A year without church

Today marks a year since I have been to church. We started attending services in 2006, joined in 2009, and attended regularly until the first week of February of last year. Honey has visited once since then.

When people find out we are no longer going, they instantly assume something happened to offend one of us. That is absolutely not the case. I can’t recall ever having anything but kindness shown to my partner and myself as we attended church over a span of almost seven years. The issue, my issue, always boils down to a combination of lack of faith and problems with organized religion.

Regular readers of this blog will know some of my history with Christianity. I grew up in a very small Pentecostal Holiness church. Although there were many restrictions on dress and behavior, I believe most of the people I grew up worshiping with were good people who were sincere in their beliefs. My problems with that denomination arose when I became a young man and realized there simply wasn’t a place in the pews for people like me.

Last night, on YouTube, I stumbled across a video of a Holiness woman preaching (female preachers were common in the denomination of my youth). This was the same woman who met with me a few days after coming out to my family to inform me that gays occupy the lowest level of hell. I realized something while watching her last night; she might be charismatic and eloquent, but she likes to use fear and her loud voice as weapons of intimidation. I actually felt sorry for her.

The church we are both members of now is a far cry from the Holiness church. Aware of the UCC’s beliefs on homosexuality, I knew before we even entered the building on our first visit that we should have no problems in that regard. We never did. We were embraced as a couple and as whole people who didn’t need “fixing.”

So, why did I stop going? Again, it all came back to my issues with faith and religion. I felt like a hypocrite sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, tossing prayers toward heaven without any conviction they were reaching further than the rafters. Sure, there were times when I felt more connected to God, but overall my faith in religion has been in decline for several years.

I don’t know what I believe in any more. I want to believe there is a God who loves me and has the answers to all the universal questions we have, but maybe that is just a selfish part of being human and wanting to feel significant. Maybe all we have is what we see, and perhaps we will never know the answers to why we are here and how in the heck space can be infinite. It could very well be that we get this amazing life to live for a few decades and then we die and that’s it. And, really, isn’t that enough?

On this anniversary of sorts, I feel reflective but contented. I love spending Sundays at home with my partner and our spoiled kitties. We sleep in, watch movies, visit with friends, and cook dinner. When it’s warm enough, I often find myself working in the yard. When it’s cold, I often catch myself daydreaming and planning about what I am going to do when it’s warm enough to work in the yard. There are few things I enjoy more.

So, my Sundays are still sacred – just in a different way. And that’s perfectly fine with me.

Stop pretending

There is a story in the news almost every day about homophobia. People deny tips based solely on the assumption that the person serving them is gay. Homosexuals are beaten and killed in Russia and around the world. Protestors chant “God hates fags!” outside funeral services for members of our nation’s military.

Less news-worthy instances of homophobia affect me personally. After eight years together, there is still no legal recognition of my relationship. And after eight years, most of my family members still don’t acknowledge my partner. My immediate family, in many ways, is fractured.

What’s the common denominator? Religion.

I haven’t been to church in around nine months. While discussing that fact with a friend recently, I was finally able to verbalize my feelings on the matter. What it boils down to is that almost everything negative in my life is a result of religion.

Religion separates my family. Religious zealots threaten my safety and security. Religion makes my world a less welcoming place.

While I still believe in God, I have no desire to associate myself with a denomination. My church might preach equality for everyone, but the people driving by don’t automatically realize that. If I say, “I’m a Christian” or “I go to church,” I worry that many will assume I am just like the other bigots who go around bashing those who are different.

I don’t need religion to be moral. I don’t need church in order to go to heaven (if there is one.) What I need is for people who call themselves “Christian” to at least make an effort to live up to the name. Don’t pretend you love everyone when you are so clearly filled with hate.

Losing my religion

The first week of February marks the last time I attended Sunday service at our church, and although I have had many periods of up-and-down with regard to religion, I am finding myself less and less inclined to participate in anything having to do with it.

My whole life through, Christians have been telling me how to live, how to believe, how to love, how to encounter God. They have also told me on numerous occasions that I’m not doing any of those things correctly. Christians are usually the most vocal group against social justice, equality, gay marriage, science, peace, etc. Anything that pushes humanity along a more gentle pathway almost always seems to meet resistance from those who claim to be followers of Christ. Oh, the irony.

It has gotten to the point where I simply don’t want to be associated with it anymore. Maybe I’ve outgrown it, or maybe I have just hardened my heart over the years. Whatever it is, I can’t deny that I feel outright contempt for most things religious.

I still believe in God. I even believe in the message of Jesus Christ. I just wish modern-day Christians weren’t so concerned with the size of their congregation, the amount of money in the offering plate, and being entertained on Sunday morning. And why does it feel like Christianity has been hijacked by right-wingers who love war, revel in patriotism, and hate their fellow man? Maybe because it has been.

