for the voiceless, to study and protect not just the wild spaces, but the idea of wilderness itself.

Others may be drawn to championing the worker, the family, the woman, the marginalized, the unfed or the sick, but my posturing towards the pain and suffering I saw pointed towards the natural world and our role in it.

My passions in life may not stir your hearts. And that’s okay. I will continue to advocate for wild spaces as a powerful place where meaning outside oneself can be found, where the sensation of the not-self can be breathed in, but others will find that belief elsewhere.

We all have a personal relationship with God and with that, we each have individual callings that motivate us through our lives.

As pastors, you see those callings in your congregants and you stir that belief into action and understanding.

That is not an easy job.

How we navigate those callings, how we negotiate the areas where our paths cross or seem to rub against each other, that is something that Adam, even in his righteousness, could not figure out.

It’s tough.

It’s the world of creation, the world of culture and rules. The world of sin.

It’s the world where we all interact and where it seems we mostly wallow around in misunderstanding.

And we know it is sort of possible to suspend here. To engage in a vocation of human and earthly improvement, even while motivated from a belief in God. To argue for judgement, to demand virtue and morality, to push farther.

This is the way a lot of belief has been practiced.

And it’s true that some very good and noble things have come from this but can our acts ever really straighten out the crookedness of this world?

We must not forget that this world, it is what demanded grace.

And it is grace that lifts us up.

That gives us the perspective needed to know how to act. To know how to navigate amongst and alongside each other’s callings.

It is grace that shores up our constructions of culture and rule.

It is grace, also, that carries us out when we inevitably get walled in.

The solution is always grace.

It is not in us to fix the confusion of this world. It is in Christ.

In Christ we can walk together, through acts of grace.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16.

 

To reach the position of grace, though, isn’t easy. It requires a shift in moral perspective.

And it is this shift in perspective, more than anything, that I believe has sent me outside of the church.

You see, secular humanism advocates for the improvement and betterment of ourselves but so does belief without grace.

Belief without grace can lead just as much to a buffered sense of self, just as much to a self-righteous and closed off world.

 

Twas grace that brought us safe thus far
And grace will lead us home

 

For as long as I can remember, I have been attracted to the radical, to the counter culture, to those people engaged in living non-traditional lifestyles, the people who have shirked off the 9 to 5 and the retirement plan.

I read and re-read Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe, Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain as a kid.

Many of my sympathies towards the natural world make up this attraction but there is more to it than that. There are deeper motivations at work.

I seek these people out because they have cracked the shell of our constructed world in search of something beneath it. They have chipped away at the conveniences and the comforts of our lives to seek out deeper meaning and significance than what they see on the surface. 

I have shared meals with primitivists dressed in deerskins scavenged from roadkill. I have organized with punks squatting in abandoned buildings. I was arrested in the company of young bearded Quakers in modern plain dress while protesting war.

My friends have locked themselves to construction equipment to protect a tree. They have crawled inside oil pipelines while they were being built. They have studied in Chiapas and traveled with refugees.

Some of the kindest people I know have been surrounded at night by swat teams while providing disaster relief work. I have helped prepare meals for gatherings of hundreds of people on food rescued from grocery store dumpsters. I have had conversations with indigenous elders and worked with unrecognized tribes still actively resisting the U.S. government. Once, at a Rainbow Gathering in the woods, I met a short and hairy man named Spirit with a beard that went low to his chest. Story went he had six brothers and they had spent their entire lives traveling from gathering to gathering.

Most of my own life’s pursuits have reflected this interest, this intention to live differently.

In the last ten years, I backpacked more than 4,000 miles on long-distance hikes that would span months. In Florida alone, I’ve paddled more than 2,000 miles, including a record setting paddle around the state. And I bicycled more than 4,000 miles across North America, traveling with my wife from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic across the northern part of the continent.

Altogether, that’s more than an entire year and a half living out of a tent and 10,000 miles dedicated to not working.

For this, I had jobs instead of a career.

I moved often and rented instead of owned.

I had to shrug off the focus and security of traditional goals and set aside some of those examples of good and respectful living.

For this, I have left home for months on end, voluntarily separated from the warm comfort and regular joy of family and friends.

What has driven me to these people so far from the church?

We could look to the influences of two seedbeds in the secular world, detachment and self-gratification.

When I say detachment, I refer to where there is a pressure of objectivity to strip away all personal essence of faith and motivation. I have seen this in the secular stance, where one might not want to “own up” to the Christian label in the company of people aware of the historical violence carried out in the name of the church. There are very real concerns of fanaticism, of abuse and intolerance and it can be exhausting trying to defend faith while remaining sensitive to other folk’s lived experiences.

But, even in the far radical movements of the left and the right, there are religious sensibilities at work.

