Saturday, March 27, 2010

Breaking Faith: When I Left the Church

My mom’s birthday is coming up this weekend.  She hasn’t celebrated her birthday in 18 years and it hasn’t been a happy day for the rest of us since then, either. Three months after her 49th birthday, she died of cancer.

During the months preceding her death, her church prayed mightily for God’s healing, for her recovery from the illness.  But then she died.  It was a watershed moment in my life, both practically and spiritually.  I lost my job for taking a few extra days after the funeral to help out my dad.  Without a job, I couldn’t afford my apartment either so I moved across the country to live with my dad and my sister who was still at home.  In such a big move, I also lost my friends, my own church, my community, and my independence.  Not only did I lose my mother, my best friend, but everything else that gave structure and meaning to my life was gone as well.

I expected my parents’ church to step into the breach. After all, my father was on staff; my mother had worked for a member of the church, and there was an active singles’ ministry.  Instead, I found that the church, which had helped out admirably during Mom’s illness with meals, companionship, and assistance of all kinds, defaulted to the assumption that I would now take care of everything for my father and sister.  The not-so-unspoken thought was that I would step into my mother’s place as caretaker of the home, mother to my sister, and helpmeet to my father.  When I was looking for a job, more than one person mentioned the opening at my mother’s old job.  I can’t count how often I heard “it is so good that your father has you to help him out in this time of grief”, but I know exactly how often someone asked how I was doing in my own grief—one person, one time.

Where was God then? That year was really the end of my Christian era.  I had lost my faith in fundamental dogma years before but I had kept up my church attendance, partly out of fear of admitting that I no longer believed in the God I’d been taught, mostly because I craved the community of spiritual thinkers.  I never had found that community and my year in Dad’s church made me realize that I wasn’t even getting a practical community of friends and social support, either. 

So, really, where was God? Not manifest in His People. In all the years I’d grown up in churches, I maintained a denial that my experience with the Christian community was neither very Christian nor very communal.  I thought there was something wrong with me, or perhaps my family, that had always held the church family at bay.  The year after my mom’s death broke through my denial.  It wasn’t me, or at least not entirely, it was the nature of the church that expected the sweet smiling stiff upper lip.  No one wanted to know if something was less than great for me, even in the midst of the quite obviously worst tragedy of my life. 

If that was the community of God’s People, there was definitely not a place for me in the community.  I gave myself up to the lost faith in God, in fundamental theology, in Christian community.  If spiritual and practical community was not to be found in Christianity, I would look elsewhere. I became a heathen.

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