I might feel differently on down the road, but for now, I’m content sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

Communion

Despite attending church on a fairly regular basis over the past six years, I have never participated during our monthly observance of communion.

Communion was a very rare occurrence in the Holiness church I grew up in. I would be surprised if we observed it more than once in a five-year span, and it was typically accompanied by foot-washing. Because they were dispensed so infrequently, the sacraments were considered extremely sacred by our congregants.

Before the unleavened bread and cup of grape juice were presented, a preacher would deliver a sermon about the significance of what we were getting ready to do. These sermons always included the following verses from 11th chapter of 1 Corinthians:

23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

We were told in no uncertain terms that we would damn ourselves if we partook of the bread and juice without being worthy. Although I might have participated in the ritual as a child, I have no memory of ever receiving communion. I simply never felt worthy.

I stopped attending church sometime around the age of twenty, and didn’t start again until 2006. The church I later joined offers communion on the first Sunday of each month. Sometimes it is passed out to the congregation on silver trays; other times it is given by intinction and recipients must line up the center aisle to dip their piece of bread in the cup.

Our communion is open to everyone, and although I have been warmly encouraged on several occasions to partake, I never have. Fear holds me back.

I suspect I hold myself to a higher standard than most, because I have seen several people treat it with little reverence. Some talk and laugh to the person beside them as the elements are passed. I even watched in dismay after one service as a woman ripped off a piece of leftover communion bread from the altar, said, “I’m hungry,” and shoved it in her mouth.

Even though I realize that no one is ever worthy of Christ’s mercy, I am surely no less worthy than they. I just can’t seem to overcome the mental hurdle, most of which is a result of those childhood sermons. The rest are my own hangups about being homosexual. Even if the jury is still out on whether homosexuality is a sin, I’m pretty sure we have a clear verdict on fornication. But then it’s not like we have the option of getting married in Kentucky.

I have accepted the fact that I may never receive communion as long as I live, and I’m okay with that.

Growing up Holiness

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. - Isaiah 35:8 (NIV)

The small Holiness church I grew up in had cement block walls lined with single-pane windows along each side, two plain wooden doors at the front, and a modest parsonage at the rear. Inside, bare bulbs dangled over harsh wooden pews and a cement floor that was often moist with condensation. A sturdy lectern stood in the middle of a small stage at the front of the sanctuary, and a long altar for kneeling and praying stretched across the space between the stage and the pews. I’m not sure which was more plain – the building or the people it inhabited.

Our church was founded when some members left a local Pentecostal Holiness church to begin their own. Our new church would be known as Free Holiness Church, although the word Free was later removed because the pastor didn’t want our church associated with hippies and their Free Love movement.

As a child, I wasn’t allowed to wear short sleeves, short pants, or any form of jewelry. Men weren’t allowed to grow beards; women weren’t allowed to cut their hair. Some ladies took the admonishment about cutting hair to the extreme, even refusing to shave their legs and underarms. Some took the disapproval of male beards to the extreme, even removing the large painting of Christ that hung at the front of our church because he was depicted with facial hair.

We weren’t supposed to have a television, although there were a couple of times my father kept one in a bedroom when he wasn’t attending church regularly. Radios were okay, but only Christian music was allowed. Drinking and tobacco were strictly off-limits – even during communion when grape juice was substituted for wine. Cursing of any kind, including using crude words to describe bodily functions, wasn’t allowed. Sex before marriage was a huge no-no. Dancing, sports, and board games were discouraged. Some of the most faithful even avoided doctors, relying on God for healing of any infirmities.

Although most of these beliefs might seem extreme to even the most devout Christian, there were Bible verses to back up all of them. Verses about idle words, not setting anything evil before your eyes, long hair being a woman’s glory, etc. Nothing seemed far-fetched when it could be backed up with the Good Book.

Having been out of that particular faith and church for many years, I have had some recent interest in reading about the roots of the denomination. Although we were raised under the assumption that our particular way of faith was the Only Way, the Straight and Narrow Way, a quick search of Wikipedia shows that the early Holiness movement actually started around the middle of the 19th century by way of the Methodists and Evangelicals. Pentecostals (those who believe in speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, etc.) emerged around the beginning of the 20th century during a multi-year revival in Los Angeles.

What is really interesting to me is that although our church identified as Holiness, many who called themselves Holiness in the early 1900′s strongly objected to the growing movement of Pentecostalism because of speaking in tongues. Seeing how our church believed in baptism of the Holy Ghost, our church would have clearly been categorized as Pentecostal Holiness.

Because church history was never taught and rarely discussed, I grew up believing Pentecostalism was the predecessor to the Holiness movement. It seems the opposite is true.

I drove by my old church this afternoon. The building hasn’t changed much since the days when I stood and played my tambourine as music and praise roared around me. I hear the congregation is much smaller now, with only a handful attending on a regular basis.