Being a church member or incorporating practices of faith does not ostracize one from working in movements today. We have seen this in civil rights in the U.S. for instance, where church has remained an important and well-traveled route for engagement.

How about self-gratification? What factors there might have kept me outside the church?

As so much messaging persuades, did I finally realize that fulfillment was in myself, instead of in Christ?

I’ve traveled 10,000 miles by my own power. I’ve crossed the continent and climbed over mountain ranges on a self-powered bicycle, on a tiny seat that clearly was designed only for pain and suffering!

After all that, what else do I need to transcend? What can I not accomplish?

Talk about building faith in yourself, building confidence in what you can do. Maybe I did fully internalize the Be all that you can be, the Be yourself. The you can accomplish anything you set your mind to and Greatness is within you.

Going into that first long-distance hike on the Appalachian Trail, I did have motivations of self-interest. I did think I would be in the wilderness, on my own Lewis and Clark expedition, testing my mettle and my mastery of the woods and camping. And, of course, all the self-affirmation that came with that, the defeat of the impossible, the pushing of the limits, the determination, the grit, living in the direction of freedom and merit.

On day three, my friend and I reached our first outfitter on the trail, kind of a general store for hikers. On one wall, they had a map of the full length of the Appalachian Trail.

It was about 4 feet long. So far, in our three full days, we had made it a couple centimeters.

The thought of what lay ahead after the difficulty of what we had completed, it was unnerving. Every muscle felt a little bit more sore all of a sudden.

Could I really do something like this? Did I really have what it takes? 

But as the trail started to turn into something more than just a time away, as I began to settle into the simplicity of the routine, the question began to shift. Either at the top of an achingly difficult climb, or alongside a stream in a shaded holler, there were people. People walking the same path, with their mind on the same destination. People that also had no idea what they had gotten themselves into but, just like me, were beginning to realize they didn’t want to be anywhere else.

At the heart of it, we had a shared experience, but, each of us was very much also hiking our own hike. Much of our day would be spent walking alone, dreaming of our own individual finish or fueling motivation out of our individual histories and experiences, but together we all experienced the same weather, we climbed the same mountains, we practically stubbed our toes on the same rocks.

As you can guess, we made bonds quickly. People from all walks of life, with differing political opinions and economic positions. People from different cultures, with meaningful traditions and personal values. We related to each other not out of need or boredom but because we recognized there was a common purpose we all shared, because we all went to sleep with the same destination in mind.

We were actively building intimate community while walking side by side as peers, and learning deeply about ourselves as individuals.

We didn’t need to do this, of course. Each of us could have walked, step for step, solo and alone. And the summit of Katahdin at the northern terminus of Maine could have been bagged.

But, the trail was not just a footpath through the woods. It was a conduit for shared purpose. It didn’t matter how long it took to get over a mountain, there would be community to break bread with that night.

It is through this shift in perspective that I realized that there was nothing wrong with looking towards the world of creation when I was a child sitting in the pew but that for as long as I looked past the cross, my view of righteousness would always be fuzzy.

Clarity would only ever come when I looked through the cross, not past it.

 

We know that more and more people aren’t coming back to the church after they leave. And, we also know that while the direction of Western living seems to be continuing towards a more loving and just morality, there is not a confident sense of having achieved peace or goodness.

There is instead a sense of waging peace, as though the tide of evil keeps pressing up despite our best actions.

This remains with, or without, the church.

 

Within four years of attending the National Youth Gathering and looking towards graduation and possibly ministry, I was sitting in a jail cell in New York City orienting my life in the direction of civil disobedience, protest and activism, and the church was no longer a place I went.

Admittedly, there was a lot that drew me in that direction. I saw Christ’s teachings and actions there. I believed Jesus was a radical and that to walk in Christ was to work against the war and towards peace, was to defend the defenseless, was to question the material, was to be in this world, but not of this world.

My time out of church, though, has not been due to a code drawn together from throwing out the baby with the bathwater in order to engage a secular world, and it has not come from a stance of not needing God to achieve greatness.

I believe that the understandings of Luther and the teachings of Christ, alongside marching with others towards an ungoverned moral good, have helped me to notice a shift in moral perspective where it occurs.

I would suggest that by not beelining towards these traditional goals, I could more easily see acts of grace when they took place.

That blowing away the clouds of materialism allowed the light of grace to shine brighter.

That is not to say that the radical is the only place of grace, but I believe in its sparseness, it is a space where grace can be the most radically practiced and seen for its transformative, essential power.

 

Seeing these actions of grace nourishes my soul and strengthens my faith when I feel weak. It reminds me to not just feel sympathetic, but to be awake and alive to the real predicament around us.

Being a part of these moments, taking the time to act in grace and build community, it is why I haven’t returned to the church.

Grace needs to mingle with all the people in order to restore those in pain.

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