I went to church today. I hadn’t really planned on it—-I have the day off, and I had decided to spend it preparing for this next week at work. But when my daughter woke me up at 6:48 (“sleeping in” compared to my usual 4:00 am wake time), I felt rested and eager to get ready and go—-not to spend my only time off preparing for the next stretch of days before I’m off again. Sundays are bittersweet for me—-more bitter than sweet. Going to church is almost like visiting a grave or going back as an adult to the house you grew up in. The memories hit you with hurricane force, and you’re painfully aware that things aren’t the way they used to be. It was with hopeful anticipation that I chose attending church with my family over quiet hours of productivity at home—-but I don’t know why I was hopeful. Almost every week is the same. I can pitch a tent at a grave and spend all my days there, but I’ll never again have intimacy with the person who occupies it. And no matter how many times I return to my childhood home, I’ll never find my parents there.
Still, I went to church today, looking for Jesus. I didn’t find him. Even worse—his absence was more obvious there than it is anywhere else. It reminded me of the first Christmas without my mother-in-law, who had been in the ICU for 2 months that December. I was doing dishes with my sister-in-law after the big family meal—the same one Mom had always prepared. Mom had remodeled her kitchen not long before she got sick, and she had reorganized the cabinets. Ever since the recent remodel, she had pointed out the location of every single item I picked up when I was unloading the dishwasher—her house was always spotless, and everything had a perfect place. That first Christmas without Mom, I picked up a bowl that had previously gone in cabinets that no longer existed, and I started crying. My sister-in-law looked at me, unsure what to make of my sudden tears. “I don’t know where this goes,” I said, holding up the bowl and trying to catch my breath between sobs. “I don’t want to put it in the wrong place.” It was the same house where we always celebrated Christmas. It was the same meal and all the same traditions, even down to the women cleaning up the kitchen while the men played Xbox and corralled the kids. But that’s what made her absence so apparent—-she was the only thing missing. We were going through the motions—without Mom. And I was ruining her perfectly organized cabinets.
That’s how church felt today. Going through the motions without Jesus. All the same people are there, singing all the same songs and saying all the same words. My Bible study class has been somewhat taken over by a few very faithful people who sometimes seem blind to the idea that Christians can doubt (or to the idea that non-believers might visit our class). Every struggle I share is met with a platitude—-never acknowledgement that my struggle is valid. Never even an “I don’t know the answer, but I’m praying you find what you’re looking for.” They sound like one of those dolls that speaks one of five phrases every time you pull a string on its back.
“Let go and let God.”
“God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.”
“You have to stop trying to save yourself.”
“There’s a God-shaped hole in every heart.”
“You have faith in the chair you’re sitting in—-why not have faith in God?”
That last one was their solution to doubt today. I didn’t even try to argue with it. I was slightly caught off guard by the line—-people still use that one? Can I pull the string again and get another one? I’ve tried to be somewhat outspoken in respectfully asking questions or explaining my own struggle with faith—-I think it’s a lie that everyone has this figured out except for me. But if anyone shares my struggle, they never have a chance to say so. These “wiser” members of my group instantly shut me down every single time. You sat in that chair without thinking twice about it, CC. You have to apply the same faith you have in the chair to God. Moving on now…
We tried a few other classes for a few weeks not long ago. What we found was the same or worse. And then there’s the worship service. Our pastor is a wonderful man—-the kind of guy you just want to hang out with. He gives the best hugs, and he genuinely cares about the people in his church. But his sermons consistently paint a beautiful picture of a life of faith that I don’t fit into. And why would they be any different?—His job is to guide a group of believers and prepare them for ministry, not to convince the doubters hiding in their midst.
I guess today I’m just frustrated that instead of finding Jesus at church, I ended up more aware of his absence. My faith is in an ICU like my mother-in-law was, and my church keeps pushing fluids while what I really need is pressors and inotropes. I’m volume-overloaded with platitudes, and it’s killing me. I think my faith would be stronger if I stayed at home on Sundays. At least I wouldn’t have to be reminded of the way things used to be, and painfully aware that Jesus isn’t there. At least I wouldn’t be ruining the perfect organization.
This post is different from my last few, and I know that can be the nature of things like this—-that my encouragement in faith might wax and wane. It’s still bemusing to me that it wanes the most when I’m around the people who are supposed to build it up. If what they have is all that there is, I’m not interested.