It has been almost two years since I wrote that I will always be a Pentecostal in my heart. I’m sure my mother would be delighted to know I said that, even though I no longer attend services or live the lifestyle I knew as a child. I may no longer hold some of the beliefs I grew up with, but I do hold a special place in my heart for the people and their way of life.

holiness_church

Mr. Tambourine Man

From a very young age, my sister could play almost any kind of instrument my parents threw at her. She began playing the piano by ear when she was barely able to reach the foot pedals. She quickly picked up the accordion, drums, and various other instruments without any professional training whatsoever. I, on the other hand, could only play the tambourine.

Music was a huge part of worship in our Pentecostal church. Almost any member of the congregation who could play an instrument was happy to get on stage and share their talent. Voices, instruments, and clapping hands united to bring the congregation to the brink of frenzy on many occasions.

I was probably around 8 or 9 years old when I first picked up the tambourine. I had been admiring the talent of an older girl as she provided some much-needed percussion to the church’s soundtrack. Carla didn’t just bang the tambourine against her wrist, she played softly on the verses before revving things up at the beginning of the chorus with some fancy hand and wrist gestures. Since our services were more spontaneous than planned, she could use that wooden circle of cymbals to keep a song going just by playing the fancy part again at the end of the chorus. The congregation would obediently continue singing.

When I first began playing, I lacked the most important element of being a good tambourine player… timing. I remember sitting near an elderly woman with glorious white hair piled on top of her head. As I would feebly attempt to imitate Carla, I would frequently get out of rhythm. The elderly woman would smile and shake her head in my direction to let me know I needed to get back on track. It didn’t take long until I had learned enough from my mistakes to be as good a player as Carla.

As my playing improved, the pianist began to rely on my tambourine. She would nod at me when she felt a song needed a little something extra to get the churchgoers in a more worshipful spirit. I would pull out my tambourine and start banging my wrist until it hurt. As I watched those around me become enraptured in the moment, I was happy to have played some small part.

Playing the tambourine was mostly done by women in the church, so one night after service I was ridiculed by a younger boy who told me “only girls play tambourines.” I don’t like that guy to this very day. I get more than a little satisfaction when I see a male performer (like the lead singer of Young the Giant) playing the tambourine on stage.

It has been several years since I last picked up a tambourine. I haven’t been to a Pentecostal church in many years, and the church I now attend has a much different idea of what constitutes music than the church I grew up in. It doesn’t keep me from missing it though. Anytime I see Stevie Nicks on television, twirling in a cape, her tambourine adorned with streamers, I am reminded of the scenes from my childhood. Whether in a secular or religious setting, music has a universal way of charming those in its presence and transporting them to another dimension.

Is it any wonder I recently added a tambourine to my Amazon wish list?

Imagine no religion

I am not a deeply religious person. I was reared in a home that attempted to be very Christ-centered, but I left the majority of those beliefs behind as I grew into adulthood.

Even though I have been attending church regularly for a few years now, I do not consider myself a person of faith. I don’t even identify as Christian, since I consider the meaning of that word to be Christ-like. I do my best, but I’m far from being anywhere close to the seemingly unattainable character of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament.

Whenever something comes up the news pertaining to religion – whether it be something as horrifying as Muslims killing one another over cartoons or movies, or something as inane as Chick-fil-A’s donations to organizations fighting against same-sex marriage – I find it embarrassing to even consider myself part of an organized religion.

Although my church is a member of a very progressive denomination, that fact isn’t always evident to outsiders looking in. Someone driving by our church would have no reason to believe it to be any different from the multitude of ultra-conservative churches in the area. Why would a woman or a gay person have any reason to believe that our congregation supports equal rights for both?

During times like these, I wholeheartedly believe that religion is at the root of the world’s problems. Sure, poverty and class warfare play some role, but religion almost always seems to be the catalyst for violent uprisings, terrorist attacks, and various other forms of human rage. Let’s not forget the corruption and sexual perversions that are running rampant through the world’s biggest Christian denomination.

Although certain religions seem more prone to violence than others, the phenomenon certainly isn’t exclusive to any one religion. Christianity still has its fair share of extremists running around calling for the deaths of those considered to be sinful, so to say being a Christian is more peaceful or God-like than any other religion is fruitless.

So, basically, I am embarrassed to be associated with any organized religion. I love my church and many of those in attendance, but it causes me great discomfort to realize that most of the world assumes our congregation is no different than all the others. How can I ridicule other churches for their archaic views when my church is part of the same machine?

Religion isn’t all bad. It helps fill a desperate need that mankind has to be a part of something larger, and provides peace to people in times of suffering. It just seems that far too often, religion is the cause of the suffering.

Many years ago, John Lennon asked us to imagine a world with no religion. I don’t think he was asking people to become athiests; I think he was referring to the way we use religion to divide people and create untold agony. Perhaps he was onto